Sullivan's Travels (1941)
May 18, 2021 10:27 PM - Subscribe

John L. Sullivan, a $4,000-a-week director of comedies such as So Long, Sarong and 1939's Ants in Your Plants sets out to experience the hard life as a tramp to prepare himself for his next more serious movie: O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- against the wishes of his studio and staff, and with the somewhat involuntary help of an owl wagon met frail, or perhaps beasel is the term.

Watching the movie again, it’s easy to see how the Coen brothers also modelled their screenwriting style—with its conspicuous coinages, sassy catchphrases, and blend of the high-flown with recondite slang—on Sturges. They also took from Sturges the fundamental tension between the desire to say something and the need to show something. And, as great as the Coen brothers are, Sturges has stayed a step ahead of them in one particular regard: he filmed his Hollywood conflicts and self-doubts in the present tense.
-- Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Preston Sturges need make no excuses for the dominance of comedy on the screen, since he has done more than any one over the last two years to give brightness and bounce and authority to this general type of fare. But apparently he thinks it time that some one break a lance in the muse's defense—and maybe he also is anxious to quiet a still, small voice within himself. For his latest film, "Sullivan's Travels," which rolled into the Paramount yesterday, is a beautifully trenchant satire upon "social significance" in pictures, a stinging slap at those fellows who howl for realism on the screen and a deftly sardonic apologia for Hollywood make-believe.Sardonic? How comes that word to creep in so slyly there? The answer is simple. Mr. Sturges is a charmingly sarcastic chap, and his pokes are not aimed exclusively at the "deep-dish" in screen attitudes. He also makes pointed sport, in his own blithely mischievous way, of Hollywood's lavish excesses, of baldly staged publicity stunts and of motion picture producers whose notion of art is "a little sex." As a writer and director, Mr. Sturges believes in pictures which will make the customers laugh, but he obviously has his own opinions about the shams of showmanship. And thus this truly brilliant serio-comedy which makes fun of films with "messages" carries its own paradoxical moral and its note of tragedy. Laughter, it says, is "better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan."
-- Bosley Crowther, NYT, 1942
posted by fleacircus (8 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
somewhat involuntary help of an owl wagon met frail, or perhaps beasel is the term.

What's an "owl wagon", what does "Met frail" mean, and what's a "beasel"? I have seen the movie and know what you're talking about, but these words are... not ones I've ever heard.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:34 AM on May 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

And, about the film itself:

I got a kick out of how the film took the piss out of Sullivan and his lofty ideals. He's hoping to do a "Serious Picture" that will champion "the Common Man", but his ideas about The Common Man are all 100% pure caricature, and when he goes on his journey and tries to relate to them as that caricature, they all look at him like he's got three heads. (When he tries to strike up a conversation about Marx with these two guys in a box car, they just stare at him silently a moment before rolling their eyes, getting up and moving to the other end of the box car to get away from him.)

Bit o' trivia as well - Preston Sturges got a thank-you letter from the NAACP for this film, because of the "dignified and decent treatment of Negroes" in the film. The film only featured one scene with African-American characters - they were the congregants of the church hosting the members of a chain gang for a Movie Night to give them a bit of a break - but for the 1940s they were depicted refreshingly normally.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:43 AM on May 19, 2021 [8 favorites]

Preston Sturges could write and direct! The scene where Sullivan watches the Disney film and it lifts his spirits inspired the similar scene in Hannah and her Sisters, as well as the similar scene in Star Trek Discovery "Forget Me Not" (S3E4).

Veronica Lake's delivery is so dry, a perfect match for Sturges' crackling dialog. She starred in I Married a Witch a year later (1942), which is a super fun film, kind of an early take on Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie.

The book Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges is an interesting read, although it's not really about his movies, but rather about his crazy life and family.
posted by jabah at 9:49 AM on May 19, 2021

This is one of the funniest movies ever.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:21 AM on May 19, 2021

I love this movie. Everyone should watch it.

I believe 30 Rock did a callback to the church/movie scene in the episode where Tracy thinks he has to make a depressing movie to get an EGOT but finds satisfaction in making people laugh at the women's shelter.
posted by bleep at 12:58 PM on May 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

One of my favorites, anything from Preston Sturges is wonderful but there's a reason this is regarded so highly. I just love Veronica Lake in this, she gets so many great period lines like "don't get rigid" or talking about not being ritzy, she's just the epitome of a smart dame who can take care of herself, thank you very much.

This movie inspired the Bodeans to make a song about her, She's So Fine.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 2:08 PM on May 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I liked this movie a lot. I've never actually seen a Veronica Lake movie before. The noir-ish diner scene where she dryly dishes out the patter was so good I had to pause to squee or keysmash or whatever you want to call it. The movie is having fun taking turns at being other kinds of movies and it does each turn pretty well.

It was unusual to see so many black people in a Preston Sturges movie. I mean besides the cook. I think in the whole prison sequence Sturges is sort of stylin' on issue movies, like, "You want some real shit? Here's some real shit," and it was done well, and it's legit that the evil he found was racism and prison brutality. It's so good it kinda undercuts the argument. I don't think the overall argument of this movie is right, but it's worth seeing the presentation of it.

I also saw Nomadland recently too and thought about it while watching. I didn't like it.. It seemed to run afoul of what Sullivan's Travels argues against while sort of making a similar bad argument.

I think I just straight up laughed more in The Palm Beach Story and Christmas in July, though I see why this movie and The Lady Eve get singled out as Sturges's best.
posted by fleacircus at 2:47 PM on May 19, 2021

What's an "owl wagon", what does "Met frail" mean, and what's a "beasel"? I have seen the movie and know what you're talking about, but these words are... not ones I've ever heard.

They are words used in the movie. I put them through a tortured construction tho: Lake calls where they meet an owl wagon (all night diner, from turn-of-the-century food carts that were open all night^). When Lake dresses up as a boy, not very successfully, she suggests people will just assume she's McCrea's frail (androgynous woman?), though the butler says he believes the term is beasel (a seasoned flapper^).
posted by fleacircus at 2:47 PM on May 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

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