Saturday, September 29, 2012
Director: Preston Sturges
Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Sturges’ stable of stock supporting staffers
I love screwball comedies, and if one loves screwball comedies, then Preston Sturges is like manna from heaven. No one made screwier screwballs than Preston. But poor Preston couldn’t leave well enough alone. Oh no, he had to go getting all serious, trying to make a “big social point,” and in my opinion, lost nearly all his magic with Sullivan’s Travels. That the film is typically regarded as his finest work is a bit beyond me.
Hollywood screwball comedy director John L. Sullivan (McCrea) wants to make a big serious drama, a movie that strikes at deep issues and social problems. His studio heads want him to make another comedy. In order to learn about poverty in America for his big serious drama, Sullivan decides to go on the road undercover as a hobo, with only ten cents in his pocket. Along the way he meets a charitable girl (Lake), and he eventually tells her who he really is. She insists on accompanying him as he continues his little experiment. Situational antics ensue.
I understand why Sturges wanted to make such a movie. It must be tough, being so brilliant at a genre of films that is easily discarded and denigrated. It’s something that hasn’t changed with time, either; consider, each year, how many dramas are nominated for Oscars, versus comedies. Sullivan, something of an alter-ego for Sturges, wants to make a “big important drama.” Well, why does he want to do this? He gives little reason, he’s just insistent to the point of absurdity that’s what he wants to do. My guess, for both Sullivan and Sturges, it is the desire to be taken seriously and to win some acclaim. Frankly, I can understand that desire. It’s always nice to have someone tell me that they realize how hard I work and they think I am doing a good job. The greatest comedies look so easy, and when something looks easy, most people tend to assume it didn’t require any work to create it.
But but but, Sturges darling, you are at your best with the zany and the ludicrous. Get all serious and heavy-handed, and your films turn into generic, rote, run-of-the mill dramedies.
The opening of Sullivan’s Travels is promising enough, with that lightening fast script and back and forth wordplay (with a little sex). I love seeing this verbal sparring in the medium shot, not close-ups, and no cuts. Cutting back and forth would ruin the rhythm of the banter, and it’s a brilliant banter. Then, when Sullivan first sets out on the road, we have fantastically ludicrous Sturges again, as Sullivan is followed by a veritable team of hangers-on, cataloging his every move. A great slapstick car chase works well.
But dammit, Sullivan is insistent about “really experiencing poverty,” and when we lose the slapstick in the film, we lose all its buoyancy as well. For the majority of the film, with Sullivan and the girl on the road “experiencing poverty,” the story moves slowly and becomes far too preachy. Holy crap, but this is a preachy movie, right down to Sullivan’s eye-rolling monologue at the finale about the virtue of making people laugh. Sturges, sweetie, did you actually listen to the words you wrote? Making people laugh is a GOOD thing! Why didn’t you make me laugh in this movie? All I can figure is that Sturges must have been too angry and bitter when he made this movie to want to make people laugh; he’s clearly not his usual light-hearted self.
And let’s consider Sullivan’s “really experiencing poverty.” Every time he tries to go it alone, to live the life of a hobo, two things invariably happen. First, he meets someone who is kind and charitable to him, who buys him food when he has little or no money. Second, he runs back to his life in Hollywood, takes a shower at his estate, sleeps in his huge bed, eats a real meal. This pattern occurs over and over again. Even the final third, when Sullivan most encounters a life of hardship, has moments of unexpected kindness from strangers, followed by a faster-than-it-should-have-happened total deus ex machina. It feels as if Sturges wrote himself into a hole and sloppily rushed to resolve the situation, falling back on the same pattern from the beginning of the film. At the very least, Sullivan has the grace to admit, at the end of the film, that he doesn’t know anything about poverty. I give Sturges credit for that, at the very least, but then he slathers on the eye-rolling message of “COMEDY IS GOOD, AND THIS DRAMA PROVES IT. LOOK, AREN’T I SUCH A SERIOUS DIRECTOR NOW?”
I like McCrea and Lake in their roles, but I’m not head over heels enamored of them. I think McCrea is far better in other films. I enjoy Lake’s girlish quality (ironic, given that she was significantly pregnant during the filming of this movie), but the chemistry between the two of them felt completely familial to me. I saw the pairing as more of a brother and sister than two lovers, something helped by their ridiculous difference in height – he towers, she’s petite. When their love inevitably blossoms, it feels forced and out of nowhere. Why couldn’t they just be good friends? The film had that vibe throughout; why change it? Oh, because we needed a little sex in it, I see.
Again, I understand why Sturges would have felt frustrated as a director of comedies. Still, though, this film lost that magic Sturges touch when he tried to make a message movie. Is Sullivan’s Travels any good? Of course. It’s a decent movie. It doesn’t suck (I know, high praise!). But it’s my least favorite Preston Sturges film. Great comedies are priceless; great dramas are priceless. But a comedic director trying to make a social point through what turns into a drama? Not priceless. It’s the classic “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome. By Sturges trying too hard to present both a comedy and a social commentary film, he succeeds at neither, and that’s just no fun.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10. As I wrote this review, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at this movie. It gets a passing score, but that’s about it.