Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2021) on… Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

We’re back for another Preston Sturges film with the classic 1941 movie Sullivan’s Travels starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake!

Coming Up Shorts! with… Fly My Kite (1931)

(available on Blu-ray as part of The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 2 (1930-1931) from ClassicFlix)

(Length: 21 minutes, 4 seconds)

Grandma (Margaret Mann) faces eviction by her former son-in-law, but the Gang do their part to help stop his plans. This was another fun and sentimental short in the series, with the kids again facing off against a “villain” trying to do harm to Grandma. Jim Mason does well as the son-in-law, who makes us hate him and cheer on the Gang when they try to stop his plans. Overall, very entertaining, which is par for the course with these Our Gang shorts!

And Now For The Main Feature…

Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is known for his comedies, but he wants very much to direct the tragedy O Brother, Where Art Thou. His bosses at the studio, Mr. LeBrand (Robert Warwick) and Mr. Hadrian (Porter Hall), think he’s had too soft a lifestyle and hasn’t suffered enough to be able to make the movie, and would much prefer that he make another comedy. Agreeing with them on the point that he doesn’t really know suffering, he decides to dress as a tramp and take to the road to experience trouble. His bosses aren’t thrilled with the idea, but they make a demand of their own by sending along a bus (or, as the film refers to it, a “land yacht”) with a doctor, secretary, reporter, photographer and chauffeur to attend to his needs. Wanting to ditch them, Sullivan hops in a jalopy with a kid and makes a mad dash for it, with the bus trying its best to keep up. After a long chase, Sullivan finds himself unable to ditch the bus, but convinces everyone on board to let him go it alone for a while, with plans to meet up later in Las Vegas. He stops at a farmhouse to do some work there for a widow, but when he finds that she has other plans for him (besides working), he tries to sneak out at night. He gets away (making a lot of noise in the process), but the truck he hitches a ride with ends up bringing him right back to Hollywood. He stops at a diner for a cup of coffee, and he finds himself with some ham and eggs, paid for by a failed wannabe actress (or “The Girl” as the credits list the character played by Veronica Lake). In return, he tries to offer her a ride somewhere by pretending to be a friend of director John L. Sullivan. However, they are arrested by the police, and only freed when his butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore) bail them out. At first, “The Girl” is angry at how Sullivan had tricked her, but when she finds out about his “experiment,” she insists on joining him. He protests the idea, but she won’t give up on it. The next day, with both of them dressed in tramp costumes, they hitch a ride on a train with all the other tramps. When they get off the train, they find themselves near Las Vegas. They find the bus, where they make a brief stop (mostly for Sullivan to start recovering from a cold he caught), and then they’re off again. They see what life is like for other tramps and homeless people, and Sullivan feels he has seen enough. However, he has one last thing he wants to do before returning to Hollywood, and he walks the streets, handing out five dollar bills (nearly five thousand dollars worth) to homeless people. One of them, who had stolen his shoes (which contained his identification), sees him doing this and decides to steal it. The man hits Sullivan on the head at a train yard, and drags him onto a train. He tries to get away with the money, but ends up getting killed by a train. Meanwhile, a confused and amnesiac Sullivan gets himself into trouble by fighting with a railroad worker when he wakes up, and is sentenced to six years of hard labor. Will Sullivan ever remember who he is, or will his friends ever find him, especially with someone else dead that they assume is him because of the I.D. in the shoes?

Actor Joel McCrea and Preston Sturges had originally met on the set of The Power And The Glory (1933) (which Preston Sturges wrote the script for), and they got along well. After Preston Sturges made the leap from writer to writer/director with the films The Great McGinty and Christmas In July, he came up with an idea for Sullivan’s Travels based on his feeling that some of his fellow writers were getting a little too preachy in giving their comedy films messages and needed to lay off the idea. He had only one person in mind to play the character of John L. Sullivan: Joel McCrea. Joel McCrea was surprised to have a script written specifically for him, as he felt that, most of the time, the scripts were written for Gary Cooper and he got them when Gary turned them down. For the otherwise unnamed “Girl” in the picture, Sturges cast Veronica Lake, who kept it secret that she was pregnant (until after filming had started), so that she could do the film. Of course, a few knew about her pregnancy, and they worked around it with different camera angles and costumes to hide it. The film received mixed reviews, and wasn’t as popular at that time, but it has grown in popularity over time as people have come around to the way it was made.

I’ll admit, when it came to the order I was planning to do my Sunday reviews in the month of October, I was really vacillating between different ways of doing it. Ultimately, I opted to go with the current order, leaving this post on Sullivan’s Travels to debut on October 31. While it wasn’t my original intention, I do find it to be the most fitting film of the bunch for Halloween itself. I mean, we’ve got our main character dressing up for a lifestyle that he knows almost nothing about. Of course, in what was a nightmarish scenario for the character, he did find himself increasingly becoming what he was pretending to be. But, in doing so, he did indeed walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, giving him a better view of life and how to help out others in his own way. Obviously, this isn’t a scary movie (unless you’re somebody rich who dreads becoming poor and unable to get out of trouble with your money), but it’s still a good Halloween movie.

Even ignoring the timing of this post, I’ll still say this was a wonderful movie. In some ways, it really hits home with the power of laughter. I know I certainly haven’t had things as bad as being in a prison gang (like the main character), nor as bad off as some of the others here were shown to be, but I do know that life is hard, and I do find myself enjoying breaks from that with comedies (and musicals). And this film does have some good comedic moments, what with the car chase near the beginning, which is the most screwball moment in the whole film! While things do calm down a bit after that, I still enjoy all the fun at Sullivan’s pool, and how his servants help him figure out how and where to get on the train. Admittedly, my biggest problem with this movie is its big shift in tone, going from screwball comedy (with a little romantic comedy in between) all the way to being a drama without many laughs for most of the last part of the movie. With the movie’s overall “message” on the importance of laughter, that does make it feel discombobulating to go so long without humor. Of course, I had already heard about that tonal shift before seeing this movie, so I was prepared. In that same vein, I also feel the need to forewarn you, that this movie is neither a pure comedy nor a pure drama. If you’re prepared for that, then there is a good movie to be found here. I do prefer Preston Sturges’ pure comedies like The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story much more, (and I Married A Witch with Veronica Lake), but I still find this one worth recommending!

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion Collection.

Film Length: 1 hour, 31 minutes

My Rating: 8/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Internes Can’t Take Money (1937) – Joel McCrea – The Great Man’s Lady (1942)

Veronica Lake – I Married A Witch (1942)

Road To Zanzibar (1941) – Eric Blore – The Sky’s The Limit (1943)

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