John L. Sullivan is a director of fluff films. He doesn’t want to make those anymore. He wants to make a socially-relevant tale about the impoverished peoples of America and how they live. Much to the annoyance of his producers, he sets off on a journey in rags with ten cents in his pocket. However, he keeps finding himself back in Hollywood. When he meets an unemployed actress, they manage to live a few days on the road with the homeless. Sullivan wants to experience brutal poverty first-hand so he can make O Brother Where Art Thou? But when reality hits him, he sees. And it’s only when he goes to jail that he learns the value of those “fluff films” he hated so much.
I can’t help but draw comparisons between Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) in Goodbye Christopher Robin and Joel McCrea’s John Sullivan. Alan Milne (A. A. Milne) is sick of making people laugh after the war (like it never happened). “I have had enough of making people laugh. I want to make them see” he says. And Sullivan is much the same in Sturges’ film. And by the end, after doing a stint in prison and seeing what the every man is like, John sees the importance of laughter. And it took nearly being killed, and not having much to eat for him to truly see what life is really like for a lot of people. And laughing is something that all humans have a right to. There’s no law against it.
At the start of the film, Sullivan is a man on a mission. He has an endgame. “I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism” he says. By the end of the picture, after experiencing of what life has to offer. After nearly being killed. After going to prison. After being treated like he was nothing by small-time people who have more power than him. He has experienced humility. He has been humbled. He says “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan” and when you think about that, it’s not something you can argue with.
Sullivan’s Travels is a joy to watch, a film I wish I could see on a massive cinema screen. McCrea as successful film director John Sullivan is great. He wants to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? And to do so he must take to the streets as a homeless man on a quest of self-discovery. And only by living the life of a homeless man can he make this film. And he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes without The Girl (Veronica Lake). Lake is also fantastic in the role. McCrea and Lake are two peas in a pod. This film pokes the bear in how society treats the homeless. It’s also a funny film and one of the more deserving ones on the AFI’s Top 100 American Films list.
After Sullivan’s Travels and even after Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (the film too) and Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, society (and the rich) need to remember that the homeless and the poor are still human beings. Sullivan’s butler gives a great eulogy about the rich. “…rich people and theorists… think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches – as disease might be called the lack of health… Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague” Burrows (Robert Greig) says. He goes onto say something about romanticising poverty and why not to. That aside, this is a Hollywood film about Hollywood, and here Burrows is slapping Hollywood on the wrist.
I mentioned earlier about Gleeson as Milne. “I have had enough of making people laugh. I want to make them see”. Well in Sullivan’s Travels, writer-director Preston Sturges has accomplished both. By extension he has made O Brother Where Art Thou? It has shown us that Hollywood is a small town that runs on money and ego and they will continue to make comedies because they sell. And when someone wants to make something risky, investors get on edge. However, this film is just as much drama as it is comedy and there are parts of this film where laughter is the last sensation on our lips and I’m talking about the when Sullivan finds himself in prison… soul-destroying stuff.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”. From the direction to the writing to the cinematography and the good balance between drama and satire, Sullivan’s Travels is one of the best films ever made and I’m sad to say that its themes are as timeless as war.