Travels with Sully in Search of America
The title of the tale pays homage to that of ship´s surgeon Lemuel G. of Lilliiput and Laputa; its fancy school-educated but sheltered hero's name draws on that of bare-knuckle Boston Strong Boy the Great John L.; and that cinema hero´s dream Great Depression film O Brother, Where Art Thou? was not to become reality until the next millennium. Sullivan´s Travels is hard-nosed, farcical, tender, critical, satirical, elitist and populist all at once and all of which it alas betrays -- though not nearly enough to ruin -- with a corny romantic windup tempered with no irony.
Included with thirty-two other features in the Museum of Modern Art´s "Scorsese Screens," the hour-and-a-half semi-road movie marked the short apogee of its writer-director Preston Sturges´ rapid rise and then quick decline, as, except for pairings with Alan Ladd, it also did for Veronica Lake, sultry she of the peekaboo hairstyle (with her pregnancy covered up here by Edith Head´s purposely baggy clothing). .
For some reason not shown last spring in the MoMA "Acteurism: Joel McCrea,, 1932-43," the 1941 ST gives the tall handsome actor the plum role in which to shine light on his good-guy-if-a-tad-dull-and-dull-witted screen persona, attractive equally to a lonely widow and to a starlet manqué, the latter Colbert to his Gable being the sassy unnamed Girl (Lake) who sees the "truth" he seeks but cannot recognize and who does not a full hundred percent wise him up, either. As well, it is to the story´s credit that, though poking fun at Hollywood, its mindset and methods, studio heads like Mr.LeBrand (Robert Warwick) are not easy cigar-chomping caricatures, while the rich hero´s butler and valet (Robert Greig, Eric Blore) are comic but have a lot to offer, including a pragmatic view of the world as it really is. There is compassion for the homeless thousands of families and hobos and Tom Joads on the wrong side of the growing divide between have-it-alls and have-nothing-at-alls. But poverty here is not ennobling and has its own castes, pecking order, greed, brutality, preying on one another and criminality, while, coffee-shop liberals clucking as they may, those just barely above the very lowest, like judges, chain-gang sheriffs and rail yard bulls, use every weapon available to emphasize their own "superiority."
In his thirty-seven years Sully has never experienced how the other half lives. Despite impressive box office with fluff comedies such as Ants in Your Pants of 1939 but not a whiff of an Academy Award nomination -- ditto as well for ST -- he pines do some serious fact-based filmmaking, for which he will have to mortify the flesh, immersing himself in the great depressing truth exacerbated by the Great Depression. Ten cents in his pocket -- "They used to tell me I was building a dream./Brother, can you spare a dime?" -- an approximation of a down-and-outer´s outfit courtesy of the studio wardrobe department and, the inspiration of his wiser helpers, not diamonds but an emergency ID on the soles of his shoes, he sets out.
Making the best of a situation not initially to its liking, the studio will protect and promote its precious director, and make money into the bargain, by publicizing the whole as a lark, photo-shoot PR escapade. Chafing at the media posse tailing him, unconvincing bum Sullivan keeps winding up back in Hollywood, and over ham and eggs is hooked up with the Girl, come west to become a star but, disillusioned with Tinseltown and its crowd, now ready to head back eastwards.
Tricked into, and trapped in, a loveless marriage, Sullivan is by nature kind but not at all inclined to embark on any romance or, indeed, even to let her accompany him on his slumming adventure quest for truth and reality. Easier said than done, though the confirmation that laughter is after all still the best medicine, the universal panacea across class, economic and even racial lines, rings tacked-on hollow. Disney´s 1934 Playful Pluto is fun but hardly the answer. But nevermind: the rest is grand Americana.
(Released by Paramount Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)