US 1941, dir. Preston Sturges, 91m
Sturges’ most ambitious – and now most highly regarded – film is a qualified triumph, a work of erratic originality from one of Hollywood’s most unpredictable, unclassifiable talents. Its influence can be seen in films such as Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Hannah and Her Sisters, and in the Coens’ Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Are Thou?, the latter an all-out tribute to Sturges in general and this picture in particular.
Joel McCrea is John L Sullivan, successful director of artistically lowbrow but financially successful musical comedies and apparently no relation to the boxer of the same name. Frustrated by studio bosses who suggest following up the Ants In Your Pants of 1939 with Ants In Your Pants of 1941, Sullivan decides to change tack completely and face up to the world’s political and social problems with a worthy project entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? For the purposes of research, he departs his pampered millionaire mansion in the guise of a penniless hobo – this leads to a series of comic mishaps and a chance meeting with a struggling actress (Veronica Lake), who accompanies him on his travels. In the second half of the film, however, events take a darker turn, as, after a series of accidents and contrivances, Sullivan is sentenced to six years’ hard labour on a deep-South chain-gang – his loss of identity, and the extreme nature of his predicament, foreshadow Michael Douglas’s Mexican travails in The Game. Observing his fellow prisoners’ ecstatic reaction to a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Sullivan decides there’s nothing so awful about comedies after all, and after revealing his true identity and returning to Hollywood, shelves his O Brother plans.
Even from this bare synopsis, it should be clear that Sullivan’s Travels operates on totally different territory to the usual run of early-40s Hollywood product. This is one of the first – and best – movies about the movies, with a film director as its central character and a disarming level of self-awareness: life imitates Sullivan’s art when he and his girl literally get ants in their pants, and from the moment when a fan recounts a scene in one of his movies featuring a sneezing horse, Sullivan can’t stop sneezing himself. Sullivan wants to leave behind slapstick comedy in favour of social comment – Sturges tries to pull off both within the same film, and he largely succeeds. But, as is so often the case, he gives the impression of having dashed off his movie without thinking it through, and there’s much that’s troubling and questionable about his approach and execution.
For one thing, the pacing is all wrong. There are two lengthy ‘serious’ sequences in which the film grinds to a halt: an interminable dialogue two-hander between McCrea and Lake in a boxcar, and, later, a wordless montage of their struggles to find food and shelter. This latter segment contrasts sharply with a much more successful silent section towards the end of the film following McCrea’s release from the chain-gang and his return to Hollywood, which is a riot of chaotic visual invention: Sturges’ uptempo comedy works a treat, but he comes unstuck with the slower scenes. More worrying is the fact that he also comes a complete cropper in his depiction of Sullivan’s beloved underclass.
I admire critic Danny Peary’s excellent essays eulogising Sullivan’s Travels, but he and I diverge when he praises Sturges’ ‘democratic’ approach to crowds: “What’s special about Sturges’ dialogues is how he lets everyone speak. Sullivan’s Travels is filled with splendid character actors and Sturges democratically gives them all important and wise things to say.” One of my main gripes with this film is the fact that Sturges never lets any of the underprivileged tramps and prisoners speak for themselves, with the glaring exception of one single word from a hobo who, looking on as McCrea and Lake haul themselves inexpertly into the boxcar, snorts “Amateurs!” And that’s it – the rest of them are stoically wordless: the tramps pass in front of the camera with a mournful expression, the chain-gang prisoners laugh like moronic jackasses. None of them is ever given a vestige of the dignity and individuality Sturges affords to the film’s middle and upper class characters – who never stop gabbing.
It’s also troubling that we never get a satisfactory explanation of how Sullivan manages to obtain release from the chain-gang. Although we see that Sullivan’s crime is ‘justified’ – in a kind of self-defence, and suffering from mental confusion and amnesia, he hits a brutish security guard with a rock – we also see him tried, judged and sentenced, and the chain-gang sequences rely for much of their effect on the fact that we’ve really got to believe that Sullivan is there for the duration. But all Sullivan has to do is suddenly overcome his amnesia, remember that he’s a rich film director, publicise the fact and, hey presto, he’s packed off back to his mansion. Is this Sturges’ idea of justice – is he saying that this is how America should work?
But you only really start picking these holes in retrospect. Sullivan’s Travels is, for the most part, so strikingly original and effective that you end up excusing its numerous paradoxes and faults. Sturges is a terrific comedy director who pays attention to the smallest details – all of his films are superbly cast, from the appealing leads right down to the briefest bit players, and he built up an unparalleled stock company of character actors like William Demarest and Eric Blore.
And, if he’s essentially an undisciplined talent, then there are many fruits of his indiscipline for the audience. Early on there’s a farcical sequence in which McCrea is given a ride in a souped-up jalopy by a kid who’s barely into his teens – the car reaches absurd speeds as it careers along highways and fields (the speedometer is chalked onto the dashboard) and there’s a startling moment where Sturges deploys a few frames of slow motion to indicate how blurrily fast McCrea going. It’s a long scene, but it maintains momentum: Sturges, like the kid, keeps control of his material – but only just.
Later on, two counterpointing scenes illustrate the peaks of Sturges’ wayward genius. Both show people going to see movies, but that’s where the similarity ends. The first is played for big laughs – McCrea accompanies a pair of middle-aged sisters to a programme of serious melodrama, and ends up surrounded by the movie audience from hell, complete with a brat tooting on a tin whistle. The second is the Mickey Mouse show towards the end, which takes place ay a swamp-side church with an all-black congregation – it’s a pivotal, serious, almost overwhelmingly moving scene in which the process of watching a film becomes a heightened, baroque religious ritual. If everything afterwards seems trivially anti-climactic, that’s a small price to pay for one of the most astonishing scenes in American movies, quite unlike anything else before or since.