Reviews of Sullivan’s Travels
Displaying all 6 Review
Title: Sullivan’s Travels
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Director: Preston Sturges
Writer: Preston Sturges
Two men grappling on the top of a scudding train and both wind up falling into a choppy river, after that rolls out “THE END”, which is the beginning of this film, directed and written by Preston Sturges, our protagonist is a booming young director Sullivan (McCrea), the said clip he shows is his latest film which intends to dig into the bleak reality instead of make another fluff. So unsurprisingly, the investors and producers will not buy it, then Sullivan decides to experience all the “troubles” which unfortunately elude him since clearly his life is too pricey to provide him with the adversity of the huddled mass.
Here is the compromising plan, he puts on an act as a poor guy with only 10 cents in the pocket, and the film studio sends an 8-men crew to (not so stealthily) follow him and records his adventure, which will be compiled as a front-page story for the media and publicity, a great mutual benefit trickery only it sounds a tad highfalutin, paraphrasing a sentence from the film “People always like what they don’t know anything about it”, Sullivan is a lucky bastard born with a golden spoon in his mouth! Anyway, there he goes, it starts as a slapstick comedy, when he meets the girl (a 19-year-old Lake), who fails to have a crack into Hollywood, the film morphs into a romantic screwball, Lake is a fabulous stunner, and much to my surprise, her diminutive figure does stand for a little boy in her tramp outfit alongside a husky McCrea, and together they showcase some heavy scored silent montages of their improvised life with tramps, an apparent tribute to Chaplin.
Then the film veers its trail with a mood-changing malevolence, the do-gooder has to learn a lesson for his own naivety towards the lower stratum’s spite, after the courtroom hubbub with a hazy and distorted images, Sullivan has to undergo a diabolic spell in a prison camp where he will finally find what people really want to see and it is sardonically at a black people’s church.
During the viewing, there was an impulse pushing me to want to love this film more, but eventually it failed, the story is an oversimplified product of one’s wacky imagination, the overall tone never cease to patronize the poor mass, the ending is too gratuitous to feel the empathy, a 7/10 is out of my respect to Sturges’ cachet, anyway it is an taxing tale to spin, even for Sturges.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
A essência da comédia.
Por vezes, damos connosco a pensar, como seria viver de outra forma? É uma natural ordem de pensamento esta, se bem que, raras são as vezes que passa do estado mental ao físico. O mítico “sair da zona de conforto” para ir à descoberta de uma outra realidade, diferente daquela a que estamos profundamente inseridos, é objecto de estudo e interesse cinematográfico há muito, desde que Robert Flaherty decidiu filmar um documentário no seio de uma família de inuítes; a possibilidade de filmar não em terra mas na terra, não naquela em que pisamos mas naquela em que os outros pisam, os outros, salvo sejam, os sujeitos fílmicos. A ideia parece deveras interessante, no entanto, devido a duas razões, torna-se mais fácil filmar uma ideia proveniente daquilo que vemos e julgamos e não daquilo em que estamos inseridos, sendo elas a dificuldade em “sobrevivermos” fora do nosso habitat natural e a complexidade que o sujeito fílmico encontra ao ter que interagir com a câmara, um sujeito estranho que pretende captar os seus movimentos e acções, como que se de um corpo estranho se tratasse, alguém a tentar entrar num meio que não é o seu, que não merece a sua confiança para o efeito.
Preston Sturges, um nome conhecido da comédia americana na Golden Age, tem como premissa a comédia em si mesma; a língua universal, capaz de ser transmitida pelas diferentes classes de uma sociedade capitalista como a americana, o perfeito catalisador, transmitido das mais altas às mais baixas (ou, estranhamente raro, vice-versa). [spoilers adiante] Esta interpretação torna forma já na segunda metade do filme, minutos depois até, onde o protagonista se insere realmente na tal realidade que pretende descobrir, na “outra face” que lhe é desconhecida, ele, um realizador de musicais que possui uma mansão como residência permanente, uma marioneta nas mãos do sistema de produção de Hollywood. De um ponto de vista sociopolítico, esta é uma interpretação que dá pano para mangas, no entanto, tal como referi anteriormente, é uma premissa que tem uma especial atenção em apenas cerca de um quarto de filme, acabando por não ser a principal temática a retirar do mesmo. Ao voltarmos à premissa inicial, descobrimos que fomos “enganados” pelo plot, não porque o protagonista descobriu que não vale a pena inserir-se numa outra realidade que não a sua, mas porque fomos levados a pensar que era exactamente isso que iria acontecer. O twist é, neste caso em particular, uma perfeita salvaguarda do cinema de comédia new deal, o estilo “capracorniano” com a simples mas eficaz função de elevar a moral de uma sociedade fortemente abatida pela Grande Depressão dos anos 30, com o intuito (propositado ou simplesmente uma consequência a uma sequência de eventos, progressivamente estudados e implementados) de a tornar mais competitiva, uma felicidade que embora aparente, falsa, manipulada pela máquina, pela indústria, transmitia o optimismo que o sistema capitalista assenta, onde todos os seus membros têm a possibilidade de vingarem, de levarem uma vida digna, com um emprego que lhes permite consumir, agindo de acordo com o prometido, o “sonho americano”.
Sturges passa progressivamente da crítica ao elogio a este modelo que facilmente identifica a América do resto do mundo, a ideia de que tanto causa os problemas como os identifica e até ajuda a solucioná-los, se não o modelo ele próprio que os soluciona. Parece-me uma ideia algo sadomasoquista, esta de infligir dor em nós mesmos para procurar uma cura logo de seguida. O exemplo do pobre ganancioso que não se contenta com a filantropia do protagonista em querer dar-lhe uma pequena ajuda financeira (por muito que não o ajude para a vida inteira, mas aí estaríamos a levar a questão para o nível governamental/estatal/político) e quase o assassina por perceber que ele leva mais dinheiro com ele… é um sistema que provoca a luta de classes, a desigualdade evidente, a competitividade entre os membros da sociedade; mas, simultaneamente, passa a imagem de ser o sistema económico mais justo que a História jamais conheceu, daí que se conceba que o único propósito do realizador Sullivan seria o de fazer fitas cómicas, que iluminassem de alguma forma o caminho negro, tortuoso e sem um futuro próspero à vista, pelo qual mais de metade da população ainda caminhava. Desaparece a ideia inicial que se assimila do filme, a ideia cinematográfica de que para se filmar tem que se conhecer primeiro o meio. A ideia continua lá, tal como em todas as ideias, o propósito está na interpretação e não na concepção da mesma – no entanto, é a mensagem transmitida que interessa à análise fílmica, cada um no seu lugar, um realizador rico que faz comédias para alívio dos pobres, não porque assim o quer, mas porque é onde sente maior conforto; os pobres também pretendem esquecer a sua situação social e qualquer esforço em relembrá-los irá cair na história como um esforço burguês em dar conhecimento da sua existência sem apresentar soluções para a sua erradicação – ambas as situações podem ser consideradas erradas, de um ponto de vista ético-moral, embora sejam aquelas que acontecem no mundo real, social.
E é realmente esta a conclusão a que chegamos: uma sociedade assente num modelo que produz riqueza a uma velocidade constante sem ter realmente conhecimento que a produz, vivendo uma felicidade aparente, uma estranha forma de vida, a de viver ilusoriamente. É certo que desde cedo que o cinema é visto por possuir uma capacidade onírica bastante presente, desempenhando o papel de ferramenta educativa, contendo uma função social importante e fomentador de pensamento crítico e individual. É certo também que é devido a isso que desde cedo foi estudado e adequado como o o médium perfeito para um maior controlo mental das massas, ferramenta de entretenimento, uma autêntica máquina de propaganda do estado, subtil e eficaz. Um alívio a uma realidade cínica, uma sociedade cada vez mais desigual. A felicidade nas pequenas coisas, esquecendo os verdadeiros problemas que nos transportam cada vez mais para o abismo; o cerne da questão, a verdadeira causa. Mas podemos continuar a viver assim, ainda que enganados. E se conseguimos viver, por que nos preocupamos?
- Currently 3.0/5 Stars.
Preston Sturges had been in movies for a dozen years when he wrote and directed ’Sullivan’s Travels’ and so had the dirt on how things really worked at the Dream Factory. The film is at once an hommage to the movies and a satirical observation of the superficiality and greed that lay behind the production line ethos of the time. Something of a wunderkind himself having had a privileged childhood and been privately educated in France before indulging himself with a penchant for inventing, a kiss-proof lipstick being one such item he came up with for his mother’s cosmetic company, he took up writing after becoming ill and bedridden in the late ’20’s. As a playwright he had a hit on Broadway and then went to Hollywood where he worked for Fox and Universal. He was at Paramount for five years before frustration got the better of him and he pitched the idea of directing his own scripts, Paramount agreed after Sturges suggested he’d sell his latest for $1 if he could direct. ’Sullivan’s Travels’ comes midway through his astonishingly productive years as writer-director at Paramount and is arguably as good as any of the eight films he produced.
The fable commences with a dedication to the ‘motley montebanks, the clowns’… and John L Sullivan (Joel McCrae) , heavyweight directing champion of the world?, is not happy. In a meeting with cigar-chomping studio exec’s he explains he wants to make pictures of social significance, he’s tired of lightweight but profitable productions. The money men don’t want to loose the Golden Goose that is Sully and they humour him while he expounds on his theory and of wanting to make ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’?, a film that is ‘the true canvas of the suffering of humanity’, with as the studio heads hope, ‘a little sex’. ‘What do you know of hard luck’? they ask, after he insists he wants to make ‘something like Capra’. At this Sully realises he has no idea what poor people suffer and decides to go undercover as a bum and find out. The studio sees a great promotional opportunity and try to fill the press with positive stories of Sully’s crusade as Sully’s butler cautions that the suffering masses ‘look down on caricaturing of the poor and needy’. Sullivan sets out on the road, accompanied by an entourage and gets involved with a slapstick car chase with a bus, paying tribute to the silent comedy pioneers in the process, but he can’t seem to escape the gravitational pull of Hollywood.
Into the mix Sturges throws the girl, ’there’s always a girl in the picture’, and what a dame with Veronica Lake meeting Sully in a cheap diner and thinking he’s a down-and-out bum she buys him some eggs. Soon she’s in on the con and insists she wants to accompany Sully on his travels. The Girl is a failed actress and Sturges gets in some great lines about what an actress needs to do to get ahead in Hollywood, but she’s not that kind of girl. Eventually the Girl and Sully experience life as hobo’s and it’s no joke, sleeping rough, eating in soup kitchen’s and showering in communal groups. Sully ends it and they go back to the luxury of his palatial abode. By now he and the Girl are sweet on each other, but as he’d married to get around a tax law, and his wife won’t divorce him, his hands are tied. Sully feels guilt from doing his experiment to profit from his observations so he goes off alone with a pocket full of money to spread amongst the people he’d met, only to be mugged by the same tramp who’d stolen his shoes, the ones with his ID card hidden inside, as fate (and Sturges) would have it. The tramp gets his just reward by being flattened under a train, but as the body is unrecognisable and the only ID found is Sully’s it is announced to the world that John L Sullivan is dead. Sully meanwhile is suffering concussion and wakes up on a freight train only to get into a fight with a railway ‘Bull’, who Sully hits and is dragged before the courts, sentenced to 6 years for assault and as he’s suffering temporary amnesia he’s unable to provide a convincing defence.
Sullivan’s epiphany happens while on the chain gang, after having been brutalised by guards and sent to the sweat box he’s allowed with the men to attend a picture show at the local black church. In some of the most visually poetic scenes the men shuffle in as a screen is lowered and a Walt Disney cartoon is shown (Sturges had wanted to use a Chaplin film, but Charlie wanted too much money). Soon Sully finds himself laughing along with the rest of the congregation, fine contrast to the experience in church he and the Girl had as hobo’s where the pews were full of a bored stiff, captive crowd having to listen to a fire and brimstone sermon in order to be fed. Sully confesses to the murder of John L Sullivan in order to get some publicity, a subtle nod to the salacious public appetite for all things Hollywood by Sturges, a semi-dark overtone in what is otherwise the happiest of endings, where Sully’s wife had re-married and he’s now free to take up with the girl and write her a ‘letter to Lubitsch’. Sullivan tells the studio brass he’s no longer going to make ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’?, and despite the fact they have announced their huge and important picture.
Sullivan tells them, ’there’s something to be said for making people laugh, for some people that’s all they have’.
Sturges is ostensibly justifying his own existence as a comedian, and seeming decrying the trend then rampant in Hollywood towards ‘socially aware’ cinema, but there is more going on. Sturges is lampooning the desire of the studio heads for aggrandizement, the need to be taken seriously by the wider arts community, not ‘serious’ films in themselves, as he also has some significant themes woven into his own work. ie, In this film he has Sully mention that he only got 6 years in prison because the judge thought he was a bum, ‘they don’t sentence Picture director’s for a disagreement with a railroad bull’, pointing out the imbalance in application of the law towards the poor. Sully regrets the fact that pictures could be a major tool of education, and in a pre-television age laments that more is not done in this area, Hollywood mostly existing to make a buck and ignoring any social contract with the people who provide the income. The contrast between the opulence of the successful Hollywood type with the poor in the shantytown’s is acute, and it’s not used for comic effect, Sturges is saying ‘this is real’. While he may laud the fact that an entertainment can help them escape their troubles for 90 minutes, he acknowledges they are fated to return to a miserable, grinding life when the credits roll.
Motion Pictures began as the lightweight cousin of painting and writing, and for 40 years had inched toward ‘respectability’ as an art form. The biggest impetus for Hollywood turning towards weightier output was instituting the Academy Awards, self-importance meant films favouring significant issues were more likely to do well with the voters rather than pure escapist entertainments. This created a kind of schizophrenic Hollywood, where studios were prepared to finance ‘prestige’ projects which they knew would most likely fail at the box office, but would do well with the Awards season. Sturges is not sticking it to Capra as much as emulating him, this film has bits of ‘It Happened One Night’ and ‘Mr Deeds Goes To Town’ woven through it. The dialogue is witty and as fast paced as any Hawks screwball comedy, and despite the pithy summation at the end, this film has plenty to say. McCrae is fine as the decent and searching Sullivan and Veronica Lake is fantastic as the Girl, a pity she was such a misfit and unable to fulfill the promise this role indicated. ’Sullivan’s Travels’ is however Sturges in full flight, a thing of wonder and delight, turning the spotlight in on his own profession and creating a wonderful fable at 24 frames per second in the process.
(Wednesday / March 17, 2010 / 11:40pm)
“Sullivan’s Travels” is Preston Sturges’ best film in my opinion. Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake’s onscreen relationship quite simply ‘astonishes’ lovers of comedies, including myself! This is a story of a saddened wealthy man, whose trying to escape the web of loneliness. Also a search about happiness and finding the true value of laughter. A great quantity of money can never buy happiness in this screwball comedy from Struges that makes a truthful view on how people suffer with affluence.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
I don’t know much about the Coen Brothers to know if they claim Preston Sturges as a major influence on their work, but there seems to be a connection. They seem to be continuing the tradition of Hollywood outsiders making movies their own way, freely mixing comedy, drama, dark twisted moments, and a little romance. After all they made Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, the movie that never gets made in this film.
I think I’ve only seen one other Sturges film, The Great McGinty, and I noticed social issues seem to be a favorite theme. He pokes fun at the Hollywood machine. There is lots of great dialog, some of which I didn’t appreciate till I saw the clips again in a special feature doc. There are quite a few laughs, but it turns at times to thoughtful drama and a touch of romance. Then it also deals with the darker side of society, the danger of giving charity to the poor too freely, the treatment of chain gang prisoners, and a particularly grisly death for the time when this movie was made. The movie cautions against taking the art and social power of moving pictures too seriously.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
Preston Sturges shows a fair amount of nerve here, and cinematic audacity is, I’m convinced, one of the primary criteria that makes a film Criterion-worthy. By naming the film as he did, he draws comparisons to the famous satirical classic “Gulliver’s Travels,” a book probably more familiar in adaptation or paraphrase for children than the 18th century original (which I did read, many years ago – I didn’t get a lot of Swift’s jokes though…) By the 1940s, cinema had (I presume) established a foothold in the domain of artistic respectability, but in the most “respectable” circles, only when the subject matter was serious, grim, epic and even depressing. Sturges risks getting lost in a self-referential world of insider parody, and there’s certainly enough of that to please fans of the old Hollywood. But he doesn’t stay there, nor does he take the self-loathing route that often suffices for the big statement in contemporary “films about film.” He uses a wide range of cinematic techniques, including a short movie-within-the-movie to open the picture and a seven minute music-only sequence where the camera wanders through hobo camps showing the harsh conditions endured by Americans at the end of the Great Depression. He manages to make his case for the redemptive power of comedy flicks quite unapologetically at the end, and without grandiosity either. Indeed, Sturges makes it all look very easy – and he wrote, produced and directed the thing…
For more of my thoughts on this film, and some clips, visit my blog:
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.