Film Club: Sullivan’s Travels

Whew, this is a big one. There’s a lot to talk about in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, from the different actors, all at somewhere near their best, to the kinds of joke Preston Sturges feels he can get away with (i.e. all kinds), to the fact that it’s  a message movie whose message is that message movies are bad, and an attack on the social conscience film with a social conscience. “What’s wrong with Capra?” asks John L Sullivan. And Sturges gives us the answer.

We begin, famously, with an ending. The device may be borrowed from CITIZEN KANE’s newsreel, but there’s nothing to match the startling 90° angle change that yanks us out of the News on the March newsreel and into the smoky screening room, but one doesn’t go to Sturges for visual pyrotechnics. One sometimes gets them, though — the long crane shot down into Rex Harrison’s pupil that recurs in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, and the final shot of THE PALM BEACH STORY, which is technically impossible in at least two different ways, are examples.

Apart from the idea of the opening, there’s the execution — that exciting noir-style action climax, with big men gargling blood as they murder each other on the spine of a hurtling locomotive — it’s brilliant parody that doesn’t tip its hand AT ALL, suggesting Sturges could have made a good living as a sort of William Wellman back-up, had he not also been a genius at screwball satire.

Now the celebrated three-hander between Joel McCrea’s John Sullivan and his two producers, LeBrand (Robert Warwick) and Hadrian (Porter Hall). I think it was Regular Shadowplayer Mark Medin who pointed out the existence of producer William LeBaron, a real-life Paramount exec, upon whom LeBrand might be modeled. (LeBaron had actually just lost his job at the studio and been replaced by the pernicious Buddy DeSylva). It’s striking how sympathetic the producers are — they seem a lot more clear-headed than Sully at this point, although of course all they’re interested in is the commercial angle. (It’s the Sullivan household butler who encapsulates Sturges’s thinking on the subject of the proposed social realist epic, O Brother Where Art Thou?)

Robert Warwick is a surprising player for Sturges, since he’s so dignified and patrician, and Sturges doesn’t deflate his dignity, while still getting good laughs out of him. Porter Hall makes an excellent foil by virtue of his height contrast and his cigar, which marks him as fine movie exec material before he even opens his mouth, which he does as little as possible lest his cigar drop out. Yapping around his stogie like an angry terrier, Hall is so effective a comedian that it’s a shock to see his amazing range demonstrated in something like INTRUDER IN THE DUST.

Accounts suggest that Sturges made the office scene in a single, long, elaborate take on a bet with either producer Paul Jones or cinematographer John Seitz (DOUBLE INDEMNITY), although we see similarly enormous shots in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK and others. I wonder how many takes? Sturges’ shooting ratio seems to have risen enormously when he no longer had Jones to supervise him, and it’s likely that the “delightful, pixie-like” (does this mean gay?) Jones served as a useful shield between Sturges and Paramount. No creative change is visible, at least to me, after Jones departs and Sturges starts producing himself, but a sympathetic manager might have sustained Sturges’s career longer. Jones later produced Jerry Lewis movies, including ROCK-A-BYE BABY, a (very, very, extremely) loose reworking of MIRACLE.

With his whole mission statement laid out in one bravura scene, Sturges now turns to lampooning his hero mercilessly, starting with the way butler Robert Greig (Hollywood’s perennial portly manservant: the butler’s union should erect a silver statue to him) performs a ruthless ideological demolition of the very idea of documenting the lives of the poor. The speech is powerful and dazzlingly articulate, and Sturges is careful to take the curse of its pomposity via the skilled deployment of Eric Blore, a wondrous silly-ass comedian here playing Sully’s valet. His association with Preston Sturges goes all the way back to THE GOOD FAIRY, where he even manages to out-over-act Reginald Owen and Frank Morgan. A tireless ham, Blore will stop at nothing to get a laugh, cycling through comedy reactions at high speed, shamelessly mugging and grimacing — I fondly recall a nice moment in THE GAY DIVORCEE when he does his OUTRAGED!!! expression for absolutely no reason, just because he was feeling left out, perhaps, and gets one of the biggest laughs of the (delightful) film.

Despite Greig’s forceful denunciation of Sullivan’s quest, some objections could be made to his argument, and some of them seem to be expressed in the movie itself, albeit silently. Because even though we’ve just been told that filmmakers can do nothing for the poor (except entertain them, the film will add), SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS does include the long, music-only journey through the Inferno of homelessness and poverty. Sturges doesn’t include that lightly. And of course, we do expect films to deal with reality, and with ideas, however entertaining we also wish them to be. Having demolished Sullivan’s idea of awareness-raising, the movie offers its own, alternative model, but it doesn’t preach about it.

(The IMDB suggests that the film was inspired by John Garfield’s dragging himself up as a tramp and riding the rails in order to get into character for depression-set dramas; Sturges lays the blame of Frank Capra’s heavy-handed proselytizing for — what, exactly? — compassionate capitalism?)

Enter the land yacht, and a good portion of the Sturges stock company. William Demarest is underused in this movie — he’s so forceful a player that he acquires unintended import whenever he manages to grab a second of screen time — but you can’t have a plum role for every player in every movie. Frank Moran is memorably himself, mashed-up face and all, and Franklin Pangborn compliments these tromboning thesps with his own dramaturgical instrument, the flute. Charles R Moore is maybe the only bum note, since this is one of Sturges’s occasional ethnic embarrassments, a black cook characterized as dopey, sleepy, and suitable for degrading slapstick (he gets whited up by a bowl of cream during the chase scene. Ugh. A similar joke in Spielberg’s 1941, where Frank McRae is pelted with flour, is actually more sensitive and even progressive by comparison. There, I’ve found one area where 1941 beats SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. Excluding model shots, I challenge anyone to find another.) Here are Moore’s credits. They make disheartening reading. In THE PALM BEACH STORY, he is at least an uneducated savant character, speaking words of wisdom (“She’s alone but she don’t know it.”) Not so here.

Nevertheless, that chase is pretty good, with the William Tell Overture really lifting it — one of the best bits of Keystone-inspired slapstick in any PS movie. It’s nothing to do with the quality of joke, just the pace and brutality of it. Plus secretary Margaret Hayes making the most of her legs and ass. Sturges takes the “with a little bit of sex” thing quite seriously, (“A leg is better than an ankle,” was one of his rules of movie-making) and Hayes spends the ensuing dialogue scene rubbing her sore butt in quite a distracting way.

With the “six acts of vaudeville” sent off to Vegas, Sullivan can now go looking for trouble as originally planned. He immediately finds it, in the unexpected form of randy widow Esther Howard. Esther is a sensational comedian and I’m always stunned to see her in uncredited small roles: WHAT A WAY TO GO! ought to lead with her name in its credits, even though she only appears for twenty seconds, because she is the living guarantee of pleasure. Almira Sessions plays her grumpy sister, the kind of part that might equally well have gone to Margaret Hamilton (who belatedly joined the Sturges troupe in BASHFUL BEND THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK). Sessions is another underrated joy who appeared for PS many times.

One of Sturges’s most outrageous jokes is the late Mr Joseph Kornheiser, who appears as a photograph on the wall, reacting to his widow’s frisky behaviour with increasing dismay. We never see his facial expression change, but it’s different each time we see him: the effect is partially a subjective one, maybe occurring in Sullivan’s mind. But not entirely. This cartoon humour perhaps prepares us for the importance of a Walt Disney toon later… (I’m unable to discover who played Mr K.)

Another swipe at “deep-dish movies” as Sully suffers through a triple feature (the unseen movie has a soundtrack of pained groaning) in the presence of the lusty Esther and her disapproving sister, as well as a cross-section of the Great American Public he wants to educate.

Escape! With a bit of sub-Laurel & Hardy barrel-falling. “What you fall into?” “Everything there was.”

After hitching a ride back to square one, McRea at last meets Veronica Lake, 22 minutes in. (“There’s always a girl in the picture.”) Waiting for her would be agony if the film weren’t so terrific. Great chemistry between the two: the hot McCrea and the cool Lake. As is pointed out on the Criterion DVD commentary, McCrea is odd casting, on the face of it, for an Ivy league college boy hotshot would-be intellectual film director. He was grateful to Sturges “for proving I could act without a horse under me.” (Further evidence: Jacques Tourneur’s STARS IN MY CROWN.) When Sturges told McCrea he wanted him, McCrea, whose real-life modesty informs his acting, said, “Nobody wants me. They want Gary Gooper and get me.”

It’s brilliant casting: the cowboy actor’s innate straightforwardness assures us that his pretensions and foolishness can be cast off as the story progresses.

Lake wasn’t a regular Sturges collaborator, although he was heavily involved as writer and producer in her other funniest and sexiest film, I MARRIED A WITCH. He’d spotted her back in I WANTED WINGS, where director Mitchell Leisen and her co-stars hadn’t exactly taken to her. That may have been a plus with Sturges, who didn’t generally appreciate Leisen’s handling of his scripts. For Sturges she was tough but cooperative, insisting on doing her own stunts (including falling from a moving train) despite her pregnancy, which she concealed from him until shooting had begun. It then became Sturges and Edith Head’s job to conceal the pregnancy from the audience.

Sturges has a surprisingly grisly side: the tale of the washed-up director who shot himself, and “They had to repaper the room.” Since Sullivan has just referred to a fictitious deep-dish picture called HOLD BACK TOMORROW (like O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? this was eventually made) I wonder if Sturges has been thinking of HOLD BACK THE DAWN, directed by Leisen and featuring a hotel suicide early on?

Pausing only to fall in the pool with McCrea, Lake joins his quest in tramp drag. The freight train action looks forward to the Coen brothers’ mash-up of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, Homer’s Odyssey and thirties folk  legend, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, which also features chain gangs and convicts in a movie show. The cross-dressing heroine is a stable element of hobo movies going back at least as far as William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE, where Louise Brooks looks fetching as a boy) and more recently his WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Wellman later married his dragged up leading lady).

By the kind of reckless coincidence Sturges never gave a damn about avoiding, our moth-eaten duo find themselves in Vegas, reunited with the studio land yacht and are happy to accept its hospitality. I love the triple-pronged emotion of (1) the guy in the diner giving them free breakfast (2) Sturges getting the studio people to send him a $100 tip (3) Margaret Hayes speculating that this will probably ruin the guy — “He’ll give turkey dinners to every slug that comes in and never hit the jackpot again.”

Shower scene #1 of 2.

Diagnosed with swine fever, Sully is forced to travel by land yacht. McCrea, playing a man a little groggy and a little dim, is excellent here: the way he drones on with his choked-up voice, falling in love with Veronica without realizing it. Fiona’s favourite line may be his sickly protest at Lake’s desire to accompany him on his lone quest: “How can I be alone if you’re with me?”

Finally, the mission is embarked on properly, via a long musical montage. This could be a cop-out, but I certainly find it quite affecting, as do several fellow-viewers I now of. It’s a sequence that Sullivan’s butler would not have included. The clue may be provided by a quotation Sturges offered (although he wasn’t sure who said it originally, possibly Bramwell Fletcher Brander Matthews, whose book on dramatics inspired him to write): “A playwright should show conditions but let the audience draw conclusions.” If the music here is sentimental, and the comedy asides lessen the impact, the upcoming violent attack on Sullivan will show that the solemn butler had a point.

Before the sequence ends, though, there’s a mystery — the legs in the tree. Barely visible in frame grabs, they are inescapable in the film, at least once you’ve  had them pointed out. Male trousered legs, hanging from a tree.  They don’t seem in keeping with the mood of the scene, so one can’t accept that they represent a character who’s hanged himself and has been included to undercut the romanticism. How to explain them?

1) A man sitting on a branch. We’re meant to know that’s what he is, but the framing renders the limbs ambiguous. Perhaps a wider shot was taken and not used.

2) Crewmember. Nobody noticed a lighting guy in shot, or it was assumed he was concealed by foliage.

3) Depressed munchkin. Fired for being too tall, this failed dwarf wandered around Hollywood for three years before finding his way to Paramount and making away with himself on the set.

Anyhow, abruptly the plot thickens and the tone shifts — rather than allow Sully to pull off his quest without mishaps (the film could actually be heading for a happy ending here, apart from the romantic entanglement and the problem that Sullivan is married), Sturges sets about punishing his hero for intruding on the privacy of the poor. Claiming he had no idea how he was going to end the movie, he sets about robbing the protag of everything: wealth, health, privilege and even identity. The blow on the head gives Sully MOVIE AMNESIA, a kind which doesn’t actually exist in reality: if you’re so brain-damaged that you don’t know your own name, it appears to be impossible for you to be walking and talking. To render a man nameless you’d have to either strip him of language altogether or destroy all his memories since he learned his name, which amounts to the same thing, only worse. Needless to say, Movie Amnesia is so dramatically useful that its medical nonexistence is unlikely to stop it being used.

Via a nightmarish vaseline-smeared trial scene (like the jury of the damned in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER), our hero finds himself on a chain gang supervised by “Mister”, a cameo by Al Bridge, a much-loved member of the Sturges company. Bridge, a seedy bulldog-faced wreck of a figure, with a delightfully dry, nasal delivery, has never played a brute before in a PS film, but he seems to relish the chance. I like his lawyer in MORGAN’S CREEK and his Buffalo Bill in THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK. I wonder how many Sturges players could have pulled off a villainous role like this? Porter Hall certainly could.

I’m also interested in the humanizing touches Sturges supplies Mister with — his cheerful chat with the sheriff delivering prisoners, and his taking the prisoners to a movie show. The first scene actually accentuates the horror, since this family man is capable of unspeakable brutality in the working part of his neatly compartmentalized life. The movie show is perhaps a plot device first and a piece of characterisation second. But Mister is more than a one-dimensional ogre: he contains the banality of evil and a few of those graces which are too small to be called “saving”.

Also present is Jimmy Conlin as a prison trusty, and here I cannot better Manny Farber’s description of “a one-thousand-year-old locust wearing an enormous brass hat.” The hat being the Conlin cranium, a hydrocephalic mountain of bone, hovering above his face like that Max Ernst Rene Magritte painting of a floating rock. Little Jimmy is a precious jewel to have in any film, on visual terms alone — he adds production values that cannot be priced — but he’s also a terrific actor.

The movie show brings to light part of the film’s tonal structure: this story repeats itself, first as farce, then as tragedy. If Charles R Moore’s cook is a rather undignified, racist caricature, the black churchgoers here are noble and sympathetic. I like the minister (Jess Lee Brooks, in maybe his only substantial role) — any embarrassment caused by his role is due to the difficulty of making comedy about a priest, when American cinema demanded that such figures be treated with respect. A little levity is permissible, but only if it’s not actually funny.

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS has unusual problems to face because in a sense it is a comedy about comedy.  Chaplin didn’t really manage to say anything about his art in THE CIRCUS, where he works as a clown. The assumption tends to be that explaining jokes is bad for business, and not funny. Showing comedy is popular; showing what comedy IS, is often a turn-off. Some people will find the church scene a moving testimony to the power of laughter, some will find it a little gestural. It obviously illustrates the power of laughter, but does it move us to feel it? Maybe the film has done its work so well up to now that it doesn’t matter — we know what the scene means, and we’re confident the story will resume in earnest once this point has been put across. And maybe, if we assume the childlike naivety Cocteau recommends, we will be moved in spite of ourselves.

Would this sequence have been better with a Charlie Chaplin short, as Sturges had planned? I expect so, as something really funny seems to be called for, if we’re going to be moved at the same time. A Warner Bros cartoon might have suited better than Disney, too, although I see the need for the film to be silent. Pluto does lose a certain amount if you take away the soundtrack and replace it with a wheezing organ. A good Chaplin could have added another layer of nuance to the film’s message, since Chaplin didn’t leave the suffering of the world out of his films — Sullivan would have realized that dealing with reality was necessary for art, but that reality needs to be transfigured by aesthetics into something illuminating. Something that gives some kind of pleasure to the people who give their time and money to see the show.

Having robbed his hero of everything, Sturges discovered that he still had laughter, and this resolves the emotional arc of the film. His emotional block removed, Sullivan can now solve his more physical problems, thinking his way out of trouble and attracting media attention by confessing to his own murder. He’s immediately released, despite having been convicted of an unrelated assault on a railway employee — “They don’t lock people like me up for things like this” — as in MORGAN’S CREEK and numerous others, Sturges is quite happy to exploit the world’s corruption to bring about a happy ending. His miracles only do half the work, human folly and venality do the rest, and everything works out sort of OK, except society.

Sturges wrote that the biggest problem he faced was deciding in which order to solve the various narrative problems he’d given himself, and he particularly struggled with placing the solution to the issue of Sullivan’s wife. He recommends study of the film as an interesting case of intractable narrative difficulties, and doesn’t think he came up with a satisfactory answer. But in the mad sprint to the finish line of this wonderful film, speed comes to his rescue and the solution seems wholly satisfactory. SOMETHING about the ending still bothers a lot of people — “Boy!” — perhaps an over-explicitness about theme, which is laboured over by dialogue, and a Vorkapich-montage of laughing faces, with accompanying glorious music. All I can say is, it never bothered me when I saw the film as a kid.

(Sturges cameos, between Veronica Lake and the stepladder.)

Preston Sturges [DVD]

46 Responses to “Film Club: Sullivan’s Travels”

  1. Wow. I’m breathless.

  2. The fact the film being shown to the chain-gang is so slight and not, say, a Chaplin is what makes the scene so affecting for me, although this might be unintentional. It’s moving *because* I don’t share their reaction; it says that these people are just desperate to laugh at *something*. Had the comedy shown been more sophisticated then the scene might have come across as preachy.
    And as far as I’m concerned those legs definitely belong to a hanged man. It strikes me as the perfect end to a montage showing two people fallng deeper in love against the backdrop of a grotesque national tragedy. And doesn’t it also show Sully cured of his bleeding heart?

  3. P.S. Brilliant review. Sorry, yes.

  4. Good point about the film. Since Sully’s revelation is that even the simplest entertainment has value, it sets him back on the path to make Ants in Your Plants of 1941. Had he seen The Kid, he might have tried to make Sullivan’s Travels.

  5. When I interviewed Gore Vidal a few years back and Sturges came up in conversation he immediately performed Robert Greig’s speech to Joel McCrea down to the slightest inflection. Took my breath away.

  6. “Who goes to the Music Hall? Communists!”

    “If they knew what they wanted they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.”

    “But with a little sex.”

    And this is just in the first few minutes! Frankly we don’t deserve movies this good.

    Sturges starts by lampooning “message pictures” then heads into the heart of “message pcitures” ending with no “message” at all.

    The finale in many ways echoes the ending of Vidor’s The Crowd.

    Someone I used to know brought the prop book of “O Brother Where Art Thou” at auction somewhere. It’s immortal author? “Sinclair Beckstein.”

    (The Coens can go Cheney themselves.)

  7. The Crowd connection is an interesting one, since Vidor’s movie COULD appear to be the kind of thing Sturges is lampooning.

    “Sinclair Beckstein” is just perfect!

    The last shot of modern times is the backdrop on my PC right now.

  8. Randy Cook Says:

    Brander Matthews, not Bramwell Fletcher…but other than that, nothing to disagree with… except that Maragret Hamilton joined the Sturges troupe in DIDDLEBOCK.

    I agree with David E that we “don’t deserve movies this good”—but then again, how often do we get ’em?

    I BELIEVE that the late husband is Paul Jones…not 100% certain. I also believe that the swimming pool they fall into was Sturges’ own: its current location being thin air, floating above the Hollywood Freeway, at Ivar.

    Thanks for the lovely synopsis of Sturges’ many virtues. And, in response to your MAJOR THOMPSON article, I think Sturges still had “it” at the end. Years ago I read some of the scripts at UCLA & I remember NOTHING DOING being particularly good.

  9. Wow. Excellent review and analysis. I am anzious to revisit this classic all over again!

    Maybe twice.

  10. Then who the hell’s Bramwell Fletcher? Ah, laughing boy in The Mummy! Fist I confuse him with David Manners, then with Brander Matthews.

    I realise that making a previously unfilmed Sturges script today would present problems for any director… but I’d like to see someone try it.

  11. I’ve read the same about Jones being the dear departed husband, which dovetails with the other inside-joke aspects which are more pervasive in this film than in his others. Being that it’s about Hollywood, it makes sense.

    The other person who could have done Mister (and the one I was most surprised didn’t, because Sturges usually gave him rather big character roles) was Demarest, with his quick temper, but Al Bridge is a more inspired choice. He had the same vinegar puss and nasality that was epitomized by Ned Sparks. I don’t think I ever saw either smile much (Sparks did once that I know of, and it’s more shocking than seeing Buster Keaton’s smile). Porter Hall is a good choice. He could be rather seedy and nasty when called for (I remember also his blackmailer in The Princess Comes Across), and his lack of height would have made a good contrast with how much power he wielded over the towering McCrea.

  12. Christopher Says:

    More movies like Hey Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants Of 1939!
    I always liked the Butlers little speech to Sullivan on the poor!…Modern hollywood take note!

  13. Demarest might work, and it would never do to underestimate a good actor. I just wonder if we’ve seen his anger too often in comedies to find him threatening in drama. Still, Porter Hall is such a revelation in Intruder in the Dust, anything’s possible. To paraphrase Eddie Bracken, I knew the Sturges stock company could do just about anything, but I never knew they could do THIS.

  14. Jenny Eardley Says:

    It occured to me that if there hadn’t been an about-face at the happy ending, it would take the edge off the romance for me. What would happen, he’d get her a job, or give her a job? Or if she wasn’t talented enough she’d live a life of leisure? By sending him off to apparent death she has to battle adversity to succeed. The studio say they’ll look after her but it’s not quite the same as being helped along by her lover.

    ‘Cool’ was the word I had for Veronica’s opening in the caff too. I particularly liked her little skit, pretending he’s a Hollywood big-shot she has to ingratiate herself to. Maybe that was Sturges’ way of showing that the character is an entertaining comedy actress and isn’t just fooling herself – and showing that Sully sees her act, even though she won’t do a recital.

    Is Bramwell Fletcher the one whose alcoholism helped me win some DVDs off Mr Cairns? Or is it because he makes me think of Wilfred Bramble? This is getting confusing.

  15. Wilfred Lawson… Wilfred Bramble… Bramwell Fletcher. A remarkable line of actors, connected only by their names! Lawson’s the one whose locked room mystery you solved. Actually, I just acquired an early Lawson movie, now what was it? Ah, Pygmalion, yes.

    You’re right, it’s nice that when Sullivan and “the girl” are reunited, she already has a career.

  16. Bravo, David! *Very* nicely done.

    Thought I should add that the gag with the changing faces on the portrait was, I believe, used in the Stevens-directed “Swing Time,” in the early sequence where Astaire is with Betty Furness and he has yet to meet Rogers.

    For the referentiality of “Sullivan’s Travels” … isn’t there mention of Mary Martin, who’s offered as part of a deal to Sully, and a trailer left over from DeMille’s “North West Mounted Police”? Actually, Sturges himself did an uncredited job of directing Martin in “New York Town” — he was called in to reshoot the finale — the same year as “Sullivan’s Travels.” (IMDb tells us that the cast of “New York Town” includes such Sturges-ites as Akim Tamiroff and Eric Blore.)

    I, myself, have always been put off by the laughing faces at the end of “Sullivan’s” and by the title card at its beginning. Doesn’t the latter use the phrase “merry mountebanks”? If it doesn’t, it might just as well’ve. Somehow, such stuff brings the word “edifying” to mind — in its most pejorative sense.

  17. Gloria Mann Craft Says:

    Brilliant review of one of my most favorite films ever David,(for obvious reasons)…
    Aunt Connie would have adored it…..I am sure she would have had some snappy comeback for you “a la Sturges” I had the pleasure of hearing her her tell this tail, seated at her feet…enrapt:
    “There’s a girl in the real film, a girl trying to break into the movies, who joins forces with the fictitious director. Together they bum across the country. And for some unexplainable, glorious and celestial reason, Preston Sturges suggested me for the part to Paramount”s brass. “NO!” That was their initial response. “She’s a great siren but no comic. Sultry, yes. Funny,no”. Preston replied;” I think she could do it”. Paramount:”She’s a great looking dame with a great chest and nutty hair, but she’s no actress”.
    “I want her for three reasons,Preston told them. “One,she’s the hottest bet in Hollywood right now.Two,she photographs GREAT!. Three,She’ll do what I tell her to do and she’ll do it fine.” How on earth could I tell him I was pregnant? GOD BLESS PRESTON STURGES!”
    God bless indeed. Thank you again David. I think it was made in May 1941…perfect timing for a perfect tale.

  18. Jenny Eardley Says:

    It was “motley mountebanks” – I liked that too, I’m going to use it in a sentence tomorrow.

  19. “With Grim Death gargling at you from every streetcorner.”

  20. Arthur S. Says:

    I don’t see ”The Crowd” as being something that Sturges would lampoon since Vidor’s film is mostly a comedy though also a sociological drama. Vidor’s film is about how the complete failure and loser of the American Dream can still retain something human and heroic about it, which is an essentially comic theme. It explains why Vidor and Sturges loved Chaplin so much, since, in the words of Jonathan Rosenbaum, “no other artist, except Dickens, understood what it meant to be poor.” That’s what The Crowd and Sturges’ film is about. Not poverty as a condition in need for political and social reform but what it means to be poor and that’s something very profound.

    Basically it’s against making a message movie about poverty to wax sentimentality and righteous anger. It isn’t against the intentions at all, which are absolutely sincere in the case of John Sullivan who isn’t an opportunist shilling for Oscars or respectability as one can say Capra or Stanley Kramer might be or are seen as. He is sincerely interested in the problem and is searching for his answer with all his flaws and limitations.

    What makes ”Sullivan’s Travels” so unusual among Hollywood films about itself is that it is about aesthetic issue as opposed to movies about how screenwriters are oppressed or producers are evil or how actors/actresses are persecuted. It’s about how do you make a particular kind of movie and what kind of style and intentions you should carry to it and I can’t think of any American film that positions this kind of responsibility which Sturges places on Sullivan as an artist. In fact on any film about artists, well Altman to some extent in his film TANNER ON TANNER but that’s a TV mini-series.

  21. What helps redeem the “edifying” comments at the start of ST is precisely the oddness of the language, which makes it entertaining. It IS a little on the nose, and I wish we had Sturges’s prologue to The Great Moment, which strikes me as superior in its use of irony.

    Mary Martin, Bob Hope and Rochester are all mentioned as potential cast for Ants in Your Plants. It seems to be along the lines of the Big Broadcast series of films.

    There was a huge list of actresses put forward by the studio for role of “The Girl” — everybody at Paramount and everybody elsewhere they thought they could get. Sturges went with his first choice, God bless him!

    Perhaps Sullivan’s error is that he wants to make a film about poverty because he knows its an important and terrible issue, but he hasn’t thought enough, or maybe at all, about what his film will offer the audience, what it will accomplish. His motivation is decent but what he wants to achieve is actually unformed and uninformed.

  22. It’s Fin du Cinema day at Dennis Cooper’s. How many of these “The End”(s) can you name?

  23. Chuck Stephens Says:

    Nice piece.

    Just curious, though: 1] why the anachronistic use of your descriptive “noir-style” to characterize a sequence meant to evoke pre-noir 30s crime flicks?, 2] I assume you’re using “Vorkapich-montage” as a generic term (such use always strikes me as, well, somewhat fuzzy), and 3] I’m pretty sure that “Max Ernst painting of a floating rock” you’re thinking of is by Magritte.

    And about those mystery legs: they are mysterious, aren’t they? They do, however, fit exceptionally well, in visual and thematic terms, with the pair of shots which bracket it: Lake’s sign about Moe being unfair to “union pants-makers” just before, and the top-of-the-frameline scrimming of pants/laundry in the shot which follows.

  24. 1) You’re perhaps right that this is too loose, but of course the noir style does exist to some extent before the classic noir period begins.

    2) I am indeed using the Vorkapich as a generic term rather than attributing the sequence to the great Slavko. Such usage may be fuzzy but it was a Hollywood commonplace, and the sequence is somewhat in the SV style (although had he shot the elements and cut this I bet he’d have made something more impressive).

    3) Damn, you’re right, The Domain of Arnheim is a Magritte.

    The legs might also fit in with the importance of footwear in the story.

  25. Chuck Stephens Says:

    “the sequence is somewhat in the SV style (although had he shot the elements and cut this I bet he’d have made something more impressive).”

    I totally agree, and that’s the only reason I evoked that fuzziness: SV was a genius; his many manques, not so much.

  26. Christopher Says:

    its I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang Meets John Doe

  27. Jenny Eardley Says:

    David, I didn’t read your response properly last night, I didn’t notice you’d found a route through my brain-maze of strange (I also misinterpreted Chris Schneider’s comment, but let’s pretend I didn’t and it was a sophisticated joke instead) well done and thanks! I was probably doing three things at once but doing nothing well. Well, cue the Twilight Zone music, cos imdb tells me that Lawson and Fletcher were both born in Bradford but Brambell was born in …wait for it – Dublin, phew!

    What was the first fictional Hollywood film about Hollywood? I don’t suppose it’s ST but it can’t have been done too early and any 30s films about actors I can think of are about the stage. If it’s a silent film I won’t have seen it and they would be “parodying” a rather different set of cliches. Also, now I don’t usually like to use scholarly terms I probably don’t understand and will trip up on, but is ST “post modern”? Ulp, I’ve done it now.

  28. A Star is Born (1037, Wellman again) is a major one, but Vidor’s Show People (1928) is earlier and no doubt not the first. There were comedies dealing with moviegoing in the 1910s… Maurice Tourneur’s A Girl’s Folly (1917) is set amid the bustle of the world’s movie-making capital: Fort Lee, New Jersey!

    To an extent ST seems postmodern, and jokes like “There’s always a girl in the picture!” seem self-referential in a po-mo way.

  29. Jenny Eardley Says:

    A yeah “A star is born”; I have an excuse, I loaned the DVD to a friend before watching it, she thought it was the Streisand one but decided to give it a go anyway. Then we stopped being friends and I still haven’t seen that version.

  30. It’s very nice — a revelation from Janey Gaynor in the funny bits. It hits some emotional depths you don’t associate with Wellman — he tended to go for very male stuff, but his women’s pictures are remarkable, very tough.

  31. Christopher Says:

    I’d like to see the ’37 A Star Is Born again.Its been many years..It was run as many times a tv commercials in its public domain faded colourness years ago…the clubbing sequence with its various exterior shots of hollywood night spots,has been one of the most frequently used bits of stock footage,even into the 70s..Its a good is the Garland version!

  32. The Technicolor pays for itself just with Fredric March’s walk on the beach: unbelievably lush and beautiful.

  33. Criterion’s laserdisc of The Player features a slideshow of 70 movies about Hollywood in chronological order. The earliest their research came up with was 1923’s “Souls For Sale”. Looks like Warner Archive has this out on DVD.

    “In Rupert Hughes’ melodramatic screen version of his own novel, the generic small-town girl (Eleanor Boardman) rises to stardom in Hollywood. Featured are Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin as themselves – directing Greed and A Woman of Paris, respectively.”

    Next on the list: The Extra Girl (1924, mack sennett), The Last Command (1928, von sternberg), Movie Crazy (1932, harold lloyd), The Lost Squadron (joel mcrea!), Blonde Bombshell, Going Hollywood, Lady Killer, 365 Nights In Hollywood, Hollywood Boulevard, Something To Sing About, Go West Young Man, THEN A Star Is Born. No Show People!

  34. Not an exhaustive lost, but they did come up with plenty I’d forgotten and a few I never knew about. The Tourneur, which is available on the disc Before There Was Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, is a pretty amazing look at early filmmaking technique, with a set being constructed before out eyes out of flying walls, in under a minute. And Tourneur plays himself as the director.

  35. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Good research, thanks Brandon, we’re talking way off 1941 for sure. It just seemed to me that making a film about film-making might be a risk in its early days – too self-congratulatory, assuming the audience has noticed the onscreen methods and cares about the off screen ones. I read that TV companies were worried about making programmes about making TV, and axed “Studio 60 from sunset strip” or whatever it was called for that reason.

  36. I think there’s a clear danger of self-indulgence whenever you “write what you know” (which is what they always tell you to do) regardless of whether you’re writing about you’re medium. A film about firefighters by an ex-firefighter could be just as self-congratulatory. But I’m sure there are people in film and TV who believe the subject should be avoided for that reason. But the real threat is just doing it badly.

  37. Um … my pet theory on the hanging legs goes to the fact that there’s a photographer from the studio following Sullivan around on his charity walk, taking pictures now and then. Perhaps there was once a cutaway to the man changing a flashbulb?

    But just putting the legs in for the heck of it, as a private joke, is just as compelling. And if it’s a photographer, why are his legs so motionless?

    I can’t find the email, but Preston Sturges’ son wrote me years ago and said he thought the publicity photographer was a likely possibility. (That’s called hiding behind a dubious source.)

  38. That’s a good one! And the shot has a certain beauty to it which might have caused them to ditch the idea of cutting into it for a bit of plot/humour. Keeping his legs still might have worked quite well, to make the cut to him taking a picture and changing his bulb more surprising.

  39. First things first, this is a terrific piece.
    A few disconnected comments:

    William LeBaron was also W.C. Fields’ great patron and champion–he seems like a man with good taste, and I hope scholars will devote some attention to him–he’s worth a book-length study.

    IIRC, Bramwell Fletcher was briefly and unhappily married to John Barrymore’s benighted daughter Diana.

    I’m surprised there isn’t yet a list of great facial montages. When I see Sturges’s I sometimes think of its gloomiest equivalent: the ending of Amelio’s LAMERICA.

    I’d also love to see a good director take a crack at LOOK MA, I’M DANCIN’, NOTHING DOING, VENDETTA, THE GENTLEMAN FROM CHICAGO, HOTEL HAYWIRE, and Sturges’s adaptations of THE ROAD TO ROME and THE MILLIONAIRESS.

    I very much recommend FIVE SCREENPLAYS BY PRESTON STURGES, not simply for the scripts but for Brian Henderson’s incredibly detailed and comprehensive essay-length introductions. He gives you a full understanding of the differences between the scripts and films and shows that Sturges was often his own best editor. Strangely, Henderson is a bit harsh on SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, calling it “arguably Sturges’s most conservative film” and knocking its audience nudging, among other things. I don’t fully agree with him, but his points are worth reading in full.

  40. I recently came across LeBaron in my Siodmak researches: Siodmak, freshly arrived from Europe, managed to gain studio interest, but when he went to meet his new employer, he discovered that he, LeBaron, was just out of a job himself. It was Preston Sturges who persuaded Buddy DeSylva, LeBaron’s replacement, to hire Siodmak.

    I really want to get those Sturges screenplay books but they’re always so damned expensive!

  41. Yojimboen Says:

    A lovely piece, Mr Cairns, as ever.

    FWIW, Behlmer & Thomas’s “Hollywood’s Hollywood” lists the earliest movie about movies as “…a little Vitagraph item of 1908.”

  42. Could be. I recall a story that during the patent wars in New York, a studio was burned down by one of its rivals. In order to meet their weekly quote for production, the company responded with a short entitled When the Studio Burned Down, turning their misfortune into a documentary. Allan Dwan told a story about shooting a western and having to fend off patent company thugs, an incident he promptly transformed into another western (only this time he got to hang the bad guys).

  43. […] movie came to mind as a result of Shadowplay’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS Film Club discussion about Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies, but what it really is reminiscent of, during the desert […]

  44. Rick Schmidlin Says:

    Sullivan’s Travels is my favorite film of all time.

    Rick Schmidlin

    re-edit Touch of Evil
    re-construction GREEED
    restored:London After Midnight
    retored: Edison Dickson Sound Test
    re-edit:Elvis That’s The Way It Is- Special Edition
    also produced many videos for The Doors

  45. Well wow! Good to hear from you, and I share your high opinion of Sturges’ movie. What are you working on now?

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