It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Preston Sturges’ masterpiece, “Sullivan’s Travels.” Watching it again on Mother’s Day weekend (my mother had never seen it) reminded me of the fickle nature of memory, when it comes to movies.
That image of Joel McCrae watching a cartoon with his fellow inmates is what sticks with you from this film. Playing a filmmaker who has to be busted and dumped onto a chain gang before he figures out that his “light entertainments” are what the public craves — and not movies of Big Social Import — because life’s hard enough, this is the “money shot,” the image meant to stick with you from the 1941 film.
For the life of me, I couldn’t recall the madcap opening act of the movie, the many abortive starts our self-important star director, John L. Sullivan, has to make before he actually hobos his way out of Hollywood. He’s hellbent on making a picture that matters, one that speaks to the human condition, one he’s titling “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
Nothing is sacred to those Coen Brothers. Nothing.
I don’t remember the spirited teen in the “whippet tank” hot rod of his own creation outrunning the studio-provided “land yacht” that is to shadow our college-educated, privileged Hollywood icon as he slums on the bum.
“I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.”
I vaguely remember the lecture his English butler and valet (Robert Greig, Eric Blore) give Sullivan about his patronizing “caricaturing” of “the poor and needy” and the very idea of faking homelessness, joblessness, hopelessness and abject poverty.
And I had forgotten the situation that allows Sullivan his epiphany, sitting with an audience of “just folks” as they roar with laughter at a Disney cartoon starring Pluto, the dog.
Whatever you take away from the film, the most moving scenes are “Grapes of Wrath” accurate depictions of homelessness and the African-American church the prison inmates are ushered into, the sheet dropping from the rafters as a screen, and a preacher calling for sympathy for “those less fortunate” as they’re led in, in chains, to watch the movie with them.
Jess Lee Brooks was the uncredited actor who gives the film’s lesson in compassion. The fact that Sturges and Paramount left his name off is a stain that should sting, eighty years after it came out. All that attention for 19-year-old newcomer Veronica Lake, and Veronica Lake’s hair, and they leave a good contract player who acts and sings and just breaks your heart, off the credits because of racism.
The nattering studio execs and publicity folk characters don’t really stand out, although William Demarest as a crusty publicity chief, makes an impression.
McCrae, who embodied a lighter version of that innate decency that Gregory Peck projected on and off screen, is terrific. And Lake, unpolished as she is — Bacall was MUCH better and just about as young in her screen debut — manages a winsome way with a line to go with her luminescent shimmer.
“You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to listen to his jokes.”
Al Bridge, playing the archetypal chain gang “Mister,” is spitting, whipping perfection.
But Brooks is the one who makes the message work, the one who should have been credited and the supporting player who makes “Sullivan’s Travels” worth the journey. He’s the difference between a good film of the Depression Era, and a classic.
MPA Rating: Approved, violence
Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, William Demarest, Jess Lee Brooks, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Robert Warwick, Eric Blore, Robert Greig and Al Bridge
Credits: Scripted and directed by Preston Sturges. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:30