Sullivan's Travels

Joel McCREA AND Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels. Image source:

Joel McCREA AND Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels. Image source:

I'm a big fan of comedic films. The films discussed thus far, save Vertigo, all have comedic elements built around their core. Many might think that the comedy is vapid and doesn't deliver enough pure quality, but I disagree. Preston Sturges's 1942 film Sullivan's Travels is a good reason why.

The film is about a young comedy director, John L. Sullivan, (Joel McCrea) who yearns to move onto more thought-provoking content. He thus disguises as a homeless person so he can experience the true struggles of life firsthand, and then translate that into film. It's only when his plans go awry that he learns what it means to struggle, and the importance of his work.

The film received somewhat mixed reactions when it first released, but has since become regarded as a classic. This, I could not understand at first glance: the film is quite good on its own, and there is nothing hidden and extra to it that reviewers could have missed. Perhaps the message of the story (or the way it was delivered) didn't sit well with them? When I thought about it a bit more, however, I realize that it's lukewarm initial reception may be due to its somewhat self-contradictory nature.

Poster for the film Sullivan's Travels. Image Source:

Poster for the film Sullivan's Travels. Image Source:

The film is somewhat guilty of hypocrisy, to be honest. While its message is that comedy does need to be preachy in order to contribute to society, it conveys this message in the same way it decries. I'm not sure if it was intentional. Still, in the end, Sullivan's Travels manages to balance its comedic elements with the preaching it somewhat dislikes. Hypocritical, but it still works out.

One of the most remarkable moments in the film is the scene within the church, where-in the film treats African American characters with a high degree of respect. Not only that, this scene is integral to delivering the central message of the film, making their role within the film a very important one. This is all without resorting to stereotypes. For a film of its era, this is definitely worthy of praise.

One thing I don't understand is why Veronica Lake's character, the main female lead, goes unnamed during the movie. My best guess is that is a loose allusion to Chaplin, but even then it makes little sense. It doesn't really detract from the film in any major way, but it does feel a bit weird, looking back on the film.

The film would inspire another film: O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen, named after the movie Sullivan wanted to make. The movie is a comedy about the Great Depression, contrary to what was Sullivan's original vision. In many ways, it is a reflection of the moral of Sullivan's Travels.

My thoughts are a bit scattered when it comes to Sullivan's Travels. It is an all-around decent film, proof that the comedy can provide to society. Still, inadvertently or not, it feels as though it's guilty of the preaching it looks down on. This means that while the film is enjoyable to watch, it suffers a bit when examined in-depth. Perhaps that means that the film has achieved its simple purpose: deliver quality entertainment. It's also kind of funny how Sullivan's Travels is a comedic moralistic film about how pure comedy films are just as good, if not better, than moralistic films.

Bryan Mackay

Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.