Friday, July 01, 2016

Not amused

Sullivan's Travels is one of those classics that I've always wanted to see but somehow have kept missing. It's often referenced as Preston Sturges' signature film, his masterpiece. The AFI included it on their list of greatest films of all time. I knew the Cohen Brothers had developed their crazy popular O Brother, Where Art Thou as an homage to Sturges and this film.

Finally saw it this past week with my movie group.I  was unprepared for how dark this comedy got.

To those of you who, like me until Tuesday, are unfamiliar with the movie, here's the bare bones of the plot. Sullivan is the handsome young director of very popular comedies during the Depression. He yearns to do more serious work, dramas that will reflect the human condition in this country during hard times.

But, he decides, life by the pool in Beverly Hills is just too cushy. He can't portray the lives of the poor with any sensitivity until he moves among them. So he dresses up like a hobo (complete with bandana on the end of a stick) and begins to hitch across country. Maybe hop a freight or two.

The movie studio decides this is a delicious story for the fan magazines and sends a luxury bus after him, complete with shower and kitchen, for the publicist and secretary and studio executive that are taking down his every movement. Sullivan keeps trying to ditch them and not only keeps failing, he keeps ending up back in Los Angeles, as though the cushy life is somehow his fate. This part of the movie was biting and funny. I especially liked when Sullivan's butler tried to convince him that this was a wrong-headed, even offensive, pursuit. The "poor and needy" will likely consider Sullivan's adventure "as an invasion of their privacy, and quite rightly." But Sullivan is insistent.

One thing leads to another, as it will in these movies, and Sullivan ends up accepting the gift of ham and eggs at a Los Angeles (again!) diner from a failed actress who is only a little better off than he pretends to be. She's reconciled that her career is never going to happen and she's about to begin hitching rides back home to the Midwest.

Sullivan is so touched by her generosity that he admits who he is and promises to help her get a start in the movies. But he's also still committed to taking time off to see how the other half lives. She worries that he's so guileless and insists on going along.

Now the movie gets dark and never really lightens up much. There are soup kitchens, homeless shelters and even a chain gang.

I hated it.

It was well made, well acted and made me think. I appreciate all that, so I guess you could say I appreciated Sullivan's Travels.

But don't tell me a movie is a madcap comedy and then make me confront murder and deprivation and beatings and starvation and desperation. I was unprepared for the intensity, and wasn't in a good place emotionally to receive the message.


  1. Wow--that's not how I define madcap.

  2. How disappointing. Maybe now that you know the true theme, you can re-watch it when you're prepared, and might enjoy it more.


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