Friday, April 11, 2014

Sullivan's Travels


I have gone from irritated through annoyed to downright infuriated. Doreen, that no good scrawny, sometime little sister (but actually distant cousin) of mine has not put in an appearance for over forty-eight hours. I remain confined to my wheel chair, swaddled in plaster to my hip, and unable to contact the outside world as the telephone still seems to be out of order. I have finished my emergency stash of Doritos and have started on a large container of Lesterene brand shrimp and avocado facial scrub out of sheer desperation. Reaching the bathroom is right out - thank god I'm wearing one of the super capacity June Allyson Waste Panties from Vicki's Secret line of intimate wear. 

Out of desperation, I took one of my lovely Italian linen bed sheets and a case of Lesterene brand nail polish - Jungle Red. I've laboriously painted 'Help! Call Police!' on it after marking the letters out with eyebrow pencil. It seems a shame to destroy such a lovely piece of fabric and I have no idea where to put forty-three empty bottles of nail polish but I was more or less out of ideas. I've suspended my banner from the balcony and hope that one of the neighbors happens to see it soon. I'm hopeful about Johnny Carson. He's always been just a little too interested in the goings on here at Chateau Maine. I've seen the telescope. 

While awaiting rescue, I turned to my television set, deciding to escape into a great comedy of the past. My selection was Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges' 1942 film satirizing Hollywood and American attitudes toward the underclass. I was screen tested for the Veronica Lake part in my younger days but, when they decided to cut the tap number over the tops of the freight train box cars, my management wisely suggested I pass. 

Sullivan's Travels is an idiosyncratic comedic romp with satirical jabs at Hollywood, the media, cultural values, and the relationships between the sexes. It concerns a famous Hollywood director, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), best known for making light and frothy comedies like Hey, Hey in the Hayloft. Sullivan wants to make a serious and important film and, to this end, he convinces his studio to allow him to film the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou, a tragic story of the depression poor. (Joel and Ethan Coen deliberately appropriated the title for their Depression story many years later.) 

Sullivan, however, is a child of privilege and has no real experience of the poor or true hardship. He decides to take to the road as a tramp to learn about the mean streets from the other side of the tracks. His studio is wary, but eventually sees this as a PR bonanza and Sullivan is dogged by flacks determined to record his experiences. During a series of comic misadventures, Sullivan meets up with a young woman (Veronica Lake), a would be starlet down on her luck. She falls for him and joins him in his quest. They eventually complete their research, with the occasional publicity photograph along the way, and all seems hunky dory. Then the film makes an unexpected hairpin which catapults it from gentle comedy to classic. Through a series of circumstances, Sullivan finds himself truly a tramp with no studio back-up; his friends think him dead. He spirals down into a backwoods Southern jail where the other convicts and locals teach him some core truths about life. This being a 1942 film comedy, everything is eventually resolved happily. 

Sullivan's Travels is an interesting phenomenon in that it's a pointed message film in the guise of a comedy. The jokes are there with some hysterical bits of slapstick, some great word play and some inventive situations. The messages are there as well, but sublimated under the facile surface. Sturges, as writer-director, was no fool. He knew exactly what he wanted to say about Hollywood and the condescending attitude that elites often take toward more ordinary people and he does so beautifully. The film is only marred by some racial stereotyping that's of its period. There's some unfunny slapstick early on involving a black cook; later, there's a key scene in a black church. The set up is a bit cliché, as is the reverend, but the minor characters, in minimal words and gestures bring forth more humanity than most performers can with pages of monologue. 

As Sullivan, Joel McCrea is a delightful light comedian. He's quite convincing as a blue blood who feels he's on a mission, and his changes as he realizes how wrong he is in certain assumptions are quite stellar. This is an unusual role for McCrea who is best remembered as a star of Westerns. Opposite him, Veronica Lake wears her trademark peek-a-boo hairdo and looks glamorous, even when dressed in rags. She plays the role as a cut rate Carole Lombard. She's nothing special, but the take works. Most of the supporting cast are familiar faces from films of the 30s and 40s. Such character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, and William Demarest all turn up. 

The film is in black and white and has a very back lot 40s feel to it. Unlike most movies, this is a film more about words and ideas than about images. There are some great shots and visual jokes, but they're more after thoughts than the raison d'etre.

Hollywood screening room. Hollywood diner. Hollywood swimming pool. Bus chase. Flirtatious widow. Shirtless wood chopping. Riding the rails. Stolen shoes. Public showers. Chain gangs. Mickey Mouse cartoon. False murder confessions.

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