Classic Movie Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Title: Sullivan’s Travels
Release Date: December 29, 1941
Director: Preston Sturges
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Back in the 90s, I picked out this movie from my local library based solely on its title (I am that self-absorbed).  I remember being disappointed by the movie which I thought had a good premise, but never really went anywhere with it.  Nevertheless, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit the movie having gained 25 years of wisdom and an appreciation for the work of Preston Sturges.

Well, my opinion of the film has shot up considerably.  John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a popular movie director who wants to make more serious message films about the struggles of ordinary Americans.  Clueless about the common people live due to his own privilege, he decides to travel incognito. On his travels he makes the acquaintance of an aspiring actress, known only as The Girl (a brilliant, nuanced performance from Veronica Lake) who joins him on his journey.

The filmmaking is subtle but brilliant.  Something I read pointed out that this movie is actually three different styles. It begins as a slapstick comedy.  Then it becomes a silent movie for an extended sequence as Sullivan and The Girl travel among the common people.  Finally it becomes a serious melodrama of the type Sullivan wanted to make at the beginning of the film set in a prison labor camp. The most remarkable scene in the movie occurs when Sullivan and other prisoners are invited to a Black church for a movie night and find joy in a Disney cartoon. For a film made in 1941, it was unusual to have a large number of Black characters and present them in a positive manner without stereotypes.

The message of the movie is that films work best as an escape, which seems a bit self-congratulatory but also makes a good point.  Of course, Sullivan’s Travels manages to be a message movie with a compassionate view of struggles of the poor while still being wildly entertaining.  Next week, I will review that The Grapes of Wrath that also shows that movies can be great without being escapist.

Having recently watched Mank, I think it would make a great double feature with Sullivan’s Travels since both movies satirize Golden Age Hollywood while contrasting it to the real struggles of Americans in the Great Depression.  Yes, the most obvious pairing would be to put Sullivan’s Travels with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Mank with Citizen Kane, but I AM UNCONVENTIONAL!

Rating: ****