Wednesday, April 22, 2015
2015 Blind Spot Series: Sullivan's Travels
Written and directed by Preston Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels is the story of a Hollywood filmmaker who decides to make films about the real world as he pretends to be a hobo as he struggles with what story he wants to tell. The film is an exploration into the world of artistic freedom as it’s told with a lot of humor as it revolves a man who is known for making comedies as he wants to do something serious. Starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. Sullivan’s Travels is a witty yet whimsical film from Preston Sturges.
Set in the final years of the Great Depression, a comedy filmmaker wants to make a film about the poor as he pretends to be poor only to get into some bad situations that forces him to crawl back to his life of comfort. It’s a film that plays into a man who wants to see if he can make something very serious as he decides to dress up like a hobo and endure the same suffering as the poor. Yet, things don’t go well for John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) as he endures a series of humiliating moments until he is aided by a wannabe actress (Veronica Lake) who would join him in his quest to pretend to be poor. Still, Sullivan and this young woman would cope with not just the strange realities of being poor and having to ride trains illegally but also elements that end up being very comical.
Preston Sturges’ screenplay is very witty about the not just Sullivan’s struggles to feel the reality of the poor but also the disconnect that he has since he is someone that is known for making escapist comedies. Part of Sullivan’s motivations to do this adaptation of O Brother, Where Art Thou? revolves around the unhappiness of his own life as he’s in a loveless marriage while feeling unfulfilled creatively. By pretending to be a hobo for research purposes, things don’t go as its planned as the studio hires various people on a bus to follow him where a lot of hi-jinks ensue prompting Sullivan to make a brief retreat to Hollywood after meeting this young woman who would join him in another attempt to understand the poor. The woman’s motivation isn’t just wanting to become an actress but also not return home as a failure as she finds Sullivan as her chance of success and hope.
Part of the success for their relationship isn’t just two people dealing with loneliness but also the dialogue that Sturges creates which is very stylish and rhythmic. The monologues that Sturges creates for these characters including the smaller ones are very to-the-point as well as showcase a sense of frustration and determination into what they want. There’s also some humor that play into the dialogue as it adds to Sturges’ own approach of timing and in fleshing out the characters. Especially in moments when there’s no dialogue as it plays into what Sullivan wants to do and what he wants to say for the people living in such hard times.
Sturges’ direction is very engaging for not just capturing the world of Hollywood but also its emphasis to provide people something that is escapist which Sullivan want to stray away from. While much of the compositions that Sturges creates are simple, he does manage to infuse some style into his direction such as long takes in a scene where Sullivan talks to his bosses about what to do as it is told in one entire take in a medium-wide shot. Sturges’ approach to directing actors and knowing where to place them in the frame not only add to the sense of wanting to capture something real but also combat with Hollywood’s own artificiality in a very funny way. Most notably a sequence where the bus full of reporters and studio people following Sullivan are forced to chase him as it’s among these moments that are just crazy. It’s among some of the hilarity that Sturges wants to create while many of the scenes involving the poor and how they live are taken very seriously.
The direction also has elements where Sturges knows when to just keep things simple which include the scenes between Sullivan and the young woman who joins him as there’s bits of comedy but it’s mostly very low-key. Sturges doesn’t go for a lot of close-ups as he wanted to showcase more of what Sullivan and the woman are doing in their surroundings. It’s in these locations where it helps tell the story of where they are as they would endure moments that are quite grim but also show that there is still elements of life. Even in the film’s third act where Sullivan would endure a journey of his own as it plays into the harsh realities of those who are suffering where he would have his own epiphany about himself and his role as a filmmaker. Overall, Sturges creates a very entertaining and exuberant film about a filmmaker trying to understand the struggles of the poor by becoming poor himself.
Cinematographer John Seitz does amazing work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to play into some of the stark look of the scenes where the poor lived with its unique approach to lighting that feels entrancing as opposed to the more simplistic yet lively approach to the world of Hollywood. Editor Stuart Gilmore does excellent work with the editing with its stylish use of rhythmic cuts, montages, and dissolves to play into the humor as well as some of the stranger elements that Sullivan would endure in its third act. Art directors Hans Dreier and Earl Hedrick do fantastic work with the set design from the bus the studio people and journalists would use during Sullivan’s journey as well as the design of his home and the drab places he would go to.
The costumes by Edith Head does brilliant work with the costumes from the dresses that the young woman would wear as well as the hobo clothes she and Sullivan would wear. The sound work of Harry D. Mills and Walter Oberst is terrific for the sound that is captured on location as well as some of the effects that play into the film‘s humor. The film’s music by Leo Shuken and Charles Bradshaw is superb for its orchestral score that ranges from playful for its humorous moments to some somber pieces for its drama and sense of despair.
The casting by Robert Mayo is great as it features notable small roles from Georges Renavent as an old tramp Sullivan would encounter, Margaret Hayes as one of the studio bosses’ secretary, Robert Harwick and William Demarest as the studio bosses, Robert Grieg as Sullivan’s butler, and Eric Blore as Sullivan’s valet as Grieg and Blore both give very funny performances. Finally, there’s the duo of Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in phenomenal performances. Lake brings a sense of beauty but also humility and humor as a young woman who joins Sullivan on his journey as she helps him try to survive being broke. McCrea brings some grit and humility to his role as John L. Sullivan as this filmmaker wanting to find some realism as he later endures the harshness of reality. Lake and McCrea as a duo have this very lively chemistry that has both of them be funny but also serious as they allow themselves to be characters to root for.
Sullivan’s Travels is a spectacular film from Preston Sturges that features exhilarating performances from Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. Not only is it is comical road film but also an engaging one that explores the world of the Great Depression from the view of an outsider. Especially as it is presented with elements of somber reality mixed in with elements of comedy that does more than just entertain. In the end, Sullivan’s Travels is an exquisite yet incredible film from Preston Sturges.
Preston Sturges Films: (The Great McGinty) - (Christmas in July) - The Lady Eve - (The Palm Beach Story) - (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) - (Hail the Conquering Hero) - (The Great Moment) - (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock) - (Unfaithfully Yours) - (The Beautiful Blond of Bashful Head) - (Vendetta (1950 film)) - (The French, They Are a Funny Race)
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