Sullivan's Travels Review
This title is also available as part of the 'Written and Directed by Preston Sturges' boxed set.
Films about film have always been an excuse for sardonic self-examination, yet none proves this more so that Preston Sturges’ fourth feature, Sullivan’s Travels. Lampooning the director’s own sensibilities it takes pot shots at the “message movie” whilst celebrating the medium’s basic capacity to entertain. At its centre is the eponymous Sullivan, a filmmaker played by Joel McCrea with pretensions to making an epic of social significance. Hitherto known for such fluff as Ants in their Pants 1939, such an idea is laughed down by the studio bosses and so he decides to go undercover and gain genuine experience of life on the road. A quick visit to the props department later and he’s ready to embark on a journey that will encompass the attentions of a rich widow, the formidable presence of Veronica Lake, and a stint on a chain gang.
That all of this – and much more besides – happens in less than 90 minutes is testament to Sturges’ status as one of the snappiest writers Hollywood ever produced. And when words aren’t necessary, Sturges the director takes over with equally snappy montages to bounce the action along. Indeed, not a second is wasted as he throws in slapstick, superb dialogue (“Waddya doin’ in those clothes?” Sullivan is asked by a policeman when his true identity is revealed. “I just paid my income tax!” comes the reply) and his usual supporting players to make even the tiniest of roles zing.
Yet whilst these peripheral characters allow for some healthy doses of entertainment – Sullivan’s wife and her ever more exuberant demands for money being a particular standout – it is McCrea and Lake and his romantic interest who provide the genuine sparks. Indeed, Sullivan could very well be McCrea’s defining role and he’s a perfect fit for Sturges. Essentially likeable despite the kicks he receives from the director, he allows us to partake in his “noble experiment” without ever truly questioning, and therefore doubting, his motives. Rather we have Lake to do that for us as she tags along for the ride and provides a sardonic Greek chorus to his pretensions.
Importantly, however, Sturges knows when not to mock. Poverty isn’t a target here, yet neither is it dwelled upon. Sullivan’s travels continually see him back at his Hollywood mansion thereby preventing us from ever getting too close to the hobo lifestyle. Indeed, Sturges doesn’t want to make a heart-on-sleeve picture and as such that isn’t what we get. Certainly, he’s not scared of making a powerful, direct statement (as in the famous scene in which the convicts watch the Mickey Mouse cartoon), but it’s the bile which keeps Sullivan’s Travels ticking over.
Available as either an individual disc or as part of Universal’s seven-disc Written and Directed by Preston Sturges collection, Sullivan’s Travels sadly can’t compete with the previously released Criterion edition. The picture and sound qualities are essentially the same – the image is a little grainy at times, but otherwise both have a fine clarity and are largely free from damage – but the extras are disappointing in comparison. In this case we only get a commentary and the theatrical trailer. And, sadly, the commentary isn’t especially great. Recorded by Monty Python’s Terry Jones it has the feeling of having been acted rather than simply spoken. He accentuates every sentence and even his frequent chuckles seem a little forced. Moreover, much of what he has to say never extends to far from description making this nothing more than a so-so affair. Indeed, it would have been better served if paired with a more academic discussion, as the Criterion provided in both its own commentary and Kenneth Bowser’s feature length doc on the director.