Sullivan's Travels (Sturges; 1941)
I’m quite the sucker for films that throw caution to the wind and sprint their way through various styles and genres with complete abandon. Well, I’m a sucker for THIS here one anyway. So there’s a brazen critique of Hollywood and the workings of its studio system; shots of complete and utter beauty that went so far as to remind me of Sunrise (Sullivan and The Girl by the lake under the stars) in both style and tone; a probable hark back to the “social consciousness” films of the 1930s in its latter segment; possible elements of an early “road movie” in the series of ‘travels’ that Sullivan makes; a social commentary in some senses – esp. re: its comments on marriage, the judicial system, even issues of race?; plus Chaplinesque moments abound from the poignant scenes with the tramps through to moments of insane slapstick (falling in the pool) which even border on the cartoonish (THAT chase scene! LMAO!) – appropriate considering the film’s emotional crux in the church. Oh, and the requisitely perfect dialogue of course. The film seems so absurd in its conception, it’s INSANE (it actually is.)
But Sturges holds the entire thing together brilliantly, imo. It’s exquisitely structured, with three ultimately uninformative ‘travels’ before the final inadvertent but enlightening journey. The slapstick that characterises the initial scenes seem to later give way to a more sophisticated style of comedic analysis or something which seems to reflect Sullivan’s own intellectual awakening… perhaps shadowing his journey as a director – after all, wasn’t he noted for making lowbrow comedies? Of course, the ending is a bit problematic if we’re going down that route, but I choose to believe that Sullivan will eventually have a more Sturges-like outlook to filmmaking? Indeed, if we see Sullivan the character as Sturges’ alter-ego then like, the fact that Sturges could make a film as intelligent as this means that Sullivan too might end up doing so? But I’m not sure I go with the Sullivan-as-Sturges thing (at least, not entirely)... ok, I’ll stop right there because I’m confusing MYSELF right now!
Anyway, back to that ending. Initially, I was so swept up by joy (it made me teary-eyed) that I didn’t stop to actually consider what it seemed to be saying. Then when I actually gave it some thought I felt slightly uncomfortable… I felt that Sturges was advocating entertainment over art, or at least the ability of film to be socially relevant. But having given it even more thought, I don’t think he questions the art so much as what drives it. And really, the final emphasis is on the joy that entertainment can bring to people’s lives which is a more than fair conclusion to make – especially from an auteur who thrived within the confines of the studios. Moreover, the fact that Sullivan’s Travels is an intelligent film and perhaps even a social commentary in its own right suggests that the source of cinematic joy doesn’t necessarily need to be lowbrow and mind-numbing. Not to mention Sturges’ running critique of the Hollywood system, which offsets any allusions about a finale that acclaims it.
It’s that final point is probably what I’m loving about Preston Sturges thus far? Nothing is mere black-and-white in his world, and he manages to paint surprisingly complex portraits. Like, in the film’s most romantic Sunrise-esque moment that I mentioned earlier… Sullivan and The Girl walk along a lakeside but as they do so there’s a brief glimpse of a man hanging from a tree! And when Sturges notes human generosity with the Las Vegas café owner, he (kinda cutely) undermines it by having the character act so with reluctance (“I won’t get rich anyway…”) The poverty-ridden only sit through a church service to get a meal at the end of it etc. etc. I love how he reconciles that undercurrent of cynicism with what I believe to be an ultimate faith in the goodness of people (Sullivan, McGinty, Jimmy MacDonald…). Sullivan’s Travels is probably the most perfect achievement of those designs that I’ve seen, and it’s ending is like a self-reflexive celebration of that imo. And it’s just so beautiful?! I’m in love.