Director: Preston Sturges
Production: Paramount Pictures; black and white, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes. Released 1941.
Producer: Paul Jones; original story and screenplay: Preston Sturges; photography: John Seitz; editor: Stuart Gilmore; art directors: Hans Dreier and Earl Hedrick; music: Leo Shuken and Charles Bradshaw; special effects: Farciot Edouart.
Cast: Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan); Veronica Lake (The Girl); Robert Warwick (Mr. Le Brand); William Demarest (Mr. Jones); Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Casalsis); Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian); Byron Foulger (Mr. Vadelle); Margaret Hayes (Secretary); Torben Meyer (Doctor); Robert Greig (Sullivan's butler); Eric Blore (Sullivan's valet); Al Bridge (Sheriff); Esther Howard (Miz Zeffie); Almira Sessions (Ursula); Frank Moran (Chauffeur); George Renavent (Old tramp); Victor Potel (Cameraman); Richard Webb (Radio man); Harry Rosenthal (The trombenick); Jimmy Conlin (The trusty); Jan Buckingham (Mrs. Sullivan); Robert Winkler (Bud); Chick Collins (Capital); Jimmie Dundee (Labor); Charles Moore (Black chef); Al Bridge (The mister); Harry Hayden (Mr. Carson); Willard Robertson (Judge); Pat West (Counterman—roadside lunch wagon); J. Farrell MacDonald (Desk sergeant); Edward Hearn (Cop—Beverly Hills station); Roscoe Ates (Counterman—Owl Wagon); Paul Newlan (Truck driver); Arthur Hoyt (Preacher); Gus Reed (Mission cook); Robert Dudley (One-legged man); George Anderson (Sullivan's exmanager); Monte Blue (Cop in slums); Harry Tyler (R.R. information clerk); Dewey Robinson (Sheriff); Madame Sul-te-wan (Harmonium player); Jess Lee Brooks (Black preacher); Perc Launders (Yard Man); Emory Parnell (Man at R.R. shack); Julius Tannen (Public defender); Edgar Dearing (Cop—Mud Gag); Howard Mitchell (Railroad clerk); Harry Seymour (Entertainer in air-raid shelter); Bill Bletcher (Entertainer in hospital); Chester Conklin (Old man); Frank Mills (Drunk in theater).
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Sullivan's Travels is writer-director Preston Sturges's version of "the clown who wants to pay Hamlet" in which he proves that the world needs a clown more than it needs a Hamlet. Sturges was a director of such skill and cunning that he could both destroy and elevate an institution simultaneously. Sullivan's Travels, one of his best films and certainly one of his most personal (as it is about a Hollywood director), both attacks and celebrates Hollywood with such balance and panache that fans and detractors are equally satisfied with the results. This ambivalence characterizes the work of Sturges, whose career has undergone a recent critical re-evaluation. One of the most successful and respected writer-directors of the 1940s, his career fell apart after a decade of critical and commercial success. He died an out-of-fashion, nearly forgotten man in 1959. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, his work was largely unknown. Now that his career is being favourably re-assessed, his comedies of American life, manners and mores are being restored to their rightful position as first-rate examples of Hollywood filmmaking and humor.
Sullivan's Travels undertakes a bold assignment. Its narrative shifts from comedy to tragedy and back to comedy, something seldom successfully accomplished in film. Those who criticize the film do so on the basis of its serious scenes when the hero, Joel McCrea, is arrested and sent to a prison chain gang, where the only thing the convicts have to look forward to is the cartoon they share with a black church group on special occasions. The film's structure, however, is skillfully executed, and the hero's descent into a social hell uncushioned by money and power is presented largely through an effective montage, followed by the prison sequence. The ultimate return to comedy is indeed abrupt, but it demonstrates the theme of the film. The structure is attuned to the basic universe of the Sturges world, which is a schizophrenic one, part sophistication and part slapstick, a world of contradiction and conflict. Sturges's technical presentation carries out this confusion and chaos, by frequently disintegrating into rapid montage. Although he was a master of writing witty repartee, Sturges also loved visual gags and the sort of pratfalls associated with silent film comedy. He wove these two seemingly contradictory traditions—dialogue comedy and physical comedy—together into films like Sullivan's Travels which fans call "free-wheeling" and critics call "frenzied." The slambang quality of the Sturges films, coupled with the basic violence of his comedy, contributed to the eventual disfavor of his work.
Today Sturges may be seen as a great American satirist, and Sullivan's Travels is often called "Swiftian." It ably demonstrates the Sturges brand of comedy. The script is dense with hilarious dialogue, and the characterizations demonstrate his incredible attention to detail that makes a real human being out of the smallest, most outrageous part. The most successful portions of the film are those in which he satirizes Hollywood with an insider's advantage. As always, Sturges was adept at pointing out the absurdity and essential phonies of a world which, rotten to the core and corrupted by the desires for money and success, maintains an outward sheen of respectability and good manners.