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 (LeBaron had actually just lost his job at the studio and been replaced by the pernicious Buddy DeSylva).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.”
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.