Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sullivan's Travels

Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS from 1941 can be taken as cinema's ultimate apologetic for the lighthearted comedy film. An acidicly clever essay on how what some deride as a disposable pasttime is pure deliverance and hope for others. Movies, of course, but more specifically the sort that remove you from the real world and make you laugh. Forget who you are. Away from a reality where poverty may weigh beyond tolerance. Where wars are waged. Many viewers are not interested in watching gritty realism in fiction when there is enough in their own existences. True in the 1940s, possibly even more true today.

Joel McCrea plays Hollywood director John L. Sullivan, hot off a run of successful comedic films that the public adores. But he is nagged by the itch to Do More. To make socially probing dramas that will grab moviegoers by their lapels and make them think for once. Something like the (fictional) novel O Brother Where Art Thou. The bosses at the studio are not supportive.

Undaunted, Sullivan decides to do what an actor might describe as Method research, donning rags and joining the huddled masses in the soup kitchens, far from the pristine mansions of Beverly Hills. A sure way to gain a perspective on a ten cent life. But with studio guns watching every move, Sullivan always finds himself back by his sparkling swimming pool, little wisdom gained. During one attempt, Sullivan meets an unnamed young actress (Veronica Lake) who hasn't quite made the big time. She is at first unaware of his identity but soon enough is pushing the big pretender into that outrageous pool, such a perfect symbol of opulence, of what Sullivan is trying to escape in his art (if not his life, in the long term, anyway).

Eventually, Sullivan and his new companion, identified only as "The Girl", experience true immersion in the shoes of the homeless, sleeping in crowded shelters. Now feeling sufficiently seasoned in Skid Row 101, the director finally feels he is ready to tackle a serious picture. But his education is far from over, and "no good deed goes unpunished" will take on quite a new meaning for Sullivan.

It is at that point that SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS tone darkens considerably, scene by scene building toward a climax that is both curious and illuminating. Sturges makes his points so strongly, and not just the obvious ones, of art as salvation - the film's theme. The use of art to portray race relations (and attitudes toward minorities) is also astonishingly deft in his film. Note the early scenes, loaded with conventional slapstick, particularly when a young black man is flailed around inside of a speeding trailer. The later scenes involve a black church congregation that are so lacerating I almost gasped, especially for a film of its time.

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS has inspired countless artists over the years. Mel Brooks' LIFE STINKS has some strong plot similarities and certainly you know how the Coen Brothers were influenced.While the viewer may come away with the idea that the make-believe, even the frivolous comedy, may give people hope, even the will to live, there is so much more here.
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