Preston Sturges made something like a dozen films before he blew himself out in a blaze of creative glory, but for the short time that he was on top of the world, he made movies that no one had ever seen before in ways that wouldn’t become part of the comfortable vernacular until the Coen Brothers and Charlie Kaufman came on the U.S. scene. I watched Sullivan’s Travels again last night in preparation for a speaking engagement this coming Tuesday at the Denver Public Library (6:30pm and free, come and see me if you’re in the area), and was astonished at how often the Coens had gone to Sturges – and this film in particular – in their work.
O Brother Where Art Thou?, of course, the title of the film that Sullivan’s Travels’ director hero John “Sully” Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wishes to make instead of all the populist comedies he’s become famous for, features swamp-bound chain gangs, spirituals, watching “picture shows” – but also the deadpan portrait from The Ladykillers, the hysterical Hollywood boardrooms and frustrated artiste of Barton Fink, the rapturous forest tracking shots of Miller’s Crossing, and the broad smalltown slapstick patois of Raising Arizona. It even has moments of courtroom hijinks (Intolerable Cruelty) buried in there, while over the course of Sully’s four “travels,” what comes clear is the kind of post-modern ironic structure of Kaufman’s adaptation..
It’s a complicated work – more’s happening in any ten minutes of Sullivan’s Travels than most any other film from the American thirties and forties (save Hitchcock’s and Capra’s) – one that encompasses so many different genres that the original ad push for the film pretty much focused on Veronica Lake’s trademark bangs. From its first moments on top of a rushing train straight into the kind of chamber/help comedy that RKO minted in its thirties production and then fast into a road trip, a comedy, a racial rue, a pinioned skewer of social classes, a shot at the media and legal systems, and finally a much-debated epilogue that I choose to read as ironic instead of compromised. It goes from full-on comedy to full-on drama and it does both with such casual ease that it feels organic.
McCrea justifies my affection for him from Foreign Correspondent and Lake is a vision of tomboy sex mystique that puts Lauren Bacall to shame. Guess she was a few weeks pregnant during filming – remarkable for the amount of physicality her role requires. Sullivan’s Travels is a post-modern film made sixty-plus years ago – smart, courageous, and a giant middle finger offered to the hand that feeds. One of the great Hollywood satires, and as such one of the great American satires, it’s my favorite of Sturges’ films in all its messy, schizophrenic, glory. The only thing that makes sense about the film all the way through is its sense of outrage – its absolute incandescent indignation over the status quo in art and culture. Sturges spoke his mind about all manner of injustice, and he did it with a puckish glint in his eye. A great filmmaker – and in the history of American flickers, one of the greatest; primed now more than ever for a popular rediscovery.