Reel Talk

Sullivan’s Travels and the Legitimacy of Comedy

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I’ve mentioned before that this year I’m trying to complete the Doug Loves Movies Challenge, where I’m trying to see 366 movies I haven’t seen before in 2016. I’m doing pretty well, but I quickly made the decision that I wasn’t going to try and write an article for every one of the movies, because I would go mad and burn out. So I’ve been keeping up with my tradition of writing up any movie I see in the theater, and will occasionally write up one of the movies I come across that really get to me. Which I’ve honestly been slacking on. I’ve been watching a lot of garbage lately, stuff that I’ve been picking more because they had short run-times and were on Netflix, but every now and then I’ve come across some really amazing movies. And I did just that the other day when I watched an amazing movie that may be destined to become on of my favorite films of all time. And that movie is Preston Sturges’ 1942 classic Sullivan’s Travels.

I’m not sure when I first heard about this movie, but I would wager that it was in reference of another of my favorite movies, the Coen Brothers wonderful O Brother, Where Art Thou? And the reason that these two movies are often linked is because Sullivan’s Travels follows a directors attempts to make a movie about the common man in the Great Depression that he insists should be called “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” And really, that’s all I knew about the movie going in. This was my first Sturges Preston film, and I wasn’t even that familiar with the man or his work, and didn’t even know what kind of tone Sullivan’s Travels would try to make. I wasn’t even positive if the movie that Sullivan was trying to make was an any way similar to the Coen Brothers movie. Because I totally wouldn’t put it past the Coens to make a feature-length gag. And what I found was a genuinely hilarious, fascinating little movie about the process of making movies, and really any sort of art, that I really loved, and that spoke to me in a very real way.

The plot of the movie is pretty simple, and great. We follow John L Sullivan, a young film director who seems to be living the life in Hollywood. He makes immensely popular screwball comedies and musicals that the public just eat up, earning him and the studio a lot of money. But Sullivan doesn’t want to just make entertaining trash. he wants to be an artist. And director making real movies about real problems for real people. He feels like a sell-out and is desperate to change that. So he comes up with the idea of making a new movie called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? which he hopes will be an honest look at the struggle the lower class is going through. The only problem is that Sullivan has lived a life of leisure. He’s been successful and rich since he was in his early twenties, and has never known struggle or strife. He has no idea how the other half lives, and has had no pain to create art from. But instead of that scaring him off the project, he decides to do something crazy. He’s going to disguise himself as a hobo and start hitchhiking around the country, trying to pull an investigative journalism type thing where he’ll research how the downtrodden live by pretending to be downtrodden. So he makes a deal with his producers and his employees to meet him in Las Vegas, and sets out to prove that he can live like a poor person.

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Unfortunately it becomes quickly evident that Sullivan is a terrible hobo, and after a day of strenuous hitch-hiking, he ends up even closer to home than he started out. So he thinks about giving up, and goes to a diner to think things through. And it’s there that he comes across a woman that we only know as The Girl, a failed actress who is getting ready to leave Hollywood and return home. But she does something sweet, and offers to buy Sullivan breakfast, assuming he’s really a hobo. The two hit it off, and agree to start travelling together. So he goes and grabs his car from the studio and the two head out on the road. But he neglected to tell the studio that he would be taking the car, so he’s arrested for stealing his own car, and is picked up by his producers. He then has to come clean to the Girl about how he’s really a millionaire doing an insane social experiment, and after she’s a little pissed at him, she decides that his experiment is a good idea, and agrees to help him for real.

So the two dress up like hobos and hit the road, trying to actually get things right. Which they don’t. They do better than last time, but they end up hitching a ride on the wrong train, and just get to Las Vegas, where his men are waiting to help him, and he just gives up. But he decides he got enough research, and starts a big publicity tour to tell people about his upcoming movie that will finally shine a light on the life of people who have it rough. But things go wrong when Sullivan decides he’s going to go down to Skid Row and pass out money to all the homeless people there as a thank you for their “help.” And when he goes down, he’s attacked and robbed. Sullivan then loses his memory, and starts to think he’s actually a hobo, while the person who robs him is killed by a train, and since he had some of Sullivan’s identification, the world thinks Sullivan is dead. So the real Sullivan is wandering around, dazed, and ends up getting arrested and sent to a jail, still not knowing who he is. That is until his chain gang is allowed to watch a Disney short about Pluto, which help him regain his memory, and realize that people need comedy in their life just as much as they  need drama. So now that he knows who he is, Sullivan manages to prove who he is and get out of jail by claiming that he’s the one who murdered “Sullivan” so that his picture could get in the paper and people could identify him. And once that’s done, he goes back to his great like with the Girl, and things go back to normal for him.

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I really loved this movie. I tend to enjoy any movie that’s about moviemaking, because I find the whole world fascinating, especially when it’s kind of bitter and cynical like this movie. Sullivan’s Travels doesn’t really pull any punches, and shows that Hollywood has always been putting out garbage that people claim is the downfall of cinema. Sullivan is a master of trash cinema, he’d be making big action blockbusters if he was around today. And I feel like the studio’s reluctance to let their cash-cow try something new would play out exactly the same way if the story was occurring now. It just seems so spot on with it’s skewering of Hollywood, and the culture of money over art. But that ending really got to me too. I feel like more often than not it’s believed that drama is art, and comedy is entertainment. We generally don’t see comedies or genre pictures nominated for the Best Picture. They aren’t serious enough. They aren’t art. It’s only art if it’s depressing. And that’s ridiculous. Art is about invoking emotion, and a good movie of any genre can do that. A movie that can evoke sadness is just as artistic as one that can evoke laughter, or fear, or awe. It’s all art. Thinking that only drama can be art is so pretentious, and something that’s clearly been infecting Hollywood and mainstream criticism since the very beginning of the medium. That realization that a silly cartoon about Pluto the dog is just as important, if not perhaps more, than the depressing and realistic story Sullivan wanted to make is just spectacular. The world’s a shitty place, sometimes it’s nice to get a laugh out of a movie, and not a thoughtful meditation of the horrors of existence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that one either, but there should be a balance, and neither one is more or less artistic than the other, if made correctly.

The last thing I wanted to mention about this movie was the personal message that got to me in this movie. The whole premise is that Sullivan wants to make something gritty and full of truth, because that’s what art is. Art is about pain. It’s about having lived a bad life, and drawing on that torment to create something to move other people. That’s what he’s been led to believe, and that’s what’s still told today. The only problem is that he doesn’t have any problems! He’s had a nice life, and thinks it’s unfair that that excludes him from telling stories that have honesty in them. And man oh man does that click with me. I’m a white, middle-class, dude who grew up in the suburbs. My parents are still together. I haven’t had a lot of strife in my life. And yet, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, since I was in Elementary School, was tell stories. So I totally sympathize with Sullivan. I’ve been told over and over that the only way to tell a “real” story is to draw on your own personal pain and suffering. And while my life certainly hasn’t been perfect, there are millions of people who have had worse life’s than me, and I don’t want that to keep me from my dream. So keep going John Sullivan! Get your crazy dream accomplished, because it gives home to average, boring human beings like me!

Sullivan’s Travels was written and directed by Preston Sturges and released by Paramount Pictures, 1942.

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