Saturday, June 30, 2012

On "Sullivan's Travels" (1941)

"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh.  Did you know that's all some people have?  It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan.  Boy." ~Successful young Hollywood movie director John L. Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels.
We can tell from the opening credits that this will be a special presentation from Paramount Pictures.  The opening credits suggest a gift being unwrapped.  To me, that's what this film is.  The title illustration let's us know that we're in for a road picture, a journey of discovery.  It has a bit of a nod to Dave Fleisher's much-ignored 1939 feature length animated Paramount musical, Gulliver's Travels, loosely based on the literary classic.  Preston Sturges opened the door for filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Woody Allen.  After seeing his Paramount screenplays directed by someone else, he secured the freedom to direct his own screenplay.  No one directed the words of Preston Sturges better than Preston Sturges.  His directorial skills have influenced the Coen Brothers (watch The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Clint Eastwood and Lawrence Kasdan.  On CNN in 2006, Eastwood told Larry King that he viewed the work of Sturges before shooting his Oscar nominated Flags of Our Fathers.  The same points about war heroes, patriotism and marketing that Eastwood makes dramatically in that film, Sturges looked at comically in Hail the Conquering Hero.  In 1991's Grand Canyon, Kasdan has Steve Martin as a shallow Hollywood filmmaker who wants to upgrade to something significant like Sullivan's Travels.  I first saw this film on KTLA TV when I was a kid in Southern California.  Channel 5 had a large Paramount film library and that local station frequently showed this film.  Not just the wordplay and dialogue dazzled me through the years, so did its content.  Sullivan's Travels has violence, greed, news of a suicide, abject poverty, chain gangs, prison abuse, amnesia and a grisly railroad death.  Yet it's one of the funniest and best original comedies that ever came out of Old Hollywood.  Joel McCrea is the rich Hollywood director who's tired of making comedies and wants to direct a serious, symbolic drama based on the socially conscious new novel O Brother, Where Art Thou?  On his journey, he meets a sweet girl played by Veronica Lake. ("There's always a girl in the picture.")  They will fall in love.
If you haven't seen this film, rent it or look for it on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  If you have seen this classic, I don't have to explain what happens in it.  You know.  So let me tell how it's become even more special to me.  Today, now that I'm no longer a kid, it brings tears to my eyes.  I cry because of its heart and its humanity.  In this screwball comedy, there's a sequence of about six minutes that has no dialogue.  Sullivan, with warnings from his wise butler who knew poverty, sets out disguised as a hobo to see and feel how the other half lives.  The poor folks.  He's a rich guy.  The son of rich a guy.
Accompanied by The Girl, also dressed as a vagrant, they enter the world of the poor and the homeless.  No words, just the subtle music score in that six minute sequence.  Sturges gives the viewer credit to see, like the two lead characters do, that poverty does not discriminate.  It accepts any race, any age.  Man, woman...or child.  Religion doesn't seem to offer any comfort.  A Caucasian preacher delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon to a congregation of the homeless and hopeless.  You just know they're being verbally hammered with messages of guilt and shame.  There's no smiling face to be seen.  Penniless, the Hollywood imposters quit this life when they're so hungry they look in a trash can for food.  "Sully" later continues solo on his experimental journey and things get darker.  He's now lost, without memory, without identification and in a Kansas chain gang.  The prisoners get to see a movie.  In a local African-American church.  This preacher is warm and welcoming.  He encourages his congregation to be friendly.
This is the opposite from the preacher seen earlier.  Again, the races are mixed.  There are people who have known and probably know poverty.  Notice the joyful spirit in that church when a funny Disney cartoon is shown.  Laughter sooths their broken souls.  This is where John L. Sullivan makes the great discovery of his journey.  He learns that what he thought he wanted, he really didn't want.  What he thought he needed to do, he really didn't need to do.  The clueless privileged man now has a clue.
There's just something so golden and compassionate about Sturges in this film.  He likes people.  He cares for people.  He wants to give us hope.  The Coen Brothers have been influenced by his filmmaking but does their acclaimed work have that same spirit?  Think of Fargo and No Country for Old Men.  Sturges gives generous mentions to other directors, Capra and Lubitsch.  In my life journey, I wanted to leave California and make a name for myself in New York City.  I admit I long dreamed of getting an Emmy nomination -- local or national -- for my television work.  That's never happened.  Like "Sully," I wanted to do something serious on TV because making folks laugh in my work didn't feel like it was significant or getting me anywhere within the industry.  Unexpectedly, due the Recession, I got kicked down to broke-and-out-of-work millions of other working class Americans.  After 20 years of doing pretty well in New York, I lost my humble studio apartment because I had no income. I got a free one-way ticket from my wonderful airline employee cousin.  I gave most of my longtime possessions to charity organizations, and flew out West to live temporarily with a friend.  He had a spare room to offer.  On the streets, I did look at homeless people differently.  I did think to myself "There but for the grace of God..."  In these two years of jobhunting, I've often just needed a good laugh.  I'm currently living with relatives as I continue to pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.  And I'm living with them where my journey began.  California.  Just like John L. Sullivan, I've come back to where my personal story started.  Like him, I've learned that if I can be entertaining, that's a gift and I should use and bless it.  It's not important if I never do something dramatically Emmy-winning.  Maybe my purpose is to provide a few smiles and bring people to the art of films -- films like Sullivan's Travels.  When I saw this film on TCM a couple of months ago, what Sullivan said about this "this cock-eyed caravan" brought tears to my eyes.  It's so true.  Some of my favorite laughs in this picture?  The All-American kid with the home-made hot rod.
The two sisters, one of whom is a frilly and frisky widow.  It's a wonder Sullivan wasn't knocked over by the wind from her batting eyelashes.  He's a handsome young hobo who needs a bed for the night.  The frisky widow obliges.  We see that flirtatious Miz Zeffie would like to be in bed with him providing warmth.  Like a hot water bottle.
And there's the sharp, snappy, funny and substantial dialogue with Sullivan and his studio posse.  It's fast dialogue and good dialogue.  In Sturges world, his best writing is so good that even a bit player is a memorable, fully developed character. He liked good actors too.  He keeps the shot on them.  Not a lot of editing when they talk.  He lets their talent and energy drive the scenes.  As a director, he gets out of the way.
You catch a glimpse of Sturges himself in the movie.  After the church scene with the convicts, Sturges soon picks up the madcap Hollywood pace again with a film-within-a-film montage.  The Girl has become an actress.  Sturges stands behind her on the set when she sees exciting news that Sullivan can come back to her and Hollywood.
I love Sullivan's Travels.  It's part a part of my journey in life and I just shared why it's become more dear to me in my journey.  It blends slapstick and pathos..."but with a little sex."  Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels -- what a trip.  What a movie.  By the way, did you know Whoopi Goldberg tried to get the rights to remake this film?  I kid you not.  She told me that herself.  I didn't ask her which part she wanted to play.
Wish me luck on the jobhunt.

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