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Sullivanís Travels (Preston Sturges) 1942   

 

       Preston Sturgesí Sullivanís Travels moves at a such an astonishing fever pitch for much of its first half, that itís unfortunate that it eventually gets bogged down a bit by a message. The film opens with an exceptionally long take in a boardroom that shows us such rapid-fire verbal sharpness that you must wonder if this is one of the greatest films ever made. For about forty minutes, mixing satire, slapstick, and farce, it might be, but the film bowls in with a dubious message that laughter is the antidote to poverty thatís laid on so thick that it undermines things a bit. The perfectly realized hijinks that had dominated the film to the midway point gives way to a sort of soggy social realism that feels far more socially responsible than realistic. Sturges never seems anything less than surefooted in his approach here and the message is there for the taking, but I am not sure that I buy it. The filmís tonal shifts are bold attempts to push drama and comedy together, but some of the dramatic elements, especially the filmís segment featuring a too-greedy vagrant, feel more like something the Hays Code tacked on, instead of intrinsic pieces of the overall picture. The ending is so neatly wrapped up that you donít really get the impression that Sullivan, who undertakes a journey to see the common man, ever thought of the hobos and working class that he saw as anything besides the simple-minded Lilliputians that he assumed flocked to his films.   

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Still, itís tough to deny that a lot of Sullivanís Travels works. Itís no wonder that the film remains hugely influential to this day. It is obviously referenced by the Coenís O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but itís closer in subject matter to their Barton Fink. Other films like Dr. T. & The Women, which adopts a similar tone and a lead named Sullivan Travis, are still are paying homage. Like the work of the Coen brothers, Sturges uses his cast of character actors exceptionally. The leads are fine as well, however. Joel McCrea, as Sullivan, somehow manages to make a prep-school educated film director feel like an Everyman by the filmís end. Veronica Lake, who apparently was very pregnant during the filmís shoot, manages to convey at once a sex appeal so acute that itís humbling and off-putting and an endearing, demure approachability. Itís unfortunate that she is largely absent during the second half of the film. Much of the dialogue is insanely well written, and the filmís ably directed. The satire directed at Hollywood feels at once razor-sharp and in good fun. Itís a shame that all of Sullivanís Travels doesnít consistently reach the heights of the first halfís frenzy, but few movies sustain such raucousness for a scene, much less an entire feature. 

***1/2 

12-04-01 

Jeremy Heilman