Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, William Demarest
Director: Preston Sturges
Paving the way for the likes of John Huston, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles, Preston Sturges was the first of Hollywood’s writer-directors – or “hyphenates”, as they’re known. He was also an unsurpassed comic genius. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is a satire upon what we think of as a relatively recent phenomenon – the need of certain Hollywood celebs to be taken Very, Very Seriously. John L. Sullivan is a pampered young film director who has hitherto specialized in musicals and light comedies with titles such as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft. His ambition, though, is to helm a weighty state-of-the-nation drama, which will “realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium it is” and be “a true canvas of humanity.” (“But with a little sex,” says the studio head hopefully.)
In order to discover just what conditions are like beyond the Hollywood bubble, Sullivan decides to dress up as a tramp and go out into the world with ten cents in his pocket. (“Isn’t it overdoing it a bit, sir? Why break their hearts?” his manservant asks of one particularly ragged disguise.) The studio makes a farce out of the whole endeavour by turning it into three-ring publicity circus, but this doesn’t stop Sullivan from having a few adventures and encountering on the road a failed actress (Veronica Lake) who becomes his guide to how the other half live.
Wonderful though they are, Sturges’ films tend to have their rough edges, and Sullivan’s Travels is no exception. As the lead, big, sturdy Joe McCrea doesn’t exactly exude great comic timing (although he makes a good fist of the various ailments and allergies that seem to besiege Sullivan almost as soon as he steps outdoors, his body telling him what his mind doesn’t want to hear, that he should stay where he belongs). And there are parts of the movie that now feel dated and crudely handled – the Dickensian montages, the occasional lurches into melodrama, the sentimental ending with its platitudes about the consoling power of laughter.
But you’re inclined to swallow all of this without complaint because the good bits are so outstanding. Watching a Preston Sturges film is less like the ordinary experience of watching a movie than it is like listening to a classic album. The set-pieces are so inventively choreographed, the verbal wit so dazzling, the slapstick so joyful, you simply sit there in astonishment and awe, and the experience remains just as fresh and exhilarating no matter how many times you go back. On top of that, Sullivan’s Travels has the allure of allowing you a peek behind the curtain of Hollywood in the early ’40s. And then there’s Veronica Lake. Her character may only be known as “The Girl”, but she’s far from anonymous – funny, loyal and worldly-wise, this is a role that actresses today would give their eye teeth for and that modern women can relate to without having to wince and make allowances.
As for this HD transfer, the early two-shot interiors are quite soft and grainy, but the exteriors (for instance, the scene around Sullivan’s pool, or the documentary-style footage as Sullivan and The Girl board a freight train along with a seething crowd of hobos) have a new depth and airiness. Throughout, the picture is very clean, with no scrapes or scratches. The audio is natural-sounding and shorn of crackle (an important consideration when so much of the fun comes from the fizzing dialogue).
Deep breath. Now for the extras. As well as a commentary by Terry Jones, you get Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer – a vintage but hugely informative 1 hour, 15 minute documentary, with interviews with friends, family and co-workers including Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton (the stars of what is arguably Sturges’ funniest film, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). The documentary explores the cosmopolitan and privileged upbringing Sturges received at the hands of his wealthy and Bohemian mother (who gave celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan the long, dangly scarf that broke her neck when it got entangled in the rear axle of her sports car). It goes on chart his rise to playwright and highly paid screenwriter and finally to director, and then the burst of energy that saw him produce a stream of comedy classics, while also carrying on affairs and holding court at all hours at the ruinously expensive restaurant he owned. What happened afterwards makes for sad viewing: a string of four flops in a row effectively put paid to Sturges’ career as he lost both his comedic touch and control of his spiralling budgets (there are some clips of his little-seen later movies here, and they do look dodgy). A steep decline followed, and the man who had brought a new sophistication to the screwball comedy left Hollywood with his tail between his legs.
There’s also a 21 minute talking head piece with film critic Kevin Jackson, who points out that Sullivan’s Travels is almost like an encyclopedia of comedic techniques and film genres (too much so for its own good, some might claim). Finally, a 45-minute visual essay provides an introduction (in alphabetical order) to the repertory of scene-stealing character actors who added so much to the flavour of Sturges’ films, including several vaudevillians and a dentist turned boxer known as the Fighting Dentist (he could knock your teeth out and then put them back in again!). With an HD transfer that breathes new life into a beloved film and a great array of goodies, all told this is an unmissable release for fans of Sturges – and if you’re not a fan of this scintillating director, you should be.