Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Sullivan’s Travels – 1941

Director – Preston Sturges

Starring – Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake

Sullivan’s Travels is the story of a motion picture director, played byJoel McCrea, who is sick of making comedies despite their fantastic success.  Against the studio’s protests, he decides that he wants to make a movie with a message, something that tells the story of the long-suffering everyman.  His brilliant idea is that he’s going to go out with nothing but the clothes on his back, and nothing in his pockets, and live among the common poor.  Through these adventures, or misadventures to be more accurate, McCrea’s titular John Sullivan gets a rude awakening.  It turns out the poor, downtrodden masses simply want to laugh.  They don’t want to spend their miserable lives watching their own miserable lives.

Along the way, Sullivan meets up with an attractive young woman known only as “The Girl” played by Veronica Lake, and falls for her almost immediately.  At first the problem is she thinks he is down and out, just like she is, but eventually she joins him on his decidedly well thought out adventure along the rails and slums of the United States.  Together they sleep on floors, pick food out of garbage cans, get their pockets picked, and occasionally clean up, eat, sleep, and put on brand new clothes on the luxury bus that the Sullivan’s studio sent to follow him around.  Needless to say, they are able to paint a true portrait of what it is to be down on their luck.

At its heart, Sullivan’s Travels is a romantic comedy just shy of screwball, and a little too light to be melodrama.  The film’s attempt to hammer its message home, and really show how laughter is the best medicine is nearly ruined by the rather serious consequences that  Sullivan faces while trying to do a good deed for the poor people who opened his eyes, and in the end seems like a rather convenient plot point to help our couple get together at the end of the picture.

Lake in the role of “The Girl” makes the most effort to make her character convincing and at the same time likable.  Even though she is not entirely believable as a hobo, she does a fantastic job as a romantic lead, and as a sympathetic out of work actress, she is the best part of this movie.

In the end, it seems like Sullivan’s Travels can’t decide what it wants to really be, a buddy/romantic comedy, a film with a message, or a commentary on both.  Worth watching for sure, but best-of-list worthy?  Not so sure.