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Have You Seen…? Episode 18

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In this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf look at the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, directed by Preston Sturges, a movie that combines serious drama, comedy and romance

[Clip from Sullivan’s Travels]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Sullivan's Travels?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen Sullivan's Travels. The interesting thing is I saw it recently, I did not see this when I was in film school and I haven't seen that many Preston Sturges films.

DH: Well, Preston Sturges, I think we talked about him once before when we discussed screwball comedies, he's unique. He is a very important figure in a Hollywood history. He's the first true writer/director of the sound era. He wrote and made 7 or 8 amazing movies in a very short period from 1940 to 1944. Before that, he'd been just a writer. But then he was able to start directing his own pictures starting in 1940, and the 4th of those, they're mostly screwball comedies, basically, but the 4th of them is different than the others. And in many ways different than any movie, it's called Sullivan's Travels and it's a little bit serious as well as funny.

SVW: It's serious and it's also a reflection of his own job as a film director because the main characters, a filmmaker.

DH: Right. So the main character is a director named John L Sullivan, who is a successful director of wacky screwball comedies. And that's established right at the beginning. But he's decided he needs to be, and he gives a couple of speeches to this effect, that there's too many troubles in the world, and I want to make something serious. And he wants to make a movie version of a novel called ‘O Brother Where Art Thou.’

SVW: Which is a nonexistent novel. And of course the Coen brothers a use that as the title of their film from the year 2000.

DH: Yeah, the Coen brothers, it was a stroke of genius. They said, look in the movie Sullivan's Travels Sullivan wants to make this serious social commentary movie called O Brother Where Art Thou, but it doesn't get made, you know, in real life. So the Coen Brothers said “we’ll make a movie called O Brother Where Art Thou.

SVW: Which is also a comedy.

DH: Yeah, it is. But also it's sort of, I guess, it's a kind of parody of what Sturges is doing: parody of parody. So the basic plot is that this director who has been a privileged rich person decides that he's going to dress up like a homeless person. This is during the Great Depression, right? And he's going to go out and ride the rails with only $0.10 in his pocket and see what it's like to be poor and downtrodden and homeless. And then he can make a movie that has a strong social message and uplifts people to do something about the problems of the world.

SVW: And he ends up taking Veronica Lake along with him who he runs into.

DH: Yes. So what happens, you know, without giving, I don't think I'll be giving away too much here, first he tries to set out, but the studio, he's this very important property to them. And they follow him with like a big RV with all these, you know, employees in the studio and he's not really going out on his own. He tries a couple times to get out of Hollywood and he always ends up back in Hollywood again. And at one point he meets this out of work actress who's about to give up on Hollywood and she helps him out. She thinks he's really poor and she buys and breakfast and and then he ends up doing the rest of the film, most of the rest of the film, his travels where it gets a little more serious going on in the world and he does get away from Hollywood. He's with her.

SVW: And she's very angry when she finds out that he actually is a wealthy film director pretending to be a poor person.

DH: Yeah, and that theme is there throughout. So there's several people early, his butler and his valet are telling him, you know, we don't approve of this. You're going out and pretending you're poor, that's not fair to poor people and you're going to go out and hang around with them, I don't think they want their privacy invaded. There's a lot of people that they don't approve of what he's doing.

SVW: Yeah, of course, the studio heads, they just want to make money. They want to actually make an insurance claim on him because he's going out with these travels.

DH: Yeah, we've got to ensure for a million bucks, right? But they also know that some of these movies have been successful. And here's where we come around to where Sturges is really talking about what's really going on in movies. He mentions by name, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, other makers of comedies, but Capra had gone from making pure comedy like It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in the early 30's, he had switched to these more serious films. You know, listeners today, the film that Capra is most famous for is It's a Wonderful Life. Now, that was a little later, that was 1946. But before that he had made movies like Meet John Doe which had just come out before they made Sullivan's Travels. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and all of a sudden Capra had switched to this sort of political social, serious commentary. They always had romance and a little lightness, but they were more serious movies. That's what Sullivan is talking about what he wants to make.

SVW: And also The Grapes of Wrath was around that time too that John Ford had made.

DH: Yeah, The Grapes of Wrath had just come out and you see about the 3rd time that Sullivan tries to get out, there's a long scene with no dialogue, about 7 minutes long with him walking among homeless people, and it looks like it's straight out of the movie Grapes of Wrath.

SVW: And so he does eventually entered the world of the poor. I mean, the poorest of the poor. And he and Veronica Lake have their experiences. But there's a dramatic turn that makes the film. Where the film becomes truly serious.

DH: Right. And I know how much of this we should give away. But he…

SVW: Yeah we really shouldn't spoil it. But he ends up getting in his own in trouble himself.

DH: In very serious trouble. You know, it has echoes of earlier. movies of the 30's like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. He’s in serious trouble with the law and can't get out of it. And then he really sees what it's like. And that's when he makes certain decisions about whether he should make something serious or comic. And they're just brilliant scenes that that get you thinking about was it laughter that people really need? And basically what happens in this movie is Preston Sturges has it both ways. In a way he's making fun of the social message pictures. You know, it's like the studio executives are saying, “nobody wants to see that, people want to laugh. Make another one-year comedy films.” So in a way there's that message there that he should make comedy. But at the same time, the movie ends up being a very serious social commentary and successful at it.

SVW: And it's interesting how there's the beginning of the film has a certain tone to it for the first, let's say, 15 minutes or that's very antics, slapstick. It's enjoyable, but it's not that effective. And then the final 15 or 20 minutes of the movie is very powerful.

DH: Yeah, it's interesting that you say that it's not that effective. I've read various critics talk about that very thing that the usual slapstick type comedy in this movie doesn't work that well. The funniest part is just the really snappy screwball comedy dialogue, which is as good as ever. They will never be another writer ever that will be able to do what President Sturges did. But then yes, we end up with a very serious scene and I am very important scene that takes place towards the end, it's really the climactic scene in the movie, but I won't I will give away what its content is, but it's in a poor black church in the south. And it is one of the most non-racist, authentic portrayals of black people in the movie this old out of Hollywood that exists. I mean, mostly all Hollywood did was racist parities. But this is a very genuine real portrayal of a black southern preacher and his congregation and how they treat other people who are downtrodden and it's really great.

SVW: And that's towards the end of the film and also the beginning of the film, along with the light tone of it, it seems to be filmed with a lot of light, it’s bright. And then by the end of the film, it gets more interesting visually because it's darker and more shadows and more night sequences.

DH: Right. The cinematographer in this movie was a man named John Seitz who became one of the premier film noir cinematographers later. And yes, starting with that Grapes of Wrath like scene and then into the scene in the southern church and so forth it gets pretty dark. But this movie is a masterpiece. To me it's one of the Great American films. It accomplishes both serious drama, comedy, romance. It has it all without being pretentious at all. And that's what's so remarkable about it.

SVW: Well, thank you for joining us.

DH: Thanks, Scott.


David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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