Fed up with making corny comedies like Ants in Your Pants of 1939 and Hey-Hey in the Hay Loft, successful Hollywood director John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants to make a serious social statement with a new dramatic picture called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Ring any bells, Coen Brothers fans? Problem is, Sullivan knows he is too pampered and rich to truly identify with the plight of the poor. So he hits the road, disguised as a tramp to learn how the less fortunate live. On his travels Sullivan befriends a penniless but big-hearted girl (a luminous Veronica Lake) who shares his experiences and wins his love. Their madcap misadventures take a much darker turn before Sullivan finally sees the light.
Among the greatest of all Hollywood comedies, Sullivan’s Travels opens with the dedication: “to the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little...” Iconoclastic comic genius Preston Sturges crafted an ode to the importance of joy and laughter in everyday life, but especially in troubled times such as the Great Depression that provides the backdrop for Sullivan’s eye-opening odyssey and in retrospect, the Second World War that was then looming in America’s future. However, the film’s message is too often misunderstood as self-justification for mindless Hollywood escapism. Lawrence Kasdan lampooned just such a shallow reading in a wry scene in his drama, Grand Canyon (1992) wherein self-deluding movie mogul Steve Martin cites Sullivan’s epiphany as justification for cranking out ultra-violent action flicks.
While Sullivan’s Travels was a modest success - partly due to the presence of Veronica Lake who was a huge box office draw at the time - the critical response was mixed, with some going so far as to accuse Sturges of failing to heed the same moral he had foisted upon his fictional filmmaker, and the film stirred some surprising enmity among his Hollywood peers. John Ford (who famously referred to the director as “Pissed-On Sturges”) loathed the film, believing the Depression era audience needed films that tackled social injustice head on, such as his own masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Some of this was down to simple jealousy, given that as one of only three writer-producer-directors active in world cinema at the time, Sturges enjoyed an unprecedented amount of creative control over his pictures.
Certainly the film is on one level a riposte to all those old arguments levied against Hollywood frivolity that endure to this day, but is also far more complex than the closing moral suggests. An oft-overlooked aspect is how, for all its ribbing of pretentious artistes aspiring to sweeping social statements, the film actually portrays the struggles of downtrodden Depression era folk with complete sincerity, not laboured profundity. Earthy and honest, Sturges pulls no punches in satirising a social system that brutalizes and dehumanises the poor. He shows us the best and the worst of humanity, from the kindly owner of the roadside diner who lets Sullivan and the girl eat for free, to the feral hobo who robs the hero and is then hit by a train. Indeed the film is quite gritty and uncompromising for a screwball comedy.
After a string of powerful scenes where people are hectored and herded like animals, the film’s most famous scene where a church full of chain gang members crack up watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon (Sturges wanted to screen a Charlie Chaplin short, but the Little Tramp turned him down) underlines how laughter can restore our own sense of self-worth and humanity. Another notable thing about this scene is it takes place in an African-American gospel church, thus implying cinema has the power to forge a bond of compassion between races.
McCrea and Lake are superb. They really run with the machinegun patter of Sturges’ cracking comic dialogue, crafting warm, winning, faceted characters. For Sullivan’s Travels is also a love story, an aspect Lake’s charm and sensitively played character arguably sells best. This Gun for Hire (1942) might be her most iconic role, but the fact is both this and the similarly sublime I Married a Witch (1942) suggest comedy was her forte. Here, Sturges reveals his mastery of almost every comedic form: witty wordplay, cartoon surrealism, slapstick (a slightly racist sight gag involving a black servant is the film’s sole misstep), social satire, rom-com banter, and post-modern parody, notably a third act resolution that plays like an outrageous spoof of third act resolutions. All that plus a little sex in it.