Hello everyone, and welcome to the very first installment of my new movie project, The Bucket List! I wrote an introductory piece last week, but just to be thorough, the whole gist of this series will be that I’m slowly working my way through all the various 1,001 Movies To See Before You Die lists. Obviously that means that there’s no real end to this thing, because I can’t imagine I’ll be spending the next 24 years of my life writing up one of these every week. But, for the time being I’ll be randomly selecting a movie from the history of the medium, and sharing my thoughts with you all. I won’t be featuring any film that was used in my Cinematic Century project, because that just feels like beating a dead horse, but I will potentially be talking about some films that I’ve already talked about a bit here on the site, such as today’s entry. Because I decided that I wasn’t going to disqualify movies I’ve already seen, and at the moment I’ve seen about a fourth of the films on the list, so there’ll be some that are completely new to me, and some that I have at least some familiarity with. We’ll be hoping all around the world and the history of film during this project, and I found myself getting very optimistic about it all when I randomized my spreadsheet and found that the first film I’d be talking about was one that I love quite a bit, and which ended up just barely not being talked about during Cinematic Century. Because 1941 proved to be a very robust year for great movies. The venerable Citizen Kane won out in my competition for that year, but Sullivan’s Travels was a close second. I first saw the film, and wrote about it, four years about while I was in the midst of a completely different project to see 366 movies that were new to me, and it stood out as one of the best movies I saw that year.
By 1941 Preston Sturgess had established himself as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and after three successfully helmed films, as a director as well. So, when he decided to make a new film about the world of filmmaking, which he sought to counter the dour tone that he felt was infecting most studio comedies at the time, Paramount was very interested. They bought Sturgess’s script and he set about making the film, bringing along Joel McCrea as his lead actor, who he’d specifically written the part for. And, after a search he ended up finding Veronica Lake to portray the female lead, which ended up becoming a tad problematic when Lake neglected to inform Sturgess that she was pregnant at the time of casting. This lead to some inventive wardrobe work from the famed Edith Head, and gained Lake a bit of acrimony from her fellow cast-mates and crew. And, mixed together with some issues with the filming of the movie, along with a fight with Charlie Chaplin over using footage of one of his shorts in the film, the movie ended up running quite over budget. And, as with quite a few movies from the time, the good old Hays Code didn’t make things easy either, ensuring that there was as little sex appeal in the film as humanely possible, while also shooting down the use of the word “bum,” for fear of British censors viewing it in a sexual manner. But, after some production woes the film was completed, and as with so many movies that I love, was released to a pretty tepid response. People found the movie to be a little harsher than Sturgess’ other films, a little too preachy, and it just generally didn’t find its audience. There were some critics at the time who appreciated it though, and over the years the film slowly started to grow in stature until it eventually became typically haled as Sturgess’ greatest film. And, it’s easy to see why, because this movie really has it all, and remains just as cutting today as it must have been in 1941.
The film tells the story of John L Sullivan, a young director working in Hollywood who is mostly known for making incredibly popular musicals and comedies. The world is his oyster, but he’s finding himself creatively unfulfilled. His studio loves him, because he’s one of the most profitable filmmakers working, but he wants to do something series, something important. He’s concocted a film that he calls O Brother, Where Art Thou? which he views as an exploration of the common, downtrodden man. His studio handlers really want him to not do that, and make another fun musical instead, but Sullivan insists that this serious project will be his next film. There’s only one problem. He’s been rich and successful his entire life, so he actually has no idea what makes the common man tick. But, he has a plan for that. He’s going to dress up as a tramp and try to make his way through the world, learning about the state of the world first hand. The studio isn’t pleased by this, so they decide to compromise. Sullivan will be allowed to wander the country as a hobo, and they will be closely following him in a bus, ready to save him at a moment’s notice. But, after fleeing from his handler in a high-speed chase, Sullivan ends up convincing them to give himself a bit of a leash, agreeing to meet him in Las Vegas if he can hitchhike there on his own. So, he gets to work, and ends up being taken straight back to Los Angeles.
Sullivan is dejected at this point, and after heading into a diner he ends up meeting a woman who is never given a name other than, the Girl. She’s a failed actress and is getting ready to leave town and give up on her dreams, but she shows Sullivan some kindness by buying him breakfast, assuming he really is down on his luck. So, to thank her, Sullivan informs her that he’ll drive her back across the country to her home. He slips back to his mansion and takes one of his cars, telling her that he knows the director, and the two begin driving together while Sullivan teaches her about the movie industry. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell anyone he was taking the car, so it’s reported stolen and he’s promptly arrested. And, to get out of jail he’s forced to come clean with the Girl, telling her everything. She’s fascinated by Sullivan and this whole thing he’s doing, so she ends up agreeing to go with him as he attempts to try this again. The get dressed up and actually end up doing it right this time. They ride the rails, they eat at soup kitchens, they sleep in homeless shelters, and after a while Sullivan decides he’s experienced enough to bring O Brother, Where Art Thou? to life. So, he and the Girl return home, and production begins on the film, while Sullivan is publicized as a genius. The Girl then decides she wants to pursue a relationship with Sullivan, but he’s unable to because he’s technically married, and trapped in a con where his estranged wife is extorting him for money.
So, with Sullivan’s task completed, he decides to give something back to the homeless population. He heads down to the worst part of town with a bunch of money, hoping to hand it out. But, he ends up encountering a man who previously stole his shoes when he was pretending to be a hobo, and the man ends up attacking Sullivan and stealing the money. Sullivan is wounded in the process, and falls into a train with amnesia, being carried out of town. The man who attacked him is killed, and his body is identified as Sullivan thanks to him wearing the shoes he had stolen. Sullivan ends up being arrested for hitching a ride on the train, and because he can’t remember who he is he’s sent to a labor camp for six years. And, while working in the camp he slowly starts to remember who he is, until he has a beautiful moment watching a Disney cartoon with the other convicts, where he sees them joyfully laughing at the movie. And, at that point Sullivan realizes that there’s still great worth at being able to make people laugh, and ends up communicating with the studio, who come to rescue him. He returns to Los Angeles, and finds that his wife has officially left him, thinking he was dead, so he’s free to marry the Girl, and get on with his life, finding a new zeal for making movies that make people happy.
I’ve always been a sucker for movies about movies. It’s a fascinating world, and getting a little voyeuristic peek behind the curtain to see how the films that I love so much actually get made is always going to be fun. And, I specifically really love seeing comedic takes on the filmmaking process, because they honestly end up feeling a little more truthful. Much like how seeing Coen Brothers movies seems more accurate to the average criminal than someone like Michael Mann, Preston Sturgess shows the process of making movies as a silly endeavor of people making it up as they go along, having no real idea what they’re doing, other than a desire to make some money. Sullivan’s Travels is a very funny movie, full of goofy slapstick moments that really do end up feeling like how the businessmen at a movie studio would be acting if their golden goose decided he needed to radically change what had made him such a huge success up until that point. And, Joel McCrea portrays Sullivan wonderfully, giving us a character who really does seem to earnestly want to learn more about the world, but is just too sheltered and dumb to realize what that entails. He thinks it should be easy to just snap his fingers and become a man of the world who can understand the plight of the common man, and his frustration at the realization that he may never be able to do so, thanks to his privilege, is quite a funny thing to see. He’s a rather tragic character, someone who really does seem to be living the high life, but who isn’t getting any sort of real fulfillment out of it, assuming that there’s something more important and serious he should be doing with his life, only to realize that what he’s doing it plenty important.
Because, as become increasingly clear in a world gone mad, we need the ability to laugh more than ever. I know that some people can take the end of this movie in a sort of cynical light, assuming that it’s a patronizing message that movies “about” something aren’t ever going to be as popular as dumb crowd-pleasers, which ends up being some sort of indictment on the tastes of the masses, but I really do end up seeing the film in a positive light. Because, the world really sucks. People of all generations are faced with near constant stress and bad news, and there’s really nothing wrong with a little escapism. I love movies, of all different shapes and sizes, so I’ve never quite understood the need to be a snob and mock those who prefer for populist types of movies. I’m quite happy watching a Tarkovsky movie in the morning and a Marvel movie in the afternoon. And, sometimes what you need most in the world is a bit of fun. John Sullivan ends up realizing by the end of the film that the whole time he’s been searching for something to bring meaning to his life he’s been making people happy. When he finally gets his wish, and experiences the life of a down-trodden man, he realizes that the slight bit of solace that he can get watching something designed to make him happy has a certain type of power he never recognized. We often take comedy for granted, thinking that it’s just some slight distraction from the seriousness of the world. But, it can really help people cope with a world gone mad.
I think I’m going to end every one of these articles with a kind of final summation, and my opinion on whether or not this really is a movie that you should try to see before you die. And, as if it wasn’t clear enough, I highly recommend this film to people. It’s funny, it has a good message, and it’s a pretty easy film to get into even if you don’t have much experience with films made before you were born. If you like stories about movies, comedies, or just want to see some slapstick hobo action, I hope you’ll seek it out.
Sullivan’s Travels was written and directed by Preston Sturgess and released by Paramount Pictures, 1941.
Categories: The Bucket LIst