Sullivan’s Travels (1942)
This is my contribution to the Build Your Own Blogathon hosted by the fantastic Classic Film and TV Café. Over each of the last twenty days, a different blog has written about a movie that must somehow connect to the previous day’s film. They have connected by actor, composer, director, editor, setting, genre, producer, and writer. I’m the final entry, and my choice of Sullivan’s Travels (1942) connects to Mildred’s Fatburger’s film All Through the Night (1941) through the actor William Demarest. Be sure to check out the twenty great entries in this unique blogathon!
I’m also the luckiest lady in all the land because not only does this movie star my favorite actor, Joel McCrea, but I was beyond fortunate to talk to Joel McCrea’s son Peter who gave me access to an unpublished memoir compiled from interviews that he conducted with his dad. I’m not known for being concise, but this review is a long one because I want to share Joel McCrea’s wonderful memories of the making of this movie. Thank you, Peter!
Now onward to Sullivan’s Travels! This film was written and directed by Preston Sturges, whose film career is astonishing both for its quality and its brevity. He wrote and directed several timeless classics like The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), as well as writing Easy Living (1937) and Love Before Breakfast (1936), but his extraordinary run of successful films only lasted about four years. Sullivan’s Travels is generally considered to be one of his best.
Fun fact: The assistant director was Anthony Mann, who would go on to direct amazing noirs and westerns.
Sullivan’s Travels opens with this dedication, a sentiment that will come back throughout the movie:
Then it cuts to a furious fight between two men on top of a speeding train. They battle until the train chugs over a bridge and both men plummet to their deaths in the water below. What is going on? Then “The End” appears over their watery graves…it’s an odd way to start a movie.
But things become clearer quickly. What we just watched was a movie-within-the-movie, projected in a studio screening room. John L. Sullivan, acclaimed director, jumps up into the light, full of excitement and passion over the truth and symbolism of the film we/they just watched.
The two studio executives are less enthused. We learn that Sullivan is a famous, rich director whose popular comedies have made a lot of money for his studio. (Some of the Sullivan films we hear about include So Long, Sarong, Hey, Hey in the Hayloft, and Ants in Your Plants of 1939! (see a reader’s comment below for more on that last title!) His films are light, funny crowd pleasers; “stupid” but “wonderful,” as a character later remarks.)
But now Sullivan wants to make a movie with a message, based on the (fake) book “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Fun fact: We later see a copy of this book and learn that the author is “Sinclair Beckstein,” a combination of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck.
Another fun fact: Joel and Ethan Coen apparently love Sullivan’s Travels, and they borrowed the title of their delightful Odyssey adaptation O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) from this film. Sullivan’s movie was finally made, just 58 years later!
John L. Sullivan is played by Joel McCrea and Sturges wrote the role with him in mind. Sturges liked McCrea’s low-key, natural style, and appreciated his professional attitude and work ethic.
They first met on the set of The Power and the Glory (1933), which was written by Sturges. When McCrea stopped by, Sturges told him “I’m going to be directing soon, and I want to do something with you.” Eternally humble McCrea recalled years later, “I don’t know why!” (Although Sturges had wanted to direct his scripts for years, he wouldn’t get the chance until 1940’s The Great McGinty.)
The two men occasionally crossed paths, but it wasn’t until Sturges had written Sullivan’s Travels that he sought out McCrea. They met in Paramount’s commissary, and Sturges told the actor that he had written a script for him. McCrea’s famous and oft-repeated response was: “No one writes a script for me. They write a script for Gary Cooper, and if they can’t get him they use me.” (In his memoir, McCrea said, “Well, that phrase spread around like wildfire, because they all loved the humility of it.”)
But Sturges protested: “No, it’s not true. I wrote it for you from watching you going in and out on these other pictures and on sets. I’ve watched you for five years. You were John L. Sullivan in my mind. That’s what gave me the idea, only then I thought I’d make you a motion picture director who was a smash comedy director who only wanted to make O Brother, Where Art Thou, a heavy drama of the poor and the poverty stricken.”
Sturges and McCrea were excited to finally work together on this movie. McCrea remembers that Sturges “kept saying how nice I was to do [Sullivan’s Travels]. I thought I was lucky when he asked me to do it.”
They got along great and enjoyed working together; McCrea loved Sturges’ work, and Sturges made McCrea feel like the biggest star in Hollywood. McCrea said later that “[Sturges] would spoil you if you wanted to be spoiled. I didn’t want to be, but he treated me as though he had borrowed Gable from Metro. He just felt that way.”
McCrea liked to get to the set early and chat with Sturges in the morning: “Preston would always be on the set early and have everything lined up with the cameraman for the shot. He would be sitting there in a director’s chair that was just like all the other director’s chairs except that it had a big arm where he always had a cup of coffee. He always had the same property man, an older fellow nearly sixty, and he’d say, ‘Coffee … Joel’s here.’ He’d tell me what happened the night before, and we’d sit and talk a little bit.” They would make two films together after this one: The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Great Moment (1944).
Anyway, back to the movie! Sullivan argues with the executives about the social value and importance of the deep, dark O Brother. They’d rather he just make another popular, profitable comedy or musical, maybe “Ants in Your Plants of 1941?” suggests Mr. Hadrian (Porter Hall).
I love this exchange between Sullivan and Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick) as Sully passionately lays out his vision and also acknowledges the realities of movie-making:
Sully is full of fire about his new project and can’t stand to make another comedy with the world in such a state, with poverty, war, and “grim Death gargling at you from every corner.” But I’m slightly distracted from such poetic descriptions by Sully’s wonderfully 1940s super-high-waisted, pleated trousers and boxy, floppy lapeled coat. McCrea was 6’2, after all, but I think his pants are about 5’2. And I could live in that huge nubby jacket.
Sully is really riled up. The executives, who are most passionate about the bottom line, suggest that maybe people don’t want to see depressing movies. They mention that the film they just watched did horribly when it played in Pittsburgh. Sully has an insulting answer:
He wants to make a movie about trouble, but he’s stymied when they ask, “What do you know about trouble?” It seems that Sully has led a pampered, prosperous life. Boarding school, college, a stunning career in Hollywood–he’s never wondered where his next meal was coming from.
Fun fact: This is just one of the autobiographical elements of the film. Sullivan’s privileged background and virtuosic career are similar to Sturges’, but this movie is not an autobiography, as you shall see.
Sullivan sticks to his guns, and Mr. Lebrand decides to let Sully make O Brother. But before he starts production, Sully wants to go learn about “trouble” so that his movie can indeed be a “true canvas of human suffering.”
Fun fact: This opening scene is over four minutes of fast, overlapping dialogue, filmed in one long take! This is quite a feat.
Originally, Sturges planned to film the scene with several cuts and different camera angles, and it was scheduled to be shot over two full days. But cinematographer John Seitz dared Sturges to shoot the scene in one take, and so they tried it.
According to TCM, “The first take was fine, but the camera wobbled a little in the tracking shot following the men from screening room to office [McCrea recalled that “the camera boddled because the guys were shoving rugs in and stuff that didn’t show when the dolly first went by], so they tried again. They did two or three takes at the most and that was it – two full days work by 11 a.m. on the first day, a feat that had the entire studio buzzing.” In the film, there is a cut as the men enter the office (McCrea thinks it was because some of the dialogue at that moment was mumbled), but otherwise it’s an unbroken take.
The scene covered a whopping ten pages of dialogue, and the norm was to shoot only about four pages a day. According to McCrea’s memoir, when Sturges asked him if he wanted to try shooting all ten pages in one take, McCrea was a little hesitant. “I said, ‘I can’t do [ten] pages! I’m not quick on dialogue.'”
But Sturges’ snappy dialogue was different. As McCrea later said, “The man was a brilliant writer. He wrote dialogue I could just look at once and do.” William Demarest also said that actors could learn Sturges’ dialogue faster than any other writer’s. So McCrea agreed to try it, telling Sturges, “‘I’ll do the best I can.’ He said, ‘You just try it. If you can’t, we’ll break it up. We’ll make it in four different shots the way it should be shot.'” But they did it in one!
They’d finished two days work in two hours, and McCrea remembered that “it made an absolute explosion at Paramount because everyone that had come to work at nine was going home at eleven.” You can watch this famous scene here.
Fun fact: Sturges put a picture of Joel McCrea’s wife, actress Frances Dee, in the studio office. Here is a screenshot, a close-up, and the original photograph that they cropped for the film:
How adorably awesome is that?!
Anyway, Sully is excited about his adventure. He orders some hobo clothes from the costume department and skulks around his beautiful bedroom with his valet (Eric Blore) trying them out. “Aren’t you rather overdoing it, sir?” asks the valet.
Sully’s dress-up time is interrupted by a call from his wife asking about her monthly check. They’re estranged and none too fond of each other. He calls her the Panther Woman. We find out much more about that later on…but right now it’s enough to know that Sully seems like a stereotypical Hollywood big shot, complete with a failed marriage and alimony checks! Plus, it’s funny to see him have this conversation in his tramp costume.
Once that disagreeable situation is handled, Sully gets back to his trouble project. His butler, Burroughs (Robert Greig) ventures to tell Sully that he thinks his plan is awful, dangerous, and silly, as no one wants to watch that kind of movie, anyway. Also:
He continues: “Rich people and theorists–who are usually rich people–think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches–as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty isn’t the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.”
Sully and his valet look at each other, stunned by this outburst, before Sully says, a little awestruck, “He gets a little bit gruesome every once in a while.”
But Sully is still determined to do it! His valet tells him that he took the liberty of sewing identification cards in the soles of his boots, just in case. But otherwise Sully wants to leave with nothing but ten cents in his pocket!
He’s ready to go when a whole crowd bursts in. It’s the studio executives, as well as two other studio guys, sort of publicists/minders.
This group tries once again to convince Sully not to go, and when that fails, they serve him with an injunction forcing him to at least abide by their rules, namely, taking a giant bus with a full staff along on his trip. Sully is a much too valuable man to send off by himself on such a dangerous, foolhardy mission!
But let’s pause a minute and talk about these actors. If you’ve seen other Sturges movies, you may recognize several of these faces. Sturges formed sort of a stock company of actors who show up in many of his films. Already we’ve seen Porter Hall, who made four movies with Sturges, Robert Warwick, who made six, Franklin Pangborn, also six, Robert Greig, six, Esther Howard, coming up shortly, seven, William Demarest, eight, and Frank Moran, who we will see in a moment, who wins with ten!
Sometimes you have to really look for these actors; for instance, in The Palm Beach Story, Greig is a member of the Ale and Quail Club, Esther Howard is the Wienie King’s wife, and Franklin Pangborn is the apartment building manager–all small roles without much screen time, but they’re there!
Anyway, Sully sets off on his quest to find trouble, trailed by a beautiful silver bus.
Inside the bus, there’s a doctor, a photographer, a secretary, a publicist, William Demarest as Mr. Jones, a gruff minder, a guy to man the radio and phones, and a cook. Since the studio couldn’t stop Sully, they’ve decided to keep tabs on him and turn the whole thing into a publicity stunt. The publicist dictates his first story, but is interrupted by the wise-guy photographer:
Fun fact: the bus driver is played by Frank Moran, a boxer who fought for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, twice. Moran had been in Hollywood since the late 1920s, and once Sturges started directing, Moran was kept busy as part of the stock company. In McCrea’s memoir, he says that Sturges had seen Moran box in Paris in the 1920s, and when Sturges ran into Moran in Hollywood, he hired him.
McCrea recalled Moran saying: “You know, I’m so grateful that [Sturges] remembered me and that I’m working! Now that Preston has gotten to direct, my icebox that was so empty you could just leave the door open is so full I have to use all my strength to close the door!”
In the dining area of the swanky bus, Mr. Jones is getting frustrated and bored. The doctor just isn’t getting his conversation, and he’s already fed up with the whole “adventure:”
You can watch the scene here. Fun fact: Demarest played Uncle Charlie on “My Three Sons” (1960-1972).
But soon everything gets exciting when Sully flags down a kid in a jalopy. They speed off, the bus accelerating abruptly to keep up. Everyone goes flying.
There’s a weird sight gag when a motorcycle cop (Edgar Dearing) gets splashed with mud and then the African-American cook (Charles Moore) gets pancake batter all over his face. Blackface and whiteface. I’m not sure what to make of it. In less confusing news, my grandmother had the same mixing bowls.
Anyway, the wild chase, which, like the other comic sequences, is speeded up to look even wackier and funnier, ends in a hay field. Poor lucky Sully–even when he’s trying to find trouble and heartache, he ends up starring in a screwball chase where everything ends well.
When he rejoins his shaken-up followers, he tells them that if they will go on ahead to Las Vegas and enjoy themselves, he will meet them there in a few weeks. They agree. Finally, Sully is on his own!
…But not for long. Next thing we know, he’s shirtless and swinging a hatchet for two ladies, the Kornheiser sisters. Zeffie (Esther Howard) is thrilled at their new “man,” but Sully is less enthused.
Zeffie watches from the window for a while and then chats with her “vinegary” sister (Almira Sessions) in one of those great Sturgean exchanges:
I love that line. The sisters dress Sully in some of dear Joseph’s old things (a deceased husband? brother? father?) and take him to a picture show. It’s not a fun night out. The movies screened include: Beyond these Tears, The Valley of the Shadow, and The Buzzard of Berlin.
When Sully was watching the railroad death-fight in the comfort of the studio screening room, he was full of passion for the idea of a deep, important movie. Now that he’s watching some in a theater surrounded by noisy, very not-swanky people, he’s a bit more subdued. You get the feeling that he and everybody else would have enjoyed some Ants in Your Plants of 1939…
Zeffie is determined to keep Sully, but he wants to get out of there. In a funny fantastical sight gag, the portrait of Joseph (actually producer Paul Jones) changes expression throughout the scenes as it watches Zeffie flirt:
And notice how poor Sully is dressed in that exact suit! Sully escapes the house by climbing out of his window, but he rips his pants on a nail, falls in a rain barrel, and crashes into the metal trash cans, which turns his silent escape into a farce.
Again, screwball comedy follows this guy despite his best intentions.
He hitches a ride and wakes up the next morning back where he started, in Hollywood. He goes into a diner, disgusted with his luck.
His solitary dime buys him a “sinker” (I wish that’s what we still called donuts) and a coffee, but after he orders, a beautiful woman in the corner tells the cook to give Sully some ham and eggs. Then she sits beside him with that famous hair hovering perfectly by her right eye.
It’s “The Girl,” played by Veronica Lake, and she never gets a name in the film. Part of the joke is that every movie has a girl and a little sex in it, after all.
Sully and the girl chat. We learn that she came to Hollywood to be an actress but never got a break, and now she is out of money. She’s even been locked out of her room, and this is her last morning in Hollywood. She is planning to hitchhike back home. But she’s got a pleasantly cynical, weary sense of humor about the whole thing, and she seems delighted to be able to help a guy who appears to be even worse off than she is.
She tells Sully, “You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to laugh at his jokes,” before demonstrating how differently she would be acting if he was a casting director or something. She has no idea that he is a big-time director!
I love this scene because of repartee like this:
And when Sully says, rhyming a little: “You can’t tell what kind of a heel is apt to be behind the wheel,” to which she answers, world-wise and weary, “All heels are pretty much the same.” You can watch the scene here.
Lake and McCrea are good together, but it wasn’t always an easy shoot. McCrea was professional and never wanted to be “difficult,” (which is one reason so many great directors and actresses liked working with him), but Lake had a different reputation. McCrea remembers that it took them “forty-eight takes” to get this first scene when he says, “A cup of coffee,” and she says, “Give him some eggs.”
He asked her, “‘Veronica, don’t you study this at night?’ She said, ‘No, I have sort of a photographic mind so usually I just read it over a couple of times and then I know it.’ I said, ‘You didn’t know this!’ I was fried, because by the time she got it right, I was tired. They had a print, but it wasn’t my best take. I was kind of grumpy about it. I didn’t like it, so I told her, ‘Listen, I tell you what, you study it more at home because I get tired of doing that many takes. It isn’t necessary.’ Preston never said anything to her at all, but she did. I got along all right with her after that first day.”
But there was another issue…a rather bigger one. There was a rumor going around that Lake was pregnant, so Sturges “asked her to be straight with him: ‘This is going to be a tough film, Ronni. I’d never want to see a pregnant gal do it.'”
But Lake said that she wasn’t pregnant…until it became rather difficult to hide. She was six-months pregnant when they started filming, and it’s pretty obvious. Paramount costume designer Edith Head dressed Lake’s bump in high-waisted dresses and robes, and camouflaged it beneath big coats, but it’s still evident.
Beyond the difficulty of disguising a pregnant belly, it was also a problem because this was not an easy part physically. Sturges loved pratfalls and physical humor, plus there are a lot of stunts. McCrea remembers that when Sturges found out, he said, “‘Well, it will make it difficult because there’s a lot of jumping from railroad cars and a lot of pratfalls.’ Anybody else would have been very distraught and said, ‘What are we going to do? And how are we going to do it?’ I was. He said, ‘We’re just going to have to work it some way because she’s just right for it.'”
With the pregnancy and the difficulty with the lines, McCrea said that at first he wanted Lake to be replaced (Barbara Stanwyck was apparently another option for the part). But it got better, and he changed his mind: “She was gutty about it. She was a tough and rugged little dame. She was very good for that part…She looked so good and she played it bright.”
Back to the film. Sully tells the girl that his buddy, an old washed-up director named Sullivan, is out of town, and she can stay at his house and give Hollywood one more try. Then he fetches one of “Sullivan’s” cars, and they chat about his movies.
The girl laughs as she describes a scene in Hey, Hey in the Hayloft when a man kisses a pig by accident, falls through a hole in a hayloft, sneezes, and has a horse sneeze back at him. “Oh, that was a wonderful scene,” she says. “Of course it was stupid, but it was wonderful.” He disagrees, and goes off on his spiel about film being capable of much more important things. Then a cop pulls them over because he thinks Sully stole the car. You can watch the scene here.
They end up in the clink. Finally, some trouble!
But not for long, as Sully’s butler and valet come to bail him out. Sullivan’s identity is confirmed, but the policeman is confused about the girl’s part in all of it, which gives us a great opportunity for a meta-moment:
Sully plans to take the girl to the railroad station and buy her a ticket home, but she’s pretty irritated with him about lying to her. So instead he takes her to his house for breakfast. She gets madder and madder as he gives her a tour of his stereotypical Hollywood mansion with orange groves and a pool and an indoor and outdoor dining room.
Fun fact: I’m pretty sure that same ribbed furniture appears in Joel McCrea’s apartment in Sturges’ next movie, The Palm Beach Story. Observe: The top two are Sullivan’s Travels, the bottom is Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea in The Palm Beach Story. Both films were Paramount productions, and both employed the same art director, Hans Dreier.
Anyway, the girl is furious and a little embarrassed for trying to help this millionaire “tramp.” So she pushes Sully into the pool!
As they glare and shout at each other, Sully grabs her by the ankle and in she goes, too! But I’m pretty sure it’s not Veronica Lake, as there is a cut between the shot of her face and her fall. This is one of those moments where they used a double because of her pregnancy.
When the butler and valet bring breakfast to the pool, an interesting sight awaits them! You can watch the scene here.
Eventually, Sully and the girl are fished out and bathrobes are fetched. The girl’s hair dries quickly and perfectly, as it always seems to in the movies. And now for more delightful back-and-forth:
The girl marvels at her “change” in situation: “Now, I’m right back where I started, just an extra girl having breakfast with a director. Only I didn’t used to have breakfast with them. Maybe that was my trouble.” “Did they ever ask you to?” Sully inquires. The girl answers, “No.” His reply? “Well, then don’t pat yourself on the back.” He’s a little grumpy that his search for trouble has gone so far astray.
He tells her about his project and she’s very interested. She asks to come along, saying she can be helpful, since “I know fifty times as much about trouble as you ever will.” Plus, she likes him:
“Piffle,” he says. There is no way he is taking a woman with him! But there is something about her…I love when she swipes at his hair with her brush.
She perches on that chair like a tiny bird. She was only 4’11, and next to tall Joel McCrea, she looks even teenier. It’s clever blocking and angles, too–notice how her stomach isn’t visible.
Anyway, the girl worms her way into Sully’s life and his lap. She says she won’t release him unless he takes her with him on his quest. When Sully calls the butler to help remove her, they all end up back in the water in a spectacular prat fall.
The valet comes to the butler’s rescue, but since this is a Sturges movie, you know that he has to go in, too. And indeed he does. You can watch the scene here.
I like to think that after all these dips, everyone got into fresh, voluminous robes and sat around the pool enjoying a leisurely breakfast, served by the backup butler, perhaps. But we don’t get to see that scene.
Here they are between takes of the pool scenes:
It always looks as though McCrea and Sturges are having fun together. And they did have a great working relationship. According to McCrea, he had such a wonderful time making this movie that “I would have given the money all back. I would have done it all for nothing. [Sturges] was that easy to work with. He never put pressure on us. Not only not on me, but not on some little guy who some directors use as patsies, putting the pressure on for some reason we don’t know…Preston Sturges never put the pressure on anyone, never.”
Next comes one of my very favorite moments. Sully and the girl want to start their journey that day, so the butler calls the railroad station to ask if there are any east-bound freight trains departing that evening. Then he inquires, in his impeccable British accent, if the train carries tramps, and if so, where do they get on? The guy hangs up on him, so then the valet calls back. He pretends to have made a bet with some of the men “at the club” about where tramps board the east-bound train. He’d be ever so grateful if the railroad man would settle the bet. And he does!
“A different approach to the same problem,” the valet says smugly to the butler. I love this exchange both because Greig and Blore are so terrific and funny, but it’s also really amusing to think of one’s domestic staff calling the train station to discover where one should hop on the train to get the full hobo experience!
The incongruity continues when the butler and valet drive a huge, gleaming car to the edge of the rail yards and drop off Sully and the girl. It reminds me of the glorious luxury vehicles pulling up to the dump in My Man Godfrey and spitting out Carole Lombard and Gail Patrick in their evening gowns. But this time, Sully and the girl are in their tramp costumes.
All of this just underscores what a stupid, spoiled “adventure” Sully is attempting. He looks like a fool and a jerk playing at being poor.
Anyway, Sully thus begins his second attempt at finding trouble. He and the girl run after the train and eventually and very clumsily jump on board. Two real hobos watch these idiots and roll their eyes at each other. One says, disdainfully, “Amateurs.”
Then Sully asks them, “How do you feel about the labor situation?” The two men silently get up and make their way to a different car!
That leaves Sully and the girl alone in a train car that smells likes hogs. They chat, they start to fall in love, and Sully catches cold.
In the morning, they jump out of the train (or Sully jumps and runs alongside for ages until the girl works up the nerve to jump into his arms.)
She nearly knocks him over, but Sully stagger-runs and then falls into a hay pile.
Fun fact: This stunt was out of the question for pregnant Lake, so Sturges got a boy to be her stunt double. That’s who McCrea is carrying in this scene. McCrea remembered that it was his idea to put those hay piles there, and that’s where he tried to land: “I staggered, but I headed for that hay pile,” and he made it!
Sully and the girl stop at a lunch stand, but it looks as though they won’t be getting any food because Sully’s dime must have fallen out of his pocket. The lunch stand guy gives them coffee and sinkers, anyway. Isn’t that kind?
They hardly have a chance to eat their free food before Sully realizes that they are in Las Vegas, and his bus is parked in the field literally right next to the lunch stand. Pretty convenient! So they get a huge breakfast, showers, and medical treatment for Sully’s bad cold. You can watch the bus scene here.
Before the bus drives away, Sully sends one of his minions to the lunch stand with an anonymous $100 to thank the man for his kindness. It gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Sully still wants to try again, though, so he and the girl suit up and go looking for trouble. This time, Sully’s third attempt, he manages to stay out in the world for more than one night. The next scenes of Sully and the girl wandering around as penniless tramps are shown in montage without dialogue, a daring choice. The tone shifts from screwball comedy and witty romance to serious drama quite abruptly as we follow Sully and the girl to homeless camps, soup kitchens, and shelters. It’s dark and shadowy, a contrast to the high-key lighting of most of the previous scenes.
Sometimes they get jobs, as when Sully wears the insulting placard for Moe’s clothing store, and the girl is paid to follow him around with a Union sign (there is still a little bit of humor):
They listen to a fiery sermon in a mission, get deloused, and get worn down.
One night, when they sleep in a horribly crowded shelter, Sully wakes up to bare feet. His boots have been stolen, and a sad pair left in their place. Remember how his valet sewed ID cards into the soles of his boots? Hmm…
I like the sign posted in the shelter: “Have you written home to Mother?”
Fun fact: In this shelter scene, Sully and the girl sleep next to each other on the floor. It is very crowded, and they are pressed tightly against each other. The Production Code Administration warned that Sturges must not show “any suggestion of sexual intimacy” between “Sully” and “The Girl” in this scene. They also asked that the film avoid the word “bum” as it would be “considered unacceptable by the British censors.”
Through it all, Edith Head tries to keep Lake’s belly from being too obvious, but even under her baggy coat, you can tell that something is going on. These scenes must have been filmed towards the end of production when she was about eight months pregnant!
You can watch some of the montage here. It ends when Sully and the girl are scavenging for food scraps in a dark, smelly alley. They look at each other, and wordlessly decide that they’ve had enough. The next thing we know, they’re back with Sully’s entourage in a beautiful hotel room.
The girl gets cleaned up and puts on a pretty frock with a strategically placed floppy bow. She tells Sully that she wants to stay with him even though his “travels” are over. He tells her that he’d like that, but he’s married. She’s pretty bummed.
Sully explains that the marriage was his business manager’s idea because he discovered that Sully’s tax bill would be lower if he was married. So Sully tied the knot with a woman who agreed to marry him for a certain amount of money each month. But then it turned out that the business manager was splitting the cash with the wife…and now she wants more and won’t divorce Sully, and he can’t divorce her unless he has “cause” like infidelity or something. It’s a mess.
And it rather dashes the girl’s dreams of being with Sully. He promises they will talk more, but first he has one final adventure before going back to Hollywood. He puts on his tramp clothes and takes $1,000 in five dollar bills to distribute amongst the poor. It all goes great until one man–whom we recognize as the man who stole Sully’s boots–decides to follow Sully and rob him.
He stalks Sully to a railroad depot and delivers a nasty blow to his head. Then he drags Sully’s unconscious body into a train car, which then chugs away. The bad man runs away across the tracks, but he trips and the cash goes flying. You can imagine what happens next.
Meanwhile, the girl and Sully’s entourage are worried sick. He is hours late and they’re scouring the city for him. Moran, the bus driver, has the unpleasant task of examining bodies in the morgue. He calls to say that a man was just brought to the morgue “in a basket” and identification is impossible. Mr. Jones remembers the ID cards sewn into Sully’s shoes…and the story balloons from there.
What they don’t realize is that Sully’s boots were stolen by the man who died on the tracks. (You’d think the girl would remember that his boots were stolen, right?) Sully is still alive, somewhere. But the girl thinks he is gone, forever.
As she grieves (sitting down so as not to reveal her baby bump!), Sully wakes up in the freight car with a head injury and amnesia. One of the train guards cruelly pushes him and Sully loses it for a moment, hitting the man in the head with a rock.
Well, Sully wanted trouble. And on his fourth time out, he found it. He can’t remember who he is, and his head injury continues to disorient him, so he can’t defend himself. He’s sentenced to six years hard labor for his attack on the train guard.
The humor is definitely gone, now. There is no bus trailing after him, no fortune within reach, and no witty repartee to lighten things up. Sully is sent to a really horrible work camp where the men wear chains and Sully isn’t even allowed to make a phone call or write a letter. When he talks back, they put him in the “sweatbox” for punishment.
The hatchet wielding days at Zeffie’s house seem like heaven compared to the work he has to do now.
But at least his memory is slowly coming back. It gets a big jolt when he sees a newspaper.
Now Sully knows who he is, but of course no one believes him, and since Sully isn’t allowed to call or write, he’s trapped. The only bright spot in his life and in the lives of his fellow prisoners is an occasional trip to the movies. Not a theater, but an African-American church. Before the prisoners get there, we watch the pastor (Jess Lee Brooks) remind his congregation to make the work gang feel welcome.
Then he leads them in “Go Down, Moses” with its refrain of “Let my people go” as the prisoners in leg shackles file into the pews. This scene seems years removed from the pratfalls around the pool. You can watch it here.
Then the movie starts. It’s Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto, a cartoon from 1934. To Sully’s amazement, everyone starts howling with laughter.
At first Sully seems detached as he looks around in confusion. How can a movie, especially an old, silly cartoon, make even the most miserable people laugh? But then even he loses himself in Pluto’s antics with the flypaper, and laughs. It’s beautiful.
You can watch this oddly poignant scene here. Fun fact: it was echoed in a 30 Rock episode, “Christmas Attack Zone,” in 2010 when Tracy Morgan’s character screens his serious, depressing movie “Hard to Watch” in a woman’s shelter for victims of domestic violence. He decides to switch to one of his “stupid” comedies, and the room lights up with laughter, thus teaching him a valuable lesson about the power of comedy…
Fun fact: According to TCM, The Preston Sturges Collection contains a letter from Walter White, who was Secretary of the NAACP. He wrote Sturges: “I want to congratulate and thank you for the church sequence in Sullivan’s Travels. This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a moving picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene. I was in Hollywood recently and am to return there soon for conferences with production heads, writers, directors, and actors and actresses in an effort to induce broader and more decent picturization of the Negro instead of limiting him to menial or comic roles. The sequence in Sullivan’s Travels is a step in that direction and I want you to know how grateful we are.”
There is no more laughing back at the work camp as Sully tries to think of some way to get out of there. He chats with Trusty (Jimmy Conlin) during a brief break. Fun fact: Conlin was another Sturges stock company actor who plays a member of the Ale and Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story. He also played tons of small parts in nearly 150 movies over thirty-two years, like the role of a messenger in It’s a Pleasure, and a photographer in Old Acquaintance.
Sully decides that he needs to get his picture in the paper, but how? Then it hits him–murderers get great publicity! He pulls Trusty across the swamp shouting a confession!
And it works!
The girl, who is now a movie actress, sees the picture and goes flying across the backlot to Mr. Lebrand’s office.
Fun fact: The dark haired man in the background when the girl sees the newspaper is Preston Sturges in a cameo. Also, the girl nearly knocks a guy down as she runs across the lot, and, although it’s very difficult to see, it is apparently Ray Milland who starred in the Sturges-penned Easy Living!
Once they see the photograph, everyone springs into action, or to a telephone. Fortunately, the office seems to have an unlimited number of phone lines. Sully’s wife is notified, and her scream of shock is due to the fact that when she thought Sully was dead, she married his former business manager, so now she’s a bigamist and Sully can finally divorce her!
You can watch the frenzied scene here.
Eventually they fetch Sully. Onboard a private jet, Mr. Lebrand tells him that they’d love for him to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? because the publicity from his “death” has made it a hugely popular property.
Sully thanks him, but tells him that he doesn’t want to make that movie anymore. He really wants to make a comedy. And then he speaks the famous closing lines of the film:
And the music swells and “The End” appears over Sully, the girl, and laughing faces. You can watch it here.
Sturges later said that he didn’t necessarily share Sully’s conclusion that making people laugh is the best option: “I don’t believe that now [the remaining days of the Great Depression and the start of World War II] is the time for comedies or tragedies or spy pictures or pictures without spies or historical dramas or musicals or pictures without music,” he explained. “I believe that now is the time for all forms of art, and that now is always with us.”
Due mainly to its varied tones and switches from screwball to drama, reviews of Sullivan’s Travels were mixed, and it didn’t do great at the box office. Sturges commented on this confusion: “One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy, and another wanted to know what the hell the comic passages were doing in this drama.” It’s much more highly regarded now than when it was released. It was ranked 39th on AFI’s 100 Funniest American Movies list, it’s part of the National Film Registry, and it’s an indisputable classic.
The next film McCrea worked on was The Great Man’s Lady (1942) opposite Barbara Stanwyck. He later said, “Great Man’s Lady was a tour de force for Stanwyck and an anticlimax for me because it followed Sullivan’s Travels with Preston Sturges. There was a picture. There was a story. There was a man. There was a writer you just couldn’t go wrong with. When you worked with Sturges, the chips were down. Either you could have been a former cowboy actor or you could play John L. Sullivan, so that gave me kind of a new ambition to do it. Boy, it was important to me to deliver and he gave me every asset. He gave me the best dialogue that anyone could write. And I enjoyed doing it. It wasn’t hard work. It was easy.”
Fortunately for McCrea, he got to work with Sturges again pretty soon. McCrea recalled that “When [Sturges] announced his next picture, The Palm Beach Story, I said, ‘Who’s going to be in that?’ He said, ‘You.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, me? I can’t do them with you all the time, Preston.’ ‘Oh, yes, you must do it,'” the director insisted. And he did! You can read my review of The Palm Beach Story here.
Looking back at his long career in the movies, McCrea remarked: “The bigger the picture, the better I came off. The more I was handed, the more I could deliver. I had never thought of it exactly that way before, but I felt that way. When they forced me to do things like Three Blind Mice or Woman Chases Man, I gave it the best I could, but it was never like working with Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels.”