Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
Is a movie’s goal to take away the pressures of real life or to make us face them? Why not try both? That’s essentially what comedy icon Preston Sturges tries to do in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a biting social satire that offers genuine insights into life while never failing to entertain its audience.
Initially it is a movie about movies; as a successful director, John L. Sullivan attempts to shoot an important picture about “modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.” He wants to call this magnum opus “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which happens to be the source for the title of the well-known Coen Brothers film (and though that movie is chiefly inspired by the Odyssey, there are numerous references in it to Sturges’ film). Sullivan’s producers do not share his ambition, partly for commercial reasons, but also because he could hardly make a movie about poverty when he has but only ever lived in luxury. Sturges, with his penchant for all things absurd and unpredictable, sets the narrative in motion by having Sullivan embark on a quest to learn about destitution by becoming a hobo himself.
Of course, from a comedic perspective there is something appealing about a man intentionally throwing his wealth out the door to live with the vagabonds. Taken with a sense of humor, the comic scenarios pile up, and yet one of the joys of Sullivan’s Travels is the way in which Sturges never lets the audience second-guess the development of the story. He does not just juxtapose a man of wealth with the dregs of society, but permeates the narrative with expectation-defying twists and turns. Here is a film so rife with comic energy it makes contemporary comedies comparatively dull.
Yet what really elevate the movie are the important questions Sturges broaches while still managing to maintain a consistently playful tone. Besides commenting on the mentality of Hollywood executives and the state of the poor, Sturges shows how certain emotions, particularly laughter, create a bridge between the upper and lower classes. Despite economic differences, there are still distinctly human features in all people that make life for the less fortunate a little more bearable. Sullivan’s Travels asks us to consider the human condition while simultaneously giving us diversion and laughter. It is the rare film with two agendas.
This amalgam of farce and sophistication is Sturges’ trademark, and the central reason why he is placed in the upper tier of comedy directors. Working in a time when formulaic screwball was the template for comedies, Sturges managed to break the molds of tradition and usher in a new wave of experimental filmmaking. Also of note is the fact that he usually wrote his own screenplays, which today is often a mark of a great filmmaker, yet at the time was nearly unheard of.
One cannot but admire a figure whose work was innovative yet also truly decent and respectable. To see Sullivan’s Travels, or any of Sturges’ movies, is to see the work of a man with an indelible sense of humor who finds new ways to express fundamental truths of human existence.