Film: Sullivan's Travels

Why, Mr. Smearcase, aren't you getting a little familiar?

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.

A 1941 film by Preston Sturges about a Hollywood director who is pigeonholed in comedy but desires the chance to adapt O Brother Where Art Thou, a socially relevant book he admires. The only way he can make his desire a reality is to gain experience in poverty, so he sets out with 10 cents in his pocket to experience the real America. Unfortunately, studio bigwigs fear for their favorite director's safety, and they cushion him every step of the way. Until things go horribly wrong, that is.

A landmark satire of Hollywood. Not appreciated when it was first released, it manages to captivate audiences decades later with roller-coaster storytelling and with cleverness on an epic scale. "The Girl" is Veronica Lake's most memorable role, placing her in the big leagues with Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman. The Coen Brothers often steal ideas from Sullivan's Travels for their similarly funny masterworks, most obviously when they made a real movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Incidentally, the shot of Sullivan travelling down the road as he begins his journey went on to inspire the logo for Caravan Pictures (the page quote above is where the company's name comes from). Company founder Joe Roth must be a fan of Preston Sturges, as he previously worked at Morgan Creek - named after The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

This film contains examples of:

  • Bedsheet Ladder: How Sullivan escapes from the home of the horny widow.
  • Bindle Stick: Sullivan uses one of these when dressing up as a hobo.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A hobo steals Sullivan's shoes. This seems like a gag (said hobo leaves his considerably rattier shoes behind, and Sullivan has to put them on), but becomes an important plot point when said hobo is killed in a train collision. The shoes had Sullivan's ID sewn into the soles, so Sullivan's friends presume he is dead.
  • Creator Cameo: Sturges can be seen briefly in the scene where The Girl discovers Sullivan isn't dead.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: One of Sullivan's trips into poverty ends with him shirtless, chopping wood for a lonely widow, while said widow stares out the window and practically drools.
  • Eureka Moment: Sullivan has one of these when he's trying to figure out how to get out of jail (It Makes Sense in Context).
  • Fake Action Prologue: The first scene is an action sequence with two men fighting on top of a speeding train. It's the last scene from Sullivan's latest movie.
  • Genre Savvy: The Girl. It's telling Sullivan runs into his biggest trouble while pretending to be a bum on the one night she doesn't go with him.
  • Gilligan Cut: While dressed as a bum, Sullivan steals his own car to give The Girl a ride; when the police pull up behind him, Sullivan assures her there's absolutely nothing they can do. Cut to Sullivan and the Girl in jail, where he's telling her the same thing.
  • Hide Your Pregnancy: Lake waited until after production had started to tell Sturges that she was six months pregnant. Some shots are framed to show Lake only above the waist, in others she wears robes or baggy hobo clothes, and in others Sturges used a stunt double.
  • Impairment Shot: Used when Sullivan, who is suffering from the after-effects of a concussion, is tried for assault.
  • Karmic Death: The homeless man who steals Sullivan's shoes, then knocks him out and robs him, is run over by a train.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does" says Sullivan, who then gets the idea for the climactic twist—he confesses to the murder of John Sullivan, which gets his picture in the paper and lets his friends know he's alive.
    • When a cop arresting Sullivan for stealing his own car asks how The Girl "fits into the picture", Sullivan says "There's always a girl in the picture. What's the matter, don't you go to the movies?"
  • Mood Whiplash: The film alternates between Sturges' usually comedy and the dark scenes of homeless people, and it especially gets dark when Sullivan goes to prison. Then it recovers for a comic finale.
  • No Name Given: As noted above, Veronica Lake's character is simply known as "The Girl".
  • One Head Taller: McCrea towered over Veronica Lake, who was barely five feet tall.
  • Oscar Bait: In universe, this is the kind of movie Sullivan wants to make.
  • Place Worse Than Death:
    LeBrand: It died in Pittsburgh.
    Hadrian: Like a dog!
    John L. Sullivan: Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh?
    Hadrian: They know what they like!
    John L. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!
  • The Quest: Sullivan wants to find out what living in poverty really feels like, so he tries to travel around. The irony is he keeps ending up back in Hollywood.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Sullivan is believed to have been run over by a train and killed. It was actually a bum wearing Sullivan's shoes. He's actually in jail, but no one knows he's not dead until he has his Eureka Moment.
  • Running Gag: "But with a little sex in it."
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Veronica Lake, when she gets out of the hobo gear.
  • Shout-Out: The title is a takeoff on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
    • Late in the movie, Sullivan and the other members of the chain gang watch and enjoy a Walt Disney cartoon.
  • Take That: The movie in general is intended as a Take That to those who undervalue comedy movies.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: That dinky little town in the middle of nowhere, with the one diner, that Sullivan and The Girl stop at? Las Vegas, NV.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Sullivan is unhappily married to a shrew whom he married on the advice of his business manager. When it's believed Sullivan is dead his wife immediately marries her lover... that business manager. Which is good news for Sullivan when he turns up alive, as he now has every right to divorce her and settle down with The Girl.
  • Working on the Chain Gang: Sullivan is sentenced to a chain gang when he's arrested and convicting for assaulting a train officer.

Alternative Title(s):

Sullivans Travels