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.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock – 1955

Director – John Sturges

Starring – Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan

Coming into this film, I knew only the blurb that I’d seen in the 1001 Movies book, and frankly I was pretty excited to check it out.  The premise is pretty standard, yet pretty compelling.  A man gets off a train in a lonely desert town, no one knows why he’s there yet they immediately distrust him, eventually leading to threats of violence and confrontation.  I was instantly grabbed by this concept.   I wanted to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, once I did, I wished I had just lived with my imagination of what it might be.

First off, Spencer Tracy isn’t a bad-ass.  Based solely on the description, it seemed to me that Tracy’s character would have to be a hard as nails, no-nonsense type of guy.  Someone who could take care of business if the situation called for it.  What we got was a rather weathered old man who never seemed willing to stand up for himself.  The townsfolk took a lot of pleasure in pushing him around, and he took great care to try to keep from provoking them any further.  He took loads of abuse when it seemed like he should be handing some out.

The bad guys, while actually pretty bad people, didn’t provide any interesting motivation for their cruelty.  The set-up of the story hints at some terrible secret that the entire town is trying to keep quiet, and when Tracy’s character arrives, everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is there specifically to position blame.  Aggravatingly, nobody ever stops to ask any questions, instead they stubbornly decide to be vague and confrontational with their dealings with one another.  I’m sure if the towns people ever asked the Macreedy why he was there, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.  Instead they start trouble almost immediately

As far as the supporting bad guys go, I would have expected more from a cast featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both actors that I really like in other roles.  It wasn’t until the credits that I realized that Lee Marvin was in it, or that he played a fairly prominent character.  The character of Reno played by Robert Ryan was probably the only character I found somewhat interesting, unfortunately he seemed a little under-developed, and lacked any real motivation by the end.

One of it’s most gorgeous attributes, the scenery in which it was filmed, was mis-used as well.  It was rare that we ever saw the panoramic vista’s in which the town was supposedly set.  It’s too bad really, as the location would have given the audience insight into the isolation (both literally as well as the town’s isolation from decency) that each of the people in town was subject to.  The one major theme of the film seemed to be the fact that each character was in one way or another alone, some for their crimes, and in the case of Macreedy, his  isolation from any help or safety.

Unfortunately, this is another film that I’d have to say is just taking up a precious spot on this list that rightfully deserves to go to another film.  While it wasn’t awful, it was by no means one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S.  Although it has nothing to do with Bad Day at Black Rock, I recently watched  film that I thought for the life of me was on this list.  To my dismay, it was not.  To my further dismay, films like Bad Day at Black Rock, are!  The film in question is Peter Bogdanovich’s, Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neil and a “father” and “daughter” team of hucksters, traveling their way across depression era America swindling what they can from whoever they are able to.  It features a performance from the always fantastic Madeline Kahn, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.