John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a big time director of screwball Hollywood comedies, but wants to make something real. Something with a message. Something for the common man. The only problem is Sullivan has never experienced life amongst the common men, so he sets out, against the wishes of his producers, disguised as a hobo and with nothing but 10 cents in his pocket, to see how the other half survives.
I like films with good dialogue. If it’s been written by Aaron Sorkin or the Coen brothers, then chances are I’m a fan of it, so it may come as a surprise to discover that this is the first film I’ve seen from Preston Sturges, widely regarded as one of the finest writer/directors of screwball comedies. Although, to be fair, I’ve not seen other such screwball classics as His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby yet either (even though I’ve got both on DVD), so maybe it’s not too much of a surprise that I’ve yet to delve into Sturges’ work either. Now that I’ve seen a Preston Sturges film and know the kind of thing that I’m in for, I look forward to tracking down some of his other work, because this film is quite brilliant. And fortunately some of his other work – Unfaithfully Yours, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story – are also on my various film lists, so all being well I’ll be getting to them soon.
Sullivan’s Travels also marks my first viewing of Veronica Lake, previously only known to me as the girl Kim Basinger supposedly looks like in L.A. Confidential. Here, in her first major role, she plays Sullivan’s travelling companion, charitably credited as ‘The Girl’. When she is supposed to, she looks great (she spends a portion of the film disguised as a fellow hobo), and her chemistry with McCrea is good, if not amazing. McCrea, too, is great, thoroughly convincing as the idealistic yet out of touch director, and the supporting cast all left something of a mark, even if many of them weren’t around for as long as I’d have liked, particularly the snooty, disapproving butlers.
The first third of the film is certainly the best, and the most comedic, and provides the majority of the most quotable lines (“If they know what they like, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.”), and the film takes a more preachy, dramatic turn once Sullivan sets out on his mission. This is a bit of a shame, as had the film retained the breakneck pace and quality of script as that opening half hour (no-one talks any slower than Steve Buscemi in Miller’s Crossing), this film would be a guaranteed 9/10 (I never award a 10/10 on a first viewing, that score has to be earned after many watches). As it is, the film remains very good, but the plot becomes annoyingly circular, as Sullivan seems unable to escape his own wealthy lifestyle, whether through his own fault or general circumstances. The final third becomes overwhelmingly message-y, when Sullivan learns that making comedies can actually be worthwhile (hence why Sturges dedicated this film to the mirth-makers of the world), and it’s all handled disappointingly heavily.
I think I went a bit negative there for a moment, because I really did like this film. The scene where Sullivan goes to the cinema was brilliant, showing that even back in the 1940s it was occasionally impossible to hear the film over the sounds of screaming children, rustling sweet packets and incessant chomping, crunching and the smacking of jowls. Some moments got a bit farcical – Sullivan attempting to outrun the entourage his producers supply him with by utilising a souped-up boxcar with a chalked-on speedometer, and the amount of people who fall into water throughout this film is simply ridiculous, but it never got too silly for me.
There were some issues with the pacing, as just as the story looked like it was all wrapped up, Sullivan heads out on a new adventure completely different to the rest of the film that felt out of place and a bit too serious, drifting too far from what should have been a straight comedy, that seemed to miss the very point that the film was making.
If you are going to watch this film, and if you’re a fan of the older Hollywood pictures, then I suggest you do, I recommend at least once skipping the film back a chapter or two and watching the film on fast-forward, as listening to the already rapid dialogue even faster is downright hilarious. Small things, I know.
Choose film 7/10