Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sullivan's Travels

I don't think I've ever blogged about Sullivan's Travels before. It's airing on Sunday, October 28 at 2:15 PM on TCM, and now is a good time to recommend it.

Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a Hollywood director who's become prominent -- and wealthy -- by making light fluffy comedies and musicals with titles such as Ants in Your Pants of 1938. Despite the good pay, Sullivan wants to make "serious" pictures; especially something with a social message what with there still being a depression on. Specifically, in order to make the movie he wants to find out what it's like to live on the "other side", as a hobo with only a dime to his name. Needless to say, the studio execs don't like the idea. But they come up with an agreement. They come up with a good idea, however: treat it as publicity. So they follow Sullivan, with Sullivan trying to escape and learn more "authentic" poverty.

Stuck with only ten cents in his pocket at a roadside diner, Sullivan meets The Girl (Veronica Lake), a failed starlet who is going to be leaving Hollywood since she can't succeed there. Oh, Sullivan could have given her the success, but he can't really portray himself as Sullivan now, so he passes himself off as somebody who knew Sullivan, which at least gets him the run of the Sullivan place. The two really wind up living the hobo life, spending a night in a homeless shelter among other things, where Sullivan has his shoes stolen.

This is a problem because part of the agreement Sullivan had with the studio execs involved putting ID in the sole of his shoe while he was going to be on the road. The bosses would be able to prove that this was really Sullivan, but nobody else would, which was just the way Sullivan wanted it. As part of a plan to help the hobos out by distributing cash to them, he winds up at the same railyard as the guy who stole his shoes; the guy gets hit by a train after knocking Sullivan out and giving Sullivan a case of amnesia. Sullivan gets sent to a prison labor camp, and is about to learn what the other side is really like, if he didn't already know it from being a hobo.

Sullivan's Travels sounds like serious stuff, and it certainly does have a serious message, although what that message is could be debated. (I won't say anything more about that, because it would give away the ending of the movie.) The movie was directed by Preston Sturges, however, which means a lot of things. First, whatever message was intended is definitely somewhat anti-establishment. Second, you know there's going to be a lot of comedy here. There's slapstick with the people who would be Sullivan's entourage, and somewhat more intelligent humor for McCrea and Lake. Last but by no means least, you know you're going to get a great movie. McCrea is just right for the Sullivan part: not too glamorous, but not too rough either. I can't imagine somebody like Cary Grant being a believable wannabe hobo, or somebody like John Garfield playing the wealthy director. Veronica Lake is gorgeous as the failed actress, and Sturges was able to get several of his usuals to play the supporting roles, which they do to comedic perfection.

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