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Film / Sullivan's Travels

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"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."
John L. Sullivan

A 1941 comedy film written and directed by Preston Sturges, starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.

John L. Sullivan (McCrea) is a hotshot young Hollywood director who's been pigeonholed in comedy but desires the chance to adapt O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a socially relevant novel he admires. Feeling the only way he can make his desire a reality is to gain experience in poverty and hardship, Sullivan dresses up as a hobo and sets out with nothing but ten 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 traveling down the road as he begins his journey went on to inspire the logo for Caravan Pictures (and the page quote above is where the studio's name comes from). Its co-founder Joe Roth must be a fan of Sturges, as he'd previously worked at Morgan Creek – named after The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

This film provides examples of:

  • An Aesop:
    John L. Sullivan (telling his bosses he no longer wants to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?): 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.
  • 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.
  • Broken Aesop: Many critics have noted that the film's message saying that comedies without social messages are intrinsically valuable to a moviegoing audience is belied by the film's Genre-Busting approach and its realistic portrayal of poverty, crime, racial segregation, and violence. That is, the film in effect preaches a message opposite to its own form and content.
    • On the other hand, Sullivan's Travels is often funny, complete with a happy ending. Sturges may be presenting a case for comedy that respects the intelligence and experience of its audience.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: When Sullivan is driving The Girl, he brings up the name of a few pictures he's directed, while pretending he's actually a bum. She says she didn't like most of them, but did enjoy Hey, Hey in the Hayloft.
  • Captain Ersatz: "Sinclair Beckstein," the author of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is a composite of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck. Indeed, the book is a riff on The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Central Theme: The importance and power of comedy/laughter.
  • 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.
  • Creepy Changing Painting: In a funny fantastical sight gag, the portrait of Joseph (actually producer Paul Jones) changes expression throughout the scenes as it watches Zeffie flirt with Sullivan.
  • Death by Materialism: The hobo who steals the money from Sullivan dies on the tracks because he won't let go of the bank notes scattered around even though a train approaches.
  • 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.
  • Fake Action Prologue: Possibly the Ur-Example. 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.
  • Fictional Document: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the socially-conscious novel by Sinclair Beckstein that Sullivan intends to make a film adaptation of.
  • 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.
  • Gone Horribly Right: LeBrand and Hadrian say that Sullivan has no clue about poor unlucky people because he's never been one or known such people. So Sullivan decides to go and live the life of the poor to get an idea.
  • Hate Sink: John Sullivan's unnamed wife, who Sullivan has an unhealthy relationship with and only married on the advice of his business manager. Being completely money-grubbing and refusing to allow a divorce doesn't help matters at all. Not to mention, she cheated him to marry said business manager when it's believed he's is dead.
  • Holy Pipe Organ: The black church has an organist playing while the pastor speaks to the congregation. The organist later accompanies them as they sing the old spiritual "Go Down Moses".
  • Hypocrite: LeBrand and Hadrian accuse Sullivan of being this when he wants to make O Brother Where Art Thou?, telling him there's no way he could make a movie about people living with hard luck and poverty every day because he's never known either, with each executive recounting the "hard luck" they've known growing up: one claims to have worked his way through law school at a shoe store, while the other claims to have supported five brothers and sisters, as well as his widowed mother, until he was 20. Shortly afterwards, both of them accuse the other of Blatant Lies regarding their backgrounds (neither of them supported five siblings, or worked at a shoe store).
  • 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?"
  • Logo Joke: The Paramount Pictures logo appears as a seal on a package. Said package contains a book featuring the film title on the cover, and the credits on the pages within.
  • Mickey Mousing: The music is underpinning Sullivan's tiptoeing when he sneaks out of the lady's house.
  • 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!
  • Proscenium Reveal: The Fake Action Prologue is revealed to be the end to Sullivan's latest movie when "The End" pops up onscreen.
  • Punishment Box: Sullivan gets put into one when being caught reading the newspaper.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Pool: Everyone who comes within a ten-foot radius of Sullivan's pool eventually winds up falling in.
  • Running Gag: "But with a little sex in it."
  • Shirtless Scene: Sullivan gets a couple of them, once when he's chopping wood for a widow while being a "hobo" and later when he's on the chain gang.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Slumming It: Sullivan and his attempt to go from riches to rags to gain a proper perspective for his planned film adaptation of the Great Depression novel O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • Starving Artist: The Girl is an actress not doing well in Hollywood.
  • Take That!: The movie in general is intended as a Take That! to those who undervalue comedy movies.
  • Tap on the Head: Sullivan gets knocked out for hours and subsequently suffers from mild Identity Amnesia when hit on the head by a hobo at the station.
  • Tom Hanks Syndrome: The Movie, invoked and a Deconstruction.
  • 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 six years on a chain gang after he's arrested and convicted for assaulting a railroad officer.
  • Writer on Board: The butler is fairly obviously expressing the thoughts of Sturges himself when he gives his opinion about poverty to Sullivan. It's by far the film's preachiest moment, but luckily it's just a brief speech.