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'Sullivan's Travels': Goes First Class
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
04:19PM / Thursday, April 30, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.

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A cult favorite among filmmakers and cineastes alike, the envisioned movie within a movie in Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (1940), about a famous director of comedies hellbent to make a socially significant film, lent its title to the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000). Other directors have regularly borrowed from the inspiringly monumental dilly in thankful homage to its rich resource of ideas, comic and sociopolitical.
 
The handsome and versatile Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a pampered recipient of vastly celebrated Hollywood success aching to be taken seriously. Natch, while the coddling movie moguls humor their prize moneymaker, they do all they can to dissuade him from his plan to don a hobo's garb and go out among the Depression-afflicted masses to research what he hopes will be his identifying magnum opus.
 
But perhaps most vehemently discouraging, and later repurposed by Henry Graham's (Walter Matthau) valet in "A New Leaf" (1971), is manservant Robert Greig's exhorting soliloquy: "You see, sir, rich people and theorists — who are usually rich people — think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches — as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned."
 
It is this barely cloaked, cynical theorizing at the heart of the delightfully engaging drollery that is the great Sturges' signature. In a movie that essentially accomplishes for the director what he hopes for his protagonist, he iterates that he is the socially conscious farceur, the artiste who traffics in haute satire. He is to Frank Capra what Edward Hopper is to Norman Rockwell … his humanism doing a dance on an edgier, more daring cliff.
 
Providing realistic balance, as it often does in actual life, is the perfectly cast, hair-over-one-eye love interest played by Veronica Lake. Simply credited as The Girl, the all-but-through-with her-attempts-to make-it-in-Hollywood ingénue wins our title character's approval and an invitation to join him in his odyssey when, unaware of his celebrity, she treats him to coffee and a sinker.
 
That's doughnut in Depression parlance.
 
The match made in Tinseltown Heaven checks all the fairy-tale romance boxes, and would doubtlessly be approved by Dora Goldberger who, when I embarked on my own travels, didn't counsel that it's just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl as it is a poor one. But rather, as was the banker's daughter's storybook bent, she advised that I marry a poor beautiful girl. Alas, all I could find was a beautiful middle-class girl.
 
Supporting McCrea and Lake's sojourners into the depths of the Depression is the wonderful, ensemble gaggle of Sturges regulars, a comic chorus of character actor favorites ostensibly the humorous flipside to Orson Wells's troupe of gravely etched personae. This includes the wonderfully emotive, dem-and-dese spouting William Demarest as Mr. Jones, the combination Man Friday/bodyguard/meat-and-potatoes pundit who we've no doubt came upon his savvy the hard way; and Robert Warwick as Sullivan's big-time producer, Mr. LeBrand, whose unflappable business sense is advertised in the following repartee:
 
John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
 
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
 
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
 
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
 
Such witty but good-natured sarcasm peppers most of the dialogue as Sullivan and The Girl foray into the land of the poor and the disenfranchised. Of course, this includes hopping a freight, an experience I've always felt was missing in my life. But as Sullivan illustrates, maybe that's not such a good idea.
 
Predictably, our intrepid dilettante draws his much-sought hardship and privation in spades. And here's where Sturges really shows his stuff, managing to synthesize dramatically effective despair and screwball comedy with neither of the Greek masks compromised by the other. He surfaces the ironic tragedy in farce and the comic travesty in misfortune. And via a prism of his colorful, recognizable regulars, the auteur extraordinaire sings a paean to the diversity and preciousness of human life. Yeah, all that and a little more.
 
But beware, you who have become accustomed to today's attention deficit-friendly comedy.
 
There is in this rib-tickling treasure what they call in the Business, business — nutty segues, quirky asides and oddball off-ramps that some folks, lest they miss their appointment to address the U.N. or that flight to the coronation ball, would find superfluous. They'd be wrong. But otherwise, for those who can spare the time for a heady laugh, "Sullivan's Travels" is, as Dr. Timothy Leary might have opined, a real trip.
 
"Sullivan's Travels," a Paramount Pictures release directed by Preston Sturges, stars Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake and William Demarest. Running time: 90 minutes
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