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If you’ve never heard of Preston Sturges or Sullivan’s Travels, chances are high that you’ve felt their enormous influence indirectly through countless TV and movie comedies—30 Rock, Frasier, much of the Coen brothers’ work, for starters—that relish and rework Sturges’ hysterical, evergreen combination of low farcical antics and highly polished, literate and uproariously funny dialogue. Indeed at any place in American comedy where the high and the low, the rough and the smooth, the sublime and the idiotic, the grotesque and the gorgeous can coexist in perfect hilarious harmony, the anarchic genius of Sturges shall hover ever near, snickering loudly. His comedies are packed with vertiginous reversals of fortune—a millionaire can go broke in seconds; a bum can become mayor—and populated by a rotating repertory company of seasoned character players whose faces and voices, once seen and heard, are never to be forgotten as they feast like starving hobos on the richly ridiculous dialogue Sturges gives them.
Sullivan’s Travels is 72 years old but could have been made yesterday, given how fresh and effervescent it still seems to modern eyes. A movie about moviemaking, it comes as close as any Sturges picture ever did to offering a personal mission statement—to the degree that the eternally facetious Sturges, a robust and repeated censor-baiter who called sex “Topic A,” would have anything to do with something as dull as a personal mission statement.
Joel McCrea plays the titular comedy director—among his credits, So Long, Sarong, Hey Hey in The Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939—who now wants to go all Frank Capra and make a social-problem picture, against the wishes of his money-minded studio bosses.
As always with Sturges, the dialogue sparkles with a glorious combination of highfalutin rhetoric and gruff street vernacular, as one golden exchange follows another until you wonder if you’ll puke or cry from laughing too much. Here’s just a fragment of the rapid-fire three-way dialogue between Sullivan and the two studio suits trying to talk him out of making O Brother Where Art Thou? (yup, that’s where that title came from): “It died in Pittsburgh!” “Whadda they know in Pittsburgh?” “They know what they like.” “If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!”
Sullivan feels he knows nothing of trouble and must hit the road to find some. With a bindle and a ridiculous hobo outfit, and tailed by the studio’s absurd RV land-yacht, full of PR hacks and bodyguards, he rides his thumb, then the rails, picking up Veronica Lake along the way (and disguising her as a boy!). Together they trek through the Hoovervilles, hobo encampments, skid rows, rail-yards and mission flop-houses of the Depression’s itinerant underclass, in a couple of enormously moving montage sequences which demonstrate that, all facetiousness aside, Sturges had a pretty good feel for the imagery of the social-problem pictures he was lampooning. Sullivan finally finds a whole lot more trouble than he bargained for, losing his memory and winding up on a prison farm that’s just as brutal as the migrants’ camp in The Grapes of Wrath or the Southern prison hellhole in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. “Truly,” as Warwick’s character later imperishably avers, “he has supped on the bitter dregs of vicissitude!”
Whether Sturges even buys his own conceit that the lowliest among us needs laughter more than lessons is scarcely relevant, as Sullivan’s Travels gives us a whole lot of both, “with a little sex…” to create one of the funniest American comedies of all time.
*Actual copy from original trailer