Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Sullivan’s Travels is a comedy about the importance of comedy in the lives of the less privileged, and especially in movie business. It is also about how the rich view the poor, theoretically speaking, as one character, a butler, succinctly points out, with cursory reference to factory strikes, hobos, shelter homes, and a chain gang thrown in for good measure. There is also a budding love story, with the future femme fatale icon Veronica Lake, no less.
Did I like the film? I did, especially the first half. Then I don’t know.
The film begins well, with a hotshot director of comedies (a reference to director Preston Sturges himself?) hell-bent on directing a film based on a socially conscious novel, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (If the title reminds you of the Coen Brothers film, you know the source of the inspiration.) When his unwilling producers, in an attempt to stop him, argue that he did not have experience of being poor, the director, John L Sullivan, decides to go an expedition to experience poverty. You know that the title of the film refers to the famous Gulliver’s Travels. So, you expect to meet Lilliputs and Brobdingnags and have wild adventures. It would not be so.
This is Hollywood. So the hobo director is followed by a retinue. They have a car chase and after a sexual misadventure, the hobo director is back in Hollywood. Here he meets the Lake character, a failed actress, who buys him ham and egg and in return, the hobo director becomes a knight in the shining armour, momentarily forgetting his mission.
After the brief intermission, which is quite enjoyable, the director and his girl again go on the mission of being poor, this time on a freight train. And they are back in Hollywood, overcome by hunger. They venture yet again, spending the night at a shelter and realizing that they had seen enough.
This is where the film takes a sharp turn. The director decides to go back again, only for a while, to give some money to the poor sods who taught him what hunger means. This despite the fact that he never managed to talk to a single one of them and tried to understand their plight. Then things go horribly wrong and he ends up in prison, where he would understand the important of laughter, while watching a Walt Disney cartoon in a church. That now iconic sequence is great and rings true, but what follows and precedes it belong to another film.
Like Sturges’ other great comedy, The Lady Eve, the film is replete with repetitions, in a bid to illicit humour. But the way it so effectively worked in The Lady Eve (remember how Henry Fonda trips over the furniture, over and over again), it doesn’t in Sullivan’s Travels.