Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (or How to Stop Worrying and Make O'Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Something about Sullivan's Travels is different than most other comedies of its time.  Even more than other Preston Sturges comedies about life in America or politics or love.  It rings true about how people should be entertained, and how their condition in life responds to that.  The hero of Sturges' film, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea in a brave comic-dramatic performance), is out to find what it's like for the 'working man'.  No, worse off yet, those in the dregs of society, the poor, the bums, the derelicts, the ones waiting on line for the soup and bread and are stuck sleeping on the streets at night or hoping trains to who-knows-where.  He's out to find out what it's like since, you know, it's the depression and people need to see what the social consciousness is like out there.  He'll make John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath look like shallow in comparison.

Oh but what a tangled web John weaves when he goes off and deceives with not only his dirty clothes with holes and dirty face, but with lovely hot-number, uh, "The Girl" (as she's credited on IMDb), played by Veronica Lake, who should be the farthest thing removed from riding huddled in hay on a freight train.  But as it turns out, she's also poor, kind of, as she looks for work or that hopeful big letter that will be made out to Ernst Lubitsch.  At first John is pulling it off, and is knee-deep in the dregs of society.  But then he also gets robbed after being generous to the people he sees walking along and is left for dead - that is, in a humorous funny "ho-ho" not funny "ha-ha" twist, he's thought dead, and gets in a big fight with a train worker that lands him on the chain gang for six years.  But he's dead, you say?  So does he, folks.

A lot of what I've described could very well be made in the hands of a broad comedian.  Not Sturges.  His film, one of the wisest on not just the making of movies (albeit we're never on a movie set and only briefly in a screening room or in movie studio offices), is about something so vital not just to its period but any time period: how does one live?  This sounds like it should be so philosophical as to be excluded from a fun adventure comedy that does indeed feature a big chase scene early on where John tries to get away from the traveling caravan of movie people following him along on the road.  Sturges' method is to subvert expectations.  His film is dark and twisted, and yet with all of its comic twists and pratfalls, is believable in its own logic and scope.  It's like the tortured poet-cousin of Frank Capra who is just a little jaundiced in his outlook.  Even when characters have a light moment like when prisoners laugh during a Pluto cartoon it becomes like a great statement on the social condition of watching movies.

There's few movies about how a movie creator is inspired like this.  Maybe Adaptation. comes to mind as an example of a filmmaker trusting the audience- perhaps dangerously so- to leap off from one kind of movie into another.  My expectations were subverted as to what I thought would be a straightforward comedy.  It's so much more than that, and yet during some of the darkest moments of the film, there are some laughs to be had.  When John is sitting it out in the swamp doing hard labor, the scrawny guy keeps talking and tries to look on the upside of things, the sort of "don't get into any trouble, y'hear" kind of guy in these movies, and he's naturally (or unnaturally depending on the line) funny.  And other moments are so deadly serious, or just solemn, as to seem to be out of another movie.  John and The Girl walk along a river at night, and I could swear I saw the little boat carrying the boy and girl from The Night of the Hunter.  As the prisoners were being escorted into the church and the song was being sung by the black church group, there is not a trace of irony to be found.  Well, OK, maybe a little in the Pluto cartoon moment, but not much.

It's the kind of satire like Dr. Strangelove that is often bitingly, hysterically funny about its subject, but it carries with it the veneer of sincerity.  Sturges has a sense of how to keep the pace going with his two stars just right - the dialog is kind of a sophisticated form of screwball dialog, romantic-related but more about the stars charisma than reaching a point past their patter, which is sublime as it is - and how to keep the larger issues from poking their heads in just enough to reach full impact.  It's about us just as much as it is about John Sullivan putting together his movie of poverty.  Does he know it by the end?  Do we?  I'm suddenly reminded mid-paragraph about a quote from Tom Noonan: "I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away."  

I have to wonder now if that is a greater point Sturges is making past the rapid-witty dialog and the twisted situations that happen in the film.  I felt like I was getting somewhere back, even as it was pure escapism.  As a joyful film about the movies, Sullivan's Travels really is, though its a long hard road getting there.  Everything from the acting to the writing to the delicate and creative cinematography, and how the film ends so beautifully with full bitter-sweet style, it's really one of the best kinds of comedy-dramas you could ever see.....

Just don't take that poster as a means of what the film will be, except as an indication of Veronica Lake's "honey" status.  Then again, a movie advertisement lying?  No....

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