Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Preston Sturges Retrospective 1 and Pantheon movie of the month - SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS

Preston Sturges - King of the Screwball Comedy and inspiration for the Coen Brothers early work - one of the first Hollywood screen-writers to wrest control of his work and become a "full service" auteur - writer, director and producer. Starting in 1940, Sturges had an astounding 4 year run, crafting wonderful romantic-comedies that mixed good old-fashioned slapstick with bravura dialogue capturing the battle between the sexes. In just four years, he redefined the popular comedy and made serious cash to boot. Most directors would be happy to produce a single film as iconic as THE GREAT MRS McGINTY (1940), THE LADY EVE (1941), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941), THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942), THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK (1944), and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944). So over the next few weeks, I'll be taking some to watch these great movies, in no particular order, and to have some fun!

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How 'bout a nice musical?

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is a great movie, regularly appearing on critics and film-makers' Top Movies of All Time lists, but it's not as well-known as other iconic 1940s features. I watched it for the first time recently, and was surprised by the fact that, despite being known for it's comic opening, quoted above, it's really a very serious film about poverty, homelessness, and the cruelty of the justice system.

As the movie opens, a handsome, privileged, rich Hollywood director, John Sullivan plans to make a movie entitled O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? - a title borrowed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen for their 2000 film. He wants to make a serious movie about poverty, but the studio is nervous about its box-office potential. In order to put him off, they rightly criticise him for not knowing a damn about poverty. So Sullivan borrows a tramp's costume from wardrobe and decides to try and make it on ten cents a day.

The resulting film is tricky and post-modern before the term was invented. The film itself has a lot of footage of poverty and destitution. Sullivan is arrested, imprisoned and works on a chain gang. He goes to the cinema as a prisoner, looking to the funnies for his only joy in life. But the film, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is also concerned with being too serious and un-entertaining - the same concern that afflicted the producers of O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? So, Sullivan has some witty dialogue with the producers, itself about serious versus entertaining films! Moreover, there has to be a screwball romance: and so Sullivan takes up with a beautiful aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) and there's a lot of cute dialogue, some physical comedy involving falling into a swimming pool, and a happy ending.

The movie ends with Hollywood having it's cake and eating it. It's okay to make superficial funny pictures because, hey, "that's all some people have". And, if we make a bunch of money along the way, well....

I can't quite decide if I admire or abhor SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS for this slippery conclusion. But I do admire it for it's clever dialogue, physical comedy, realistic depiction of poverty and clever structure. It's a classic film, and one that's worth viewing, especially if you're a Coen Brothers fan.

SULLIVAN'S TRAVEL was released in 1941.

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