Sullivan's Travels

Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors in Person
Screening on Film
Directed by Preston Sturges.
With Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, William Demarest.
US, 1941, 35mm, black & white, 91 min.

To what degree can a joke seduce not only an audience but its author? Sullivan’s Travels is about a comedy director—Joel McCrea, who we meet wearing pants that come up to his armpits, and with such blustery conviction you figure maybe you ought to try it—who wants to make a serious movie about real people and real problems, a Movie with a Message, and he’s got a title: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which nearly sixty years later actually did get made, and for all we know pretty much as Sturges himself (1898-1959) might have made it.
With a hungry Veronica Lake as a teacher, Sullivan hits the road to discover the bitter truth about America and its people; riding the rails, his resentment rises along with his confusion.  He’s about to return to Hollywood, to do what he can, but one last Hollywood gesture—handing out money to his erstwhile fellow bindlestiffs—lands him in a prison camp. There, his identification gone, Sullivan disappears into an America that he never knew existed, part of a miserable crowd—until, one day, he is taken with the rest to see a movie, a cartoon that soon enough has everyone laughing their heads off, and he resolves to go back to comedy.

It’s a wonderful movie, but its premise isn’t quite convincing—nor did it, it seems, altogether convince Sturges.  For the climax of Sullivan’s Travels is precisely the Serious Message the picture has so effectively discredited.  Sullivan, we barely remember by the end, wasn’t falsely imprisoned; he’d smashed a railroad cop over the head.  But the moment it’s discovered who Sullivan is—the famous Hollywood director all America has been looking for—he’s out of jail, free and clear, the legatee of the magic of peekaboo American justice. The other prisoners, left behind, can watch comedies.

You be the judge.

Greil Marcus