Thursday, May 21, 2015

AFI Top 100: #61 "Sullivan's Travels"

Veronica Lake & Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels (1941)

When I told my Dad that our #61 film on the AFI Top 100 list was Sullivan's Travels, his immediate reaction was one of emotional satisfaction. "When you get to the scene in the gospel church... message me." Apparently, my Methodist minister father had done a sermon about this scene oh-so-many years ago, even pulling down the projection screen and showing the sequence to the congregation in its entirety. I didn't know about this, of course, but was curious how any part of a Preston Sturges film could contribute any level of gravitas in a sermon designed to end with a message or moral. This is not to say that Sturges couldn't spike an emotion or two, but I was skeptical, to say the least. I gave him my word that I would take special care to take note.

The film centers on a dissatisfied Hollywood film director, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who is tired of churning out mindless comedies in a world thathe believesis yearning for a story about the human experience. (#thestruggle) As he tries to get his new film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (yes, the Coen Brothers got their title from this movie) off the ground, the studio questions his ability to make a movie like this at all. "What trouble have you ever experienced?" they ask. What did he know about poverty and suffering? It dawns on Sullivan that they're right. As a wealthy boarding school kid, his journey in life has been completely trouble-free. Rather than give up on the idea, he decides to dress like a hobo (in costumes from the studio prop shop) and hits the road to see how the regular Joes of the world live. And despite the warnings from everyonehis butler wisely states "The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous"—Sullivan is determined to create a masterpiece of stark realism.

His journey isn't without its pitfalls or halfhearted starts. At first, the studio aims to follow him, filming the whole thing like the publicity stunt it is, much to Sullivan's dismay. Before escaping the Hollywood city limit, he loses his entourage and runs into a stunning, down-on-her-luck actress. The Girl (played by the distractingly beautiful Veronica Lake) takes Sullivan as the homeless tramp he's trying to be for the requisite amount of time it takes to build some juicy tension... before discovering he's really a big shot. She, surprisingly, decides to scrap her plans to leave Hollywood behind her and joins Sullivan in his journey of human discovery, a guide of sorts who's seen it all. Of course, little does Sully know that the trials that await him might have been more than he bargained for.

McCrea has the dramatic chops mixed with the comedic timing to pull this role off. It's a challenging part, to say the least, taking into account the shifts in tone, but he never makes it look that way on the screen. Lake's The Girl is the perfect counter-part to Sully's stunted worldview; supportive rather than dismissive, but unwilling to let his prissy inexperience slide without a delightful remark. Lake herself is magnetic and truly gifted. She infuses the film with earnest sweetness and a firecracker wit. It's in the latter portion of the film, however, where you feel the meaty heft of Sturges' vision: the not-so-subtle, but considerably powerful revelation that comedy isn't a useless farce, but rather a cure for the downtrodden soul. Ah, I thought... the aforementioned church scene, consisting of a group of black church-goers welcoming into their fold the dejected members of a chain gang... the significance is impossible to overlook. It stands out as the film's most powerful and necessary moment.

There is, despite these successes, a noticeable struggle with the delivery of said comedy, which is more than a little bit ironic. The type of comedy that Sully is working hard to escape from is this slap-sticky gimmick that Sturges himself seems to embrace, but only for part of the movie. The sequence with the speeding trailer truck comes to mind, as bodies flail about, heads through ceilings with frying pans flying off shelves and the like... a ridiculous, un-funny display that pulls away from the real comedy, of a more subtle variety. The clever banter, particularly between McCrea and Lake, provides a higher brow laugh that better serves the characters and their objectives. The Girl stating profusely "I liked you better as a bum," to which Sully retorts, "I can't help the kind of people you like." It gives the script a sort of timelessness that melds well with the serious undercurrent of the actual plot.

I can't help but wish there had been more of that. Minutes would pass and I'd think that maybe, just maybe, we'd gotten past the Marx Brothers-esque gags, but then someone would trip over a railroad track and we'd be back to square one. Sturges writes impressive dialogue; there are too many astute lines to even count, but they get lost in a sea of physical absurdity. I have to wonder how much of that is Sturges, or how much of it is the studio. Art imitating life, very 'meta.' The only real consistency here lies with our stars, who carry an otherwise messy movie through to the end with grace and sincerity.

The concept of Sullivan's Travels is pretty darn brilliantit's the execution that limits it. The back and forth pacing, some plot holes, and of course, the inconsistency in tone creates an awkward movie-watching experience. Unfortunate, considering how wonderful chunks of Sullivan's Travels are on their own. But one could argue that the given scenes of revelation might not pack the same punch if not for the superficial moments that lie before it. I won't argue that, but I can imagine one might.

Rating:  ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Paramount Pictures]

Check back next week for #60 on the list, Duck Soup — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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