file this one under "they don't make them like that anymore". and do you know why they don't? they think you're idiots. fortunately, preston sturges didn't think so. exhibit A, sullivan's travels (1941).
the paramount theater screened this tonight, along with bing and bob in road to morocco (1942), as part of a double bill of road movies and all i could think about afterward is how things could be. in 2010, seven of the top ten grossing films were sequels or remakes. throw out cartoons and precisely one out of ten of those films was an original idea written for adults, christopher nolan's inception (2010). how in the world can we be satisfied with that? apparently we are, though, as the box office doesn't lie. the blame can't be placed exclusively on the studios if we continually line up to pay for inferior product. here's a gentle reminder:
every dollar you spend is perhaps your most powerful vote. by extension, every ticket you purchase is a vote saying "please make more like this". cast your votes wisely.
in an impressive run in the late thirties/early forties, preston sturges wrote, and then also directed, some of the wittiest and most literate films to ever come out of the hollywood studio system. he achieved great commercial and critical success without once underestimating his audience. his rapidfire dialogue never sacrificed its sharpness or sophistication for a lowest common denominator laugh and his story presentation often took on an experimental edge that pushed the boundaries of what mainstream films could be. he paved the way for other prominent auteurs, billy wilder and john huston among them, and his influence on the coen brothers cannot be underestimated. he managed to do all of that without pandering, going for cheap laughs or talking down to us. in tonight's film, john l. sullivan, sturges' surrogate, takes those very ideas right out among the people he was making pictures for.
joel mccrea is sullivan, a director who specializes in the lightweight, generating big bucks for the studio with candyfloss like ants in your plants of 1939 and hey, hey in the hayloft. he longs to do something with substance, a film called o brother, where art thou? detailing the plight of the common man. the problem is, he's a product of privilege who doesn't know the first thing about being hungry. he takes it upon himself to leave behind his life on a velvet pillow and take to the open road with only one thin dime to his name. he vows to not return until he knows what trouble is, until he knows what it is to be "without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. alone". of course, he's too valuable a property for the studio to lose and they strenuously object. strenuously, that is, until they realize what a publicity bonanza this promises to be. this caravan hits the road, shadowing sullivan the "hobo", but no matter what he tries, he ends up back in hollywood. he crosses paths with veronica lake, an actress whose story is ending like so many who made their way west in search of stardom, flat busted waiting for the next bus home. nothing to lose, they take to the road together.
they do a fair bit of traveling and are exposed to precisely the plight that sullivan envisioned for o brother - hopping freight trains, soup kitchens, flophouses, makeshift camps - but you know they are never more than tourists. they are always but one phone call away from luxury and opulence. sullivan, affable, honest and good-hearted but ultimately soft, calls a halt to the proceedings when the hunger gets to be too much and returns to hollywood to document the experience. he is shanghaied while handing out five dollar bills to the destitute and ends up with a bump on the head on a freight train to parts unknown. the bum that stole his money is misidentified as him in the morgue and sullivan, still in a fog from the beating he took, ends up at odds with a railyard bull which lands him in court, then in prison, sentenced to six years hard labor. he is finally where he so naively wished to be - friendless, nameless, alone. the only way out of this mess is to come forward as his own murderer. from that point, things are sorted out and sullivan eventually makes his way home, wiser for the time he spent in stir. he no longer wants to make o brother, preferring to go back to comedy, after having seen firsthand that laughter is all some people have in the world.
not everything in the movie works, but it plays to its strengths. joel mccrea was never the greatest actor, but he is well cast here, bringing an underlying simplicity that is essential to sullivan's eventual growth and his chemistry with veronica lake is great. this is probably my favorite performance of hers - it's at least tied with i married a witch (1942) - because i think she's so much better when she's playful. the femme fatale business was always too one-note for her. she is faster, smarter and funnier than that. she's easy to want, sure, but i like her better when you're allowed to see why you could love her rather than simply desire her. all around mccrea and lake, sturges fills the margins with his usual stock company of players, each bringing their vital eccentricities. the dialogue is always snappy and any sentimentality registers as sincere, never treacly. it doesn't hurt that the characters on the lower social rungs are the ones who are most in touch with their own, and others', humanity. sullivan's butler, burrows, lectures him, quite rightly, on the dilettantish nature of his experiment, telling him that "the poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous". the all-black congregation that welcomes the group of prisoners which includes sullivan into their church for movie night is the only group of people in the entire film that is wholly righteous and dignified, notable for 1941. there are some tonal shifts that can be jarring and the gravity of some of those scenes undercuts sturges' "laughter is the best medicine" valediction but it's a complicated line he's trying to walk and he does most of it so well that these minor problems end up just being good places to begin examining the film, ultimately enhancing rather than detracting from the experience. there are a number of thorny questions, deftly introduced. the occasional slapstick may mirror the kind of tripe that sullivan wanted to turn his back on but it is certainly funny, providing the entertainment that keeps us coming back to the movies over and over, and you can't sell a message to an empty theater. the ease with which his legal situation is sorted out is convenient plot-wise but to pretend his status and wealth wouldn't have an effect on the way the proceedings would have been handled is even more naive than sullivan was when he started out. for every time sullivan makes a clumsy attempt at understanding the human condition, a diner owner comes up with a free cup of coffee for someone who is down on their luck, this simple act of human kindness saying more than any orchestrated gesture. there is plenty going on here to dig into and the craziest thing about it, given the current cinematic climate, is that sturges trusts you to do just that. that's rich and rare these days. i recommend you take advantage of it.