There is a moment in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) when the butler, Burrows (Robert Grieg) suggests poverty is hardly a topic suitable for the movies and that “only the morbidly rich” would find it fascinating. Indeed, in preparing his most daring work to date, Sturges’ approach to his most lithe and yet, scathing social satire became even more bitterly sarcastic. The morality and the barbs traded in Sullivan’s Travels mark it in a class apart from Hollywood’s usual screwball fare, and, even more succinctly depart from Sturges’ own hit-producing formula. It isn’t an overstatement to suggest Sturges’ ascendance as Paramount’s crown prince created a seismic shift in the industry, its shock waves stirring old jealousies anew. For in less than a year, the highest paid writer working in pictures then had cleverly finagled the deal of the decade to both write and direct a feature film. Hollywood had seen nothing like it and was not at all certain it wanted to encourage the practice. Writers then were considered a dime a dozen, doing the grunt work for menial pay. Sturges’ had noted and despised this hierarchy almost from the moment he came to town, propelled by the steam from his Broadway success – Strictly Dishonorable. “It's taken me eight years to reach what I wanted,” Sturges would confide upon learning his deal was set to direct The Great McGinty (1939), “But now, if I don't run out of ideas – and I won't – we'll have some fun. There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing, I will make some of them.”
So long as Sturges’ pictures made money, there was little the status quo could do to knock him off this perch. Pea-green envy aside, Sturges’ wielded his newfound fame and fortune with an enterprising flair; opening a fashionable restaurant and hosting lavish gatherings attended by some of the industry’s most respected entertainers. His movies almost always employed a repertory of personal favorites; faces either long forgotten or fondly recalled because they frequently graced the movie screen, augmented by Sturges’ ribald sense of humor and impeccable comedic timing. In hindsight, his bourgeois bravado was likely as responsible for eventually getting him broomed off the backlot. But at least for this brief and shining moment, Preston Sturges was Paramount's golden boy, dispelling Grieg’s suggestion that a picture about the plight of human suffrage – but with a little sex thrown in - could only serve to compound the miseries brought on by the Great Depression.
For all his youthful privilege, and not particularly suffering for his art along the way, Sturges’ perspectives on the poor were astutely spot-on and frank. After the mid-1930’s Hollywood en masse was reluctant to tell stories begun in squalor and despair, unless, of course, they evolved into the atypical ‘rags to riches’ yarn, spirited away on the ether of the American dream. Instead, sweet escapism had been the order of the day, acting as both a buffer against the nation’s socio-political woes, but also as a necessary elixir to anesthetize its’ growing fear these lingering ‘tough times’ might never end. And Sullivan’s Travels, for all its starkness – particularly in its latter half (our hero, studio director, John L. Sullivan, attacked by a hobo, mistakenly presumed for dead, and discovering a ‘worse than’ fate after being sentenced to six years hard labor for assaulting a belligerent railway worker) – is a generally light romantic comedy with more than ‘a little sex’ and social commentary thrown in for good measure. Sturges’ screenplay moves like gangbusters; his wit unbounded by not having another director run off with his material, Sturges was so intensely invested, Joel McCrea would later comment how he could see him lurking from behind the camera, basically acting out the scene himself as he would have wished it to be, putting so much emotion and physicality into his performance it proved a minor distraction for those attempting to give theirs in front of the camera.
Struges’ plush upbringing, spoiled by an independently-minded matriarch following her muse – the dancer, Isadora Duncan – sashayed about the chichi cafés and theater districts of Europe, surrounded by the free-spirited bohemian subculture of poets, painters and their ilk, ultimately gave Sturges his invigorating contempt for the idle rich. Indeed, he much preferred his time spent with his stepfather in America, taking the very first opportunity in his teenage years to leave his mother’s influences behind. Nevertheless, an indelible part of that tenure abroad remained ensconced in Sturges’ intercontinental verve for absurdity; revealed in his movies as glib repartee and sly innuendo. The characters in a Preston Sturges’ comedy are usually a deft – and often daft – blend from both high and low born culture; the cream of the jest, that the lowliest among them is frequently the most sublimely stuffy, with a haughty and exclusive opinion to express. In retrospect, the term ‘piss elegance’ might have been coined for the wily wits in a Sturges’ comedy.
Take Sullivan’s Travels’, Miz Zeffie (Esther Howard) as a prime example: the oversexed landlady, taken with a lecherous shine to the shirtless Sullivan as a handsome young bum she can bounce on her knee. In this picaresque vignette, Sullivan, masquerading as one of the downtrodden, gets more than he bargains for after he elects to do some household chores in exchange for room and board. Alas, Zeffie’s philanthropy is hardly altruistic, and she makes no bones about her intensions either; delirious and overt in her flirtations with Sullivan and even more devious in her double entendre exchanges with frumpish housekeeper, Ursula (Almira Sessions). “Did you notice his torso?” Zeffie asks. “I noticed that you notice it!” Ursula explains. “Don’t be vindictive, dear,” Zeffie playfully admonishes, “Some people are just naturally more sensitive to some things in life than some people…and furthermore I have never done anything that I was ashamed of” to which Ursula begrudgingly admits, “Neither have I.” “Yes dear,” Zeffie concludes, “But nobody ever asked you to!” The dialogue is more than snappy and fun (though it is both), and far beyond the scope of a woman of Miz Zeffie’s social strata, yet perfectly in keeping with Sturges’ contempt for uppity middle-class biddies and matrons. Throughout his film-making career, Sturges would create such indelible second and third string characters, usually marginalized in the artistic milieu, but in a Struges’ movie, brought forth with richly satisfying opinions to intrude upon the central narrative, frequently swapping barbs with the principle players and effectively blurring the line between ‘star’ and ‘supporting player’.
Immediately following the film’s opening credits, Sullivan’s Travels begins with a spectacular action sequence; two men in a fight to the death atop a speeding locomotive. Suddenly the words, ‘the end’ appear on the screen and we realize the whole setup has been just that; a mere hoax and prelude to distract the audiences’ but also set up Sturges’ expectations for what we are about to see. “You see!” Sullivan proudly declares as he jumps from his seat in the screening room, “Capital and labor destroy each other.” Ah yes, here is that picture of social significance briefly discussed before. Too bad for Sullivan, neither the studio’s head, Mr. LeBrand (Robert Warwick) or his publicity man, Mr. Hadrian (Porter Hall) can see the proverbial forest for the trees. LeBrand wants Sullivan to keep churning out frothy, light-hearted comedies and musicals, just the sort of fare that’s been selling a lot of tickets and has, in fact, made Sullivan the studio’s most sought after and successful director. Sullivan tries to persuade the duo his newfound morality has the potential to revolutionize motion pictures. “It was held over at the Music Hall for an extra week,” he suggests. “It died in Pittsburgh”, Hadrian shoots back. “What do they know about art in Pittsburgh?” Sullivan rhetorically proposes. “They know what they like!” LeBrand vehemently champions. “If they knew what they liked they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh”, Sullivan suggests. “Besides, who goes to the Music Hall anyway? Communists!” Hadrian mutters.
Sturges’ ability to introduce a multiplicity of thoughts and ideas into this singular set piece is stiflingly brilliant. It’s more than rank cleverness or merely throwing everything at the screen to see what will stick in either the public’s craw or memory long after the footlights have come up. Herein, Sturges is giving us the collected character traits of both our hero and the forces he is up against; the lay of the land too (as in, Sullivan’s cushy and relatively pampered existence, soon to conflict with the realities of life); the purpose behind his ambition (to make an enduring cinematic artifact out of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and finally, the pomposity of our protagonist, illustrating a fundamental weakness in his character (he knows nothing of human suffrage). This sudden realization of his shortcoming propels Sullivan into the movie’s central narrative; namely, to suffer – at least for a while – by impersonating a hobo – in essence, becoming one of the great unwashed to better inform his directorial prowess once shooting on his opus magnum gets underway.
Alas, the studio sees only the publicity angle behind such a masquerade, hiring a curmudgeonly press agent, Mr. Jones (William Demarest), and a small army of photographers and reporters to follow Sullivan around in his appropriately careworn rags. Sullivan momentarily eludes his entourage, escaping in a young man’s roadster after thumbing for a ride on the side of the road. Next, Sullivan decides to commit himself to hard work. But he quickly draws the unwanted romantic attentions of Miz Zeffie, who wastes no time putting him to work in her yard, merely to ogle him as he removes his sweaty shirt while chopping firewood. Later, she offers Sullivan the room adjacent her own in the boarding house; a bathroom shared between them, a portrait of her late husband (keeping watchful eyes on them both) hanging over the mantle. She locks Sullivan in his room at night, but leaves the door to her boudoir available, should nature take its course. Instead, Sullivan makes a daring escape from his second story cell, tying bedsheets together to scale the wall to relative safety; inadvertently, awakening the entire neighborhood with a clatter of noise as he plummets to the ground.
Not long thereafter, demoralized and struggling to justify his scheme, Sullivan meets his perfect foil at a roadside diner; the nameless ‘girl’ (Veronica Lake), cool, aloof, and sinfully attractive, but with a homespun heart to recommend her. She’s obviously been out on an all-night ‘date’ – the last in a series of unsuccessful attempts to inveigle her way into a big-time Hollywood producer’s next picture and her first big break. Although Sullivan’s manners are far too refined to match his atrociously bleak attire, the old adage about ‘clothes make the man’ is enough to fool the girl. She takes pity and buys him some breakfast – a favor later returned. Presently, she won’t let this bum reciprocate the favor. She doesn’t need his sympathy – just a bus ticket back home to Chicago. She’s through!
Instead, Sullivan reveals his true self, picking the girl up in his snazzy sports car, determined to do right by her philanthropy by paying for her bus ticket home. Mercifully, it’s not to be. The police, seeing a hobo driving an expensive automobile, give chase and arrest the pair, presumably for having stolen the car. Sullivan telephones his house; both Barrows and his valet (Eric Blore) vouching for his identity and integrity. Taking the girl back to his stately digs leads to a reconciliation of sorts, but not before the girl – whose pride has been sincerely wounded by falling for the lie – manages to push Sullivan, fully dressed, into his pool. Sullivan returns the favor, leaving Barrows and his valet to succumb to a similar fate. Afterward, Sullivan is more determined than ever to pursue his masquerade. The girl thinks it a ‘swell idea’ and elects to partake in the experiment, much to Sullivan’s objections. Nevertheless, the two appropriately attired waifs make their first clumsy attempt at riding the rails. Unfortunately, they all but alienate their fellow travelers and quickly discover ‘roughing it’ on ten cents isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Thankfully, Mr. Jones and company are not far behind. The girl is grateful to return to the relative luxuries of Hollywood, but stubbornly elects to follow Sullivan on his further explorations. Sturges’ handling of their shared experiences is a daring departure into montage; covering the realities of the Great Depression from every conceivable angle with a startling sense of realism. Sullivan and the girl eventually take refuge at a religious hostel where Sullivan’s shoes are stolen as he sleeps by an enterprising and very desperate hobo. This same nondescript man will later play a pivotal role in the plot. But for now, the audience has all but forgotten, in the event something were to happen to Sullivan, Barrows had sewn an identification tag into the soles of his shoes, now no longer in his possession. Returning to the relative safety of his home, Sullivan is certain he has suffered enough to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? a living testament to the downtrodden and destitute. Meanwhile, LeBrand’s publicity department has churned out enough PR to whet and fuel the public’s appetite for ten pictures. To show his gratitude, Sullivan decides he will appear in hobo’s garb one last time, distributing five dollar bills to any homeless person he encounters along his route.
It’s a big-hearted, though decidedly empty-headed gesture at best; illustrating a thoroughly misguided sense of philanthropy destined to land Sullivan in very hot water. For the same man who stole his shoes at the hostel now takes to stalk Sullivan into the rail yards where he knocks him unconscious with a rock, depositing his body into an open box car while attempting to gather up all of the wayward bills scattered across the tracks. Fate intervenes and an oncoming train kills the hobo, leaving only his shoes – Sullivan’s shoes – behind. Unable to identify the badly mangled body, the police discover the identification marker sewn into the soles and declare John L. Sullivan dead. Meanwhile, Sullivan awakens at the break of dawn, miles from home, but with a very bad case of amnesia. Mistaking him for a bum, a brutish rail worker (Howard M. Mitchell) attempts to Billy club Sullivan into submission. Instead, Sullivan attacks the man with a rock. At trial, the judge (Willard Robertson) throws the book at Sullivan. Still plagued by the after effects of his amnesia, Sullivan is unable to clear up this misunderstanding. He is sentenced to six years in a labor camp.
Suffering at the hands of its unrepentant task master/manager (Alan Bridge), Sullivan is befriended by Trusty (Jimmy Conlin) who advises him that the best one can hope for on this chain gang is to keep out of trouble. Demoralized and beginning to lose all hope of ever escaping his predicament, Sullivan and the rest of the inmates are treated to a two reel Walt Disney/Mickey Mouse and Pluto cartoon; Sullivan noticing how the power of film can transform the bleakest circumstances into a bearable likeness of being, even for these unfortunates who have nothing else to look forward. It dawns on Sullivan suddenly he has been an A-1 heel. Now, he devises a way to get free of the chain gang. Pretending to repent for the murder of John L. Sullivan, his picture is splashed across all of the newspapers. Having presumed her husband dead, and thus the cash cow she expected to pay out for her support in perpetuity gone, Mrs. Sullivan (Jan Buckingham) has remarried her husband’s ex-manager (George Anderson), thereby getting Sullivan off the hook for continued alimony.
In Hollywood, the girl, since become an extra in the movies at LeBrand’s behest, sees Sullivan’s picture in the paper and hurries to tell LeBrand and Hadrian the good news – John L. Sullivan is alive! In short order (and another montage) Sullivan is set free from prison, his hoax exposed with a litany of positive press and restitution presumably paid for his attack on the rail yard worker; reunited with his friends and the girl aboard a plane bound for Hollywood. LeBrand tells Sullivan there is enough publicity now to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? an instant smash hit regardless of whether or not the picture actually happens to be good. Unfortunately, and much to LeBrand’s chagrin, Sullivan has had a miraculous change of heart. Having seen the gracious whim of fate in his misguided gesture to bring ‘reality’ into the art of make-believe, Sullivan now professes his eagerness to return to the featherweight comedies and musicals on which his director’s reputation has been founded, explaining to LeBrand how sometimes laughter is the only cure the people have for what is ailing them.
Sullivan’s Travels remains a benchmark in comedy; chiefly because its levity is never allowed to overpower its message and vice versa. Contemporary film makers ought to take notice of Sturges’ sublime jab, squarely directed at the purpose behind making movies; not to indoctrinate an audience with dire dirges about the futilities of life, rather, made as entertainment that can exult in the triumph of the human spirit, particularly in times of adversity – and yes…with a little sex. Even in its dark third act, Sullivan’s Travels avoids becoming a grim and stylized pity party, meant more to show off or to prove a point – albeit, an idiotic one. Sturges is, in fact, deeply invested in the plight of the homeless, presenting them neither as a benevolent flock of wayward sheep, nor as the great unwashed yearning to breathe free; but simply as the tragic majority, struggling to survive. Moreover, the extras hired to partake in the exercise have been expertly groom to look the part without plucking our heartstrings like a Stradivarius.
Of course, Sullivan’s Travels hails from another epoch in movie-making when even the musicals and the comedies used to be good – nee great – that is to say, had purpose, meaning, heartfelt sentiment and oodles of charm, grace, dignity and class; qualities present day Hollywood seems to know absolutely nothing about. But at its core, both the film and Sturges are advocates for the strength of sentiment; that lighthearted joie de vivre woefully in short supply in our contemporary movies. Sturges respects the art of writing comedy enough to know its escapism must have a point and a purpose and he places the highest value on this intangible commodity. As such, Sullivan’s Travels attains a level of prestige far greater than the laugh – although, fundamentally, it’s the art of the pratfall that lures us into its story. Sturges’ virtuosity as an ardent and clear-eyed observer of life ensures a very good time. Yet, Sullivan’s Travels is, at once, as slick and hard to take as Veronica Lake; the movie’s message about the weight of laughter in times of crisis, perennially relevant and beguiling. Ditto for the elegantly insolent Ms. Lake…a little sex thrown in, indeed!
Criterion's reissue of Sullivan’s Travels on Blu-ray is only marginally a cause for celebration, perhaps because there was nothing inherently wrong with their retired B&W DVD transfer – except that it is now, sadly, out of print; also, it seems little more has been done in the interim to ready this release for hi-def, and nothing substantial has been added by way of extras to make it the sort of colossal ‘must have’ – jam-packed with goodies – that a good many Criterion titles of late have offered. We get a ‘new’ hi-def digital restoration. I’ve become savvy about reading between the lines where Criterion’s packaging is concerned. And to be fair, Criterion is always quite clear about the work that’s been done on titles re-released under their ‘art house’ brand. When a 2K or 4K scan has been utilized, they have no problem advertising it as such. That their back jacket makes no such claim is good enough for me to suspect Universal (the company holding the rights on this catalog title) is probably cribbing from digital files that are more than a few years old. Is this a bad thing? Hmmmm.
While I have to say, Sullivan’s Travels on Blu-ray looks fairly spectacular, solidly contrasted, gorgeous black levels, good smattering of grain looking indigenous to its source, there is still some residual built-in flicker (that ought to have been stabilized) and a few very minor hints of edge enhancement (by now, this untoward tinkering ought to be extinct!!!). So, I’ll simply go on record to add we are at the cusp of a new epoch in the digital age. 4K monitors and upscaling Blu-ray players are making it possible to see a level of clarity virtually unseen on home video. It’s not a stretch to suggest the major studios have been lax in getting their back catalogs up to snuff with these hardware technologies. And let us be clear in suggesting some studios have been far more proactive than others. (Sony gets my sincere vote as well as a nod of hearty admiration for being the most consistent.) Because 4K is poised to become the new ‘norm’, I don’t really see the point in releasing ANY movie to hi-def without a new 4K scan being done. Ah, yes – the money factor.
Well, folks: it’s a double-edged sword. To make hi-def (real ultra 4K) feasible requires our show of support for the format. If we say it with sales, the studios will have to produce more to keep up. No sales and the quality of disc media will lag. This, alas, has been Blu-ray’s demise. How many discs do you currently own of movies more than ten years old that have been mastered to ‘perfect picture and sound quality’ as has always been Blu-ray’s claim to fame? No, the studios quickly realized two things: first, getting older stuff to conform to the new standards was going to be a very costly and time-consuming endeavor, and second, fans wanted these catalog titles ‘yesterday’. So a very gray area emerged where some executive logic believed they could cheat the consumer (or at least, his eyes), slapping out tired old digital masters initially compressed and authored for DVD, now, simply bumped up to a 1080p signal.
That was then. This is now. Once you’ve seen true 1080p in all its glory, nothing falsely modest or half way will do! And consumers, apart from lacking the amount of disposable income they once used to lavish on trivialities, like home entertainment, are not nearly as uneducated or willing to accept anything less than perfect – nor should they be expected to settle for anything less! We’re through the looking glass on this one, people. At this point, nothing short of perfection will do. After all, what is the point of having the capability to view 4K if disc content is incapable of delivering the goods? With Universal’s shortsightedness in mind, Criterion has done the absolute best on this release. But that still doesn’t let the studio off the hook! The PCM mono audio is more than adequate.
Regurgitated on this outing: the extremely comprehensive audio commentary from 2001 by filmmakers, Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean. Also from 2001: an interview with Sandy Sturges, the last wife and widow of the great man. There’s the magnificent, American Masters documentary from 1990: Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer; at 75 minutes, just a tad short and generally glossing over Sturges’ private life, but amply supported by vintage interviews and utterly fascinating nonetheless. Film critic, David Cairns and filmmaker, Bill Forsyth provide us with a new ‘video essay’. Video essays have become something of ‘a thing’ with Criterion of late. They’re not bad, but they do fall short, in my opinion. Criterion rounds out its extras with a 1951 Hedda Hopper interview, plus some archival audio recordings featuring Sturges. Par for the course is Stuart Klawans essay, presented in booklet form. Bottom line: Sullivan’s Travels is required viewing. If you haven’t seen it then you are depriving yourself of greatness. The Blu-ray is preferred, though not yet as perfect as the material itself. Pity that and hope for better in the coming months. Raise your level of expectation, but open your wallets when the effort exerted warrants it. This is the only way things will ever improve.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)