One of the reasons I decided to watch and blog about all of the films in the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 American films of all time was to discover some gems I hadn’t ever seen. Nearly 40 films into the list, I hadn’t really been blown away yet — until last night. I had never even heard of Sullivan’s Travels, No. 61 on the list. Admittedly, I was skeptical for that very reason, plus it was made all the way back in 1941. I held out some small hope only because it was made just a year after one of my favorite films, The Philadelphia Story. Not only did I enjoy Sullivan’s Travels, the screenplay reminded me of The Philadelphia Story because of its lovely sarcastic wit.
Sullivan’s Travels is the story of wealthy Hollywood director John L. Sullivan, who is tired of making fluffy comedies because America is in a depression and they deserve to feel the emotion of the times. When his studio points out he has no idea what it’s like to be one of the downtrodden, he foolishly decides to go undercover as a tramp to see what it’s like. He sets off in dirty and torn clothing with only a dime in his pocket to learn enough to make a “commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.” Along the way he meets a discouraged young actress who is ready to give up on her dreams, leave Hollywood and return home. Hilarity and powerful lessons about the human spirit ensue.
There is so much to like in this film. Sullivan is played by Joel McCrea, well-known for his many roles in Westerns. McCrea provides a real charm to the character that is reminiscent of Cary Grant and the dialogue is brilliantly funny and even edgy. The scene where his butler first sees him dressed in rags is classic:
Burrows: I don’t like it at all, sir. Fancy dress, I take it?
John L. Sullivan: What’s the matter with it?
Burrows: I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir.
John L. Sullivan: Who’s caricaturing?
John L. Sullivan: I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.
Burrows: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
John L. Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?
Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.
This sort of exchange is repeated throughout the film and caused me to laugh out loud more than once. The screenplay was written by Preston Sturges, who directed the film as well. I have heard of Sturges, but when I looked up his filmography on IMDB I saw that I have never seen any of his films. I now plan to check out quite a few others! By the way, this is also the first film on the list that was available in its entirety for free on You Tube. I actually streamed it to my tablet.
Sullivan’s Travels was also my first introduction to actress Veronica Lake. The only thing I knew about her prior to seeing this film was that a model was “cut” to look like her in the film L.A. Confidential so creepy men could pay to have sex with her. Nice. Veronica Lake is absolutely beautiful and had quite an interesting life. She made nearly 40 films and TV shows before dying at age 50 from hepatitis. She was also the daughter-in-law of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. She was well-known for her beauty, particularly her long blonde hair which she often wore covering one eye and giving her the nickname The Peek-a-boo Girl. She is classic 1940s Hollywood glamour.
Another interesting fact about Sullivan’s Travels is that the film Sullivan was going to make about America’s poor was to be called O Brother Where Art Thou? Yep, the Coen Brothers used the name as an homage for their 2000 masterpiece starring George Clooney. The things you learn when you do a little homework! Also, Sullivan’s Travels did not garner any Academy Award nominations, maybe because it came out the same year as a little film called Citizen Kane. By the way, Citizen Kane lost most of that year’s Oscars, including Best Picture, to How Green Was My Valley. Ah, hindsight.
Next Up: Duck Soup