Movie Project #12: Sullivan’s Travels [1941]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Sullivan's Travels [1941]

Sullivan’s Travels [1941]
Director: Preston Sturges
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Country: USA
Genre: Adventure/Comedy/Drama
Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick
Running Time: 90 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a Preston Sturges film.

Accolades: Inducted into National Film Registry in 1990, ranked #61 on the AFI’s Top 100 Movies, #39 on AFI’s 100 Laughs, #25 on AFI’s 100 Cheers

There are a lot of movies about movies, but what makes Sullivan’s Travels so endearing is that it tackles the subject from a number of angles. This is a film that has its fair share of drama and screwball comedy antics, but it does so through a well-preserved satirical lens.

Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a hot-shot Hollywood director who has grown tired of making mindless comedies, even if they are incredibly profitable. In an effort to differentiate himself, he gets the wild idea to make himself “poor” and take a cross-country road trip to learn more about the homeless as well as those living in extreme poverty. Naturally, his studio boss, Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick), is against this idea — after all, why not just stick to the traditional moneymaking formula? It doesn’t help that Sullivan is completely out of his element here, as he has never experienced hard labor in his life.

Sullivan's Travels [1941]

Sullivan sticks to his guns, however, and goes on an adventure against their wishes. He dresses up as a hobo and starts hitchhiking. There’s one problem though — he keeps winding up back in Hollywood.

It’s here where “Sully” meets a young failed actress known only as “The Girl” (the sultry Veronica Lake). She becomes his unwanted traveling companion, and the two of them hit the road again, this time finally escaping Hollywood.

Sullivan's Travels [1941]

While much of the film is lighthearted and full of misadventures, the final act takes a surprising, much darker turn. It is here where I fell in love with the film, and its ending ranks as one of the best I have seen. Rather than just settle for the same type of screwball comedy the movie itself is poking fun at, it shares its own brand of social commentary, capping off with a classic moment that really drives home the film’s message.

Some of the slapstick humor does fall flat, but when the film is on top of its game, it doesn’t get much better. McCrea and Lake have great chemistry, and Lake’s deadpan delivery only adds to her sex appeal. Also, it should be stated that without this film we likely would have never been blessed with the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Not only does their film share a number of similarities with Sullivan’s Travels, but it has the same title as Sullivan’s proposed film.

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

8.5/10

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19 thoughts on “Movie Project #12: Sullivan’s Travels [1941]

  1. caitlinemccann says:

    I saw Sullivan’s Travel’s for the first time this fall and absolutely fell in love. It was my first Veronica Lake film as well; her role is all the more impressive when you consider that she was six months pregnant during shooting. Great film overall.

  2. Dan Heaton says:

    Eric, I’m glad you were able to check out this movie. I’ve only seen it once and that was maybe five years ago. It definitely lived up to the hype. I also really liked the left turn it took at the end, which surprised me after all the manic fun in the first hour. Great stuff.

  3. Chris says:

    Been a while since I saw it. I don’t remember the plot very well, except that this is the film where I fell in love with Veronica Lake.
    By the way, Sullivan’s Travels was also an influence for another Coen Brothers film, Barton Fink

  4. John says:

    It’s damn near a Coen prequel. O Brother is part of that, but also Hudsucker, and even Barton Fink drew inspiration from Sturges’ various films. That relationship between the Coens and Sturges made it so much easier for me to become a big fan of Sturges when I started watching his movies a few years ago. I’m really glad you dug this one.

  5. Jules M. says:

    Huh, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this. With all the Coen brothers tie-ins mentioned above, plus the fact that I will give anything with Joel McCrea a chance, this one is going on my must see list. Good piece. 🙂

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