My friend Brenden Taylor was participating in an Internet meme where you post an image — but no title or explanation — from one of your favorite movies. Brenden posted an image of George Clooney from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
I had to respond — because I am pathologically addicted to Explaining Things — and tell him that the title of his movie was borrowed from the script of one of my favorite movies, “Sullivan’s Travels.” At the time, I had no idea whether Brenden — who is quite a bit younger than I am — had any familiarity with “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Brenden made some mention of Googling the answer, but one of his other Facebook contacts jumped right in and agreed with me that this is a classic movie.
I blogged about it multiple times at my old blog, but my old blog got hacked and disappeared, so most or all of those previous mentions are lost. It gives me a new chance to talk about one of my favorites.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is the magnum opus, or maybe the thesis statement, of the great comedy director Preston Sturges. Preston Sturges made a number of great comedies, including “The Lady Eve” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” which are also among my all-time favorites. But “Sullivan’s Travels” turns out to be a comedy about the value of comedy, and thus a defense of Sturges’ brilliant and often subversive career.
The movie is the story of John L. Sullivan, a movie director played by Joel McCrea. Sullivan has spent the 1930s making successful musical comedies like “Hey, Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he itches to make a Serious Movie, a Message Movie. He has set his sights on a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
At the time “Sullivan’s Travels” was produced, the title “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” existed only in Preston Sturges’ mind. It was, of course, a joke — with the form of a ponderously-serious agitprop title, but incorporating a sly reference to the then-popular exclamation, “Oh, brother!” Years later, of course, the Coen brothers — who are, naturally, fans of “Sullivan’s Travels” — would appropriate the title and make a real movie out of it, although their movie is a lot funnier than the one John L. Sullivan wanted to make.
The studio bosses are horrified at the idea of Sullivan’s dreary message movie. Sullivan’s musical comedies have consistently made money, and they want him to continue with “Ants In Your Pants of 1941.” But he’s also one of their most-valued talents, and so they’d rather talk him out of it than just give him an out-and-out “no.” They remind him that he grew up in an upper-class home, attended private school and a good college, and tell him he doesn’t really know anything about poverty or being disenfranchised.
Sullivan takes that criticism to heart — but not in the way his bosses intended. He announces that he’ll take a leave of absence from the studio in order to wander the countryside dressed as a tramp, so that he can learn what poverty is like.
And thus you have the setup for the movie. Sullivan attempts, with varying degrees of success, to become anonymous and wander into trouble. His early attempts lead to comic catastrophe. Along the way, he befriends a discouraged would-be actress (played by Veronica Lake) who has given up on her dream and is preparing to move back east. At first, he tries to help her without revealing his true identity, but that just leads to further complications.
Finally, when Sullivan has satisfied himself that he has learned something about poverty, he ends the experiment —only to have his world turned on its ear by a development he never expected. What happens next will teach him just how shallow his experiment really was.
It’s a really, really funny movie, and yet, it ends up having something to say — something just as significant as Sinclair Beckstein’s non-existent novel.
One side note has to do with the movie’s treatment of African-Americans. Early on in the movie, there’s an embarrassing, stereotypical black cook depicted as part of a slapstick chase scene. That was typical of the “Amos & Andy” era. But much later in the movie, a climactic scene — the most famous scene in the movie, in fact — takes place in a black church in the rural South. The portrayal of the minister and the church members as they provide hospitality to a chain gang was so sympathetic, so dignified, and so atypical of the era that the NAACP actually sent Sturges a letter of thanks and commendation.
This really is a wonderful movie, well worth your time. It turns up on TCM from time to time, and you can also find it various places online.