Writer-director Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels is a wry, satirical, but not entirely unsentimental comedy, with a downright postmodern view of the Hollywood system. It’s a film which dares to ask the question “what’s the matter with Capra?”.
Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful, privileged, and naive director of fluffy films and racy comedies. Creatively dissatisfied, he decides that he wants to make a socially conscious film about the troubles of the downtrodden poor, titled O Brother, Where Art Thou? When his producers’ point out to him that he can’t understand the issues faced by those in poverty, Sullivan borrows a tramp’s outfit from the wardrobe department and sets off with a single dime in his pocket to experience the realities of 1940s America. Much of the film’s comedy comes from the fact that, try as he might, Sullivan can’t shake off the studio bus full of security personnel, producers, and secretaries who follow his every move. There is a screwball element to the comedy too, when Sullivan runs into a beautiful woman; an incredible, luminous performance from Veronica Lake.
Sullivan’s Travels’ influence is wide-reaching; clearly the Coen Brothers lifted the title of their 2001 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? from it, and it’s easy to see something of the film in Billy WIlder’s (much more cynical) masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Orson Welles, too, had been a vocal fan of Sturges’ earlier work. The fact that Sturges was lampooning Hollywood as early as 1941 is a remarkable thing, but so too is the fact that Sturges is also one of the most eloquent proponents for the populist nature and communal experience of cinema. One of the film’s most memorable sequences involves a crowd, sitting in the dark, laughing together at Disney cartoons. An essential, irresistible film.