I know that Sullivan's Travels (1941) is usually regarded as one of the screen's great comedies, but I had a vague memory of seeing some clip from it that really bored me, so I always avoided it. I felt kind of guilty about this because I knew I wanted to like it, mostly because I thought that it was a movie bright, sophisticated people liked and if I actually saw it and didn't, well, you know what that would mean. Plus I read a biography of Preston Sturges years ago and found his life so astonishingly entertaining that, to be honest, none of the movies he wrote and directed that I saw really lived up to his own eccentric story (his mother was a dizzy heiress who trotted her children around Europe so she could hang around with Isadora Duncan. Preston ended up managing a bar on the Riviera when he was about 14 and later invented a type of lipstick. Top that, Hollywood). I thought Sullivan's Travels would be another disappointment and I would feel guilty about that, too (it really takes nothing to make me feel guilty).
Well, after recently seeing This Gun for Hire and realizing that I wanted to be Veronica Lake when I grew up (sure, she's not much of an actress but she's a great presence, someone who really just seemed to epitomize the cool 1940s girl), I decided I better give Sullivan's Travels a serious try. The good news is that it was better than I expected. I still don't think it's particularly great, but it has its moments (and oh, by the way, more good news--I've developed enough so-what attitude to not care that I don't agree with legions of critics on this one).
Quickie synopsis: Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is famous for his comedies, but wants to be taken seriously. He plans to direct an adaptation of the heavy, serious book about the struggles of the poor, O Brother, Where Art Thou? for his next film, but is reminded that he knows nothing about trouble. To learn about the hardships of life, he decides to pretend to be a tramp and live amongst the poor. Traveling with a struggling actress (Veronica Lake) he picked up along the way, Sullivan gets involved in various merry mishaps, until finally, having gotten in enough trouble to be sentenced to hard labor in a chain gang, he realizes that comedy is important to people and that there's honor in making people laugh.
(Yes, the book Sullivan wants to adapt did provide the name for the Coen brothers comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou? This made me keep wishing that George Clooney would show up in Sullivan's Travels, looking for some Dapper Dan, or at least that someone would start singing "You Are My Sunshine." Alas, no such luck.)
What I liked: the fast-paced dialogue and the goofy physical comedy. I know some people think it gets excessive (btw, these are not the same people who put this movie in the comedy canon), but what I like about it is that it is excessive. It's like Sturges is kind of tweaking the audience by having a slapstick sequence go on longer than you would expect, or by just randomly dropping in pratfalls and pie in the face moments.
What I didn't like: there were about four sequences that were completely done as montages with music over them that I felt were too much. I would have liked them done as scenes better. Also, the effort to not oversentimentalize the poor backfires and they are, indeed, oversentimentalized.
The part of this movie that most captivated me, though, (other than Veronica Lake's shoes in the scene by the pool...and I swear, I'm not even a shoe girl), had nothing to do with the story or the acting, or the message. It was the idea of walking away from everything and hopping on a train to anywhere, with no plans, no obligations. I know, the people who were hopping freight trains in the 1930s-1940s weren't on some idealistic quest to discover America, they were just poor and trying to get along. I know I'm over-romanticizing the idea of getting away from it all, but still, at this point in my life that's what I found myself wistfully thinking about during this movie. Can I do that? Please? Outside of a few bill collectors, no one would really notice if I just ran away to someplace, America, Europe, Asia, and just traveled aimlessly. If only I could just get away and forget everything, and hopefully forget the ones that need forgetting. If only. But I know--unless you're upgrading, it's foolhardy to let go of a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan.