Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Movie Review of Sullivan's Travels

...And another giant break between AFI movies.  Anyway, we just watched #61 on AFI's list, a comedy called Sullivan's Travels.  It was released in 1941, directed by Preston Sturges and stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.

The story is about a film director named Sullivan who has grown weary of making schlocky comedies and shallow musicals.  He wants to direct a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an epic that captures the struggles and plight of the common man.  His collegues chide him for knowing nothing about the struggles of the poor.  Undeterred, he dons hobo clothes and runs away to sample life as a migrant worker.  As he travels, he prompts people to talk about their troubles, but discovers nobody is in a big hurry to bemoan the plight of the common man.  He meets "the Girl", many misadventures occur, many silent-movie comedies are referenced and many lines of dialogue are delivered snappily. 

As an aside, despite bizarre claims by old movie posters for this film which proclaim that "Veronica Lake is on the Take", Veronica Lake at no point appears to be on the take.  I can only assume that this genre-defying movie left studio publicists mystified as to how to market it.  Scratching their heads in confusion, somebody suggested, "We need somethin' that rhymes, see!  Who cares if it don't make sense?"


What makes this movie different is that it has a fourth act in its story structure.  After Sullivan and the Girl spend an appropriate amount of time learning hardship and having zany adventures, they return to the studio in triumph.  Normally, a movie might end here.  However, Sullivan decides to don his hobo clothing and repay the poor he lived with a stack of $5 bills.  He is promptly robbed at a trainyard and tossed unconscious onto a departing freight.  His robber is mangled by a train and his corpse mistaken for him.  Meanwhile, the groggy Sullivan lashes out at a railyard guard and is sentenced to six years hard labour.

It is here that the film abruptly changes tone to a drama.  Miserable, overworked and persecuted, he learns real suffering.  He spends a day in the hotbox for reading a newspaper.  At his lowest point, a revival congregation allows the chain gang to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in their church.  All his troubles melt away as he howls with laughter at Pluto's antics.  He realizes then that he doesn't want to direct O Brother, Where Art Thou?  He sees that if he wants to help the common man, more good can be accomplished through laughter.


And that's the message of this movie, recalling the film's dedication at the beginning:
To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated. 

It's a message that could have gone terribly wrong.  For in order to tell the message that "laughter is the best medicine", the film loses all its laughs during the fourth act.  It's risky business and some might accuse it of hypocrisy.  However, in my opinion, the film pulls it off.  Perhaps its hand is heavy, but it is moving in its own way.

It's a pretty good film.  The laughs vary from slapstick to wordplay to high-concept comedy.
4 1/2 unscheduled returns to Hollywood out of 5