Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.
Just as there are plenty of musicals about the ups and downs of putting on a musical, so too are there plenty of movies about the movie business. It makes a certain sense that at some point filmmakers would be interested in creating something that is so connected with them. There are plenty of films that use the idea of making a film as a backdrop or tangential to the plot and those that are more or less about the movie industry itself. Sullivan’s Travels is sort of in between the two. It’s unquestionably about making a film, but it’s also about a bit more.
John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a director of silly musicals and screwball comedies, and he’s a pretty successful one. But he’s bored. He’s bored with what he’s doing and he’s bored with the films he’s been making. He wants to do something real, something with substance. His dream script is “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” a film that talks about suffering and the plight of the poor, but no one wants him to make it, mostly because he’s never really known what it is to suffer.
His grand experiment is to hit the road as a penniless beggar. His studio has other ideas, though, and wants to turn the whole thing into a publicity stunt. So Sullivan sets out, walking up the road like a tramp, followed by a fully-stocked bus laden with food, reporters, and wireless communication back to Hollywood. This isn’t what Sullivan wants, though, so he hitches a ride with a kid in cobbled buggy and leads them on a chase. When it stops, he makes them a deal—he’ll go on his own and meet up with them in a couple of weeks in Las Vegas. He has a couple of adventures and eventually hitches a ride that takes him back to Hollywood.
It is here that the film takes its first real turn. Sullivan winds up in a diner where he meets The Girl (Veronica Lake, and yes, that’s exactly how she is credited—we never get a name for her). She’s on her way out of Hollywood and wants nothing more to do with the town. She buys him breakfast and he offers to drive her away. He takes one of his own cars, and is quickly pulled over and forced to admit who he is. But he’s still ready to try the experiment again, and this time she goes with him.
Again, things don’t work out the way he wants, both because of luck and because of his own naiveté. And once again, he winds up where he doesn’t want to be—this time in Las Vegas, and right by the bus he sent there. The third time is a charm, though. He and the girl sleep in homeless shelters and eat in free kitchens for some time and Sullivan decides he’s had enough and is ready to go home. His experience has moved him enough, though, that he wants to do something to help the suffering in the world, and he goes to pass out $5 bills to the poor. One man wants a little more and mugs him, stealing the money. The thief had previously run off with Sullivan’s shoes, which have Sullivan’s identity sewn into them. Sullivan is left with amnesia, and the thief is soon hit by a passing train, causing everyone (including the girl) to believe that he is dead. Sullivan himself gets sent to a labor camp for assaulting a railroad worker, and this is when the real message of the film kicks in.
For all of the comedy moments in Sullivan’s Travels, and there are plenty of them, this is a message film through and through. The whole point of the film is to get John Sullivan to confront the world that he wants to see and the trouble he so desperately wishes to find and also to confront the reality of the world he came from. The side plots—his estranged wife keeping him from running off with The Girl, for instance—are rom-com elements that are there more or less to keep this a comedy in places and to stop the film from become too much the message that it wants to be.
It’s hard to dislike Sullivan’s Travels too much. It’s sappy and silly at times, and sometimes goes too far into farce territory. During his boarding house experience, the portrait of the old man on the wall changes its expression depending on what’s happening in the room. This is straight out of a Three Stooges comedy, and really feels out of place in a film that takes such a dark turn at the end of the second act. But even with this, there’s a sweetness to it. Sullivan’s experience on the road is a real one eventually, and there’s a great deal of pathos in these moments. Similarly, the moment of epiphany for Sullivan is a great one, and the film is worth seeing for this alone.
As a final note, this film is also worth seeing for Veronica Lake. Lake could have been great, but had pretty terrible luck with the films she was given. This is one of her only worthwhile films, so you should see this for her, too. She deserved better.
Why to watch Sullivan’s Travels: The original film about film.
Why not to watch: Despite the message, there are parts that come off as forced.