Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
(Paramount/Criterion Collection, 1941/2001) Rated: not rated
PopMatters Film and Books Critic
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Riding on the Cockeyed Caravan
One of the most striking characteristics of Preston Sturges’ career is its brevity. He wrote and directed eight films of consistent hilarity and humanity in only four short years, from 1940 to 1944. For most of the prior decade, he had been writing successful screenplays, and he was already over 40 when he made The Great McGinty in 1940, emerging as the first noteworthy writer-director.
In the brief period that followed, he more than made up for lost time by turning from one project to another, virtually all of which were box-office successes. One apparent reason for Sturges’ abbreviated career was the constant sniping between the sometimes willful artist and the budget-conscious Paramount Pictures front office. One gets the feeling that he shot his creative wad early on, then exhausted by fighting the suits’ efforts to censor his work.
Still, the substance of that meteoric rise and fall is confirmed by the release by Criterion of two of his most successful films, The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. Both first released in 1941, these films refresh one’s conviction that the work of few directors is so flat-out funny on both visual and verbal levels. One could turn off either the image or dialogue and still enjoy his movies.
Considered by many to be one of, it not the, best American sound comedy, The Lady Eve chronicles the collision between that most susceptible of “sucker sapiens,” beer company heir Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), and crafty con artist Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck). They meet on board a cruise ship as Charles is returning from a snake-hunting expedition. Initially, Jean regards the accident-prone scientist as little more than another fool to be fleeced, but she falls in love with him nonetheless (as she puts it, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey”).
Jean is certainly the aggressor in their partnership, and treats Charles time and again in what might seem like a humiliating manner. But her brusgue manner never altogether covers over the fact that she’s nuts about this snake-loving introvert. Charles is himself so smitten by this enticing and experienced temptress that nothing about her full-court pursuit, even her disguise as the British aristocrat Lady Eve Sedgewick, comes across as either brutal or belligerent. Even when Jean corrals him into marriage, and then, on second thought, tries to scare him off by detailing all her prior paramours, one is assumes that these two are meant to be a couple. The world Sturges so deftly constructs in The Lady Eve might seem fraught with cynicism were it not for the fact that its inhabitants thrive on courtship as much as chicanery. For Sturges, landing a mate and lassoing a sucker call upon very similar techniques.
Sturges’ fourth feature, Sullivan’s Travels, chronicles the exploits of yet another wide-eyed innocent, in this case the successful but self-involved film director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea). For some reason, this low-brow entertainer has delusions of profundity and therefore cannot comprehend how a broad comedy like his own Ants in Your Pants of 1939 is just what the public requires. Instead, he earnestly wishes to create a more meaningful statement, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The Coen brothers borrowed this title for their 2000 hit.)
Much as Charles must be knocked off his perch by Jean, Sullivan needs to be pummeled by experience in order to understand that he knows next to nothing about the “real world.” When he proposes to go on a quest for “the common man,” his solicitous staff backs him up, so as to cushion him against any calamities. Mishaps inevitably occur, for without them, Sullivan would not meet a dazzling ingenue (Veronica Lake), lose his memory, or land in jail. His incarceration is ironically a liberating experience, for it convinces him that humor serves greater utility in the lives of the unfortunate than heavy-handed sloganeering. The erstwhile prophet recovers his necessary position as funnyman when he realizes that a balanced perspective requires the sophomoric as much as the sophisticated. A well-executed pratfall can teach us as much as some profundity.
If this summary of Sullivan’s Travels sounds like Sturges’ vindication of his own enterprise, nothing could be farther from the case. In fact, Sullivan recovers his memory (and his prominence) only when he recognizes how similar he is to his audience. At the same time, Sullivan’s Travels requires some effort on its own viewers’ part, for belly laughs are followed by affecting acknowledgements of the travails of the downtrodden. One must either accede to the shifts or suffer some manner of conceptual whiplash. Not too many laugh-out-loud comedies include death by locomotive and the threat of permanent incarceration. Critics tend to refer to the illegitimate sextuplets in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) when they want to underscore Sturges’ pushing of the permissible “envelope,” yet Sullivan’s Travels challenges our notions of what can be funny, time and time again.
Although both Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve have long been available on video and appear frequently on television, these reissues by Criterion permit access to some of the best of Sturges’ work along with the company’s exemplary attention to source material and special features. The Lady Eve includes the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the picture, starring Stanwyck with Ray Milland in place of Fonda, along with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and commentary by scholar Marian Keane. Bogdanovich is breezy but informative, while Keane attends perceptively to matters of performance but relies all too heavily on Stanley Cavell’s philosophical analysis of comedy. In the process, she transforms the film, more than I would wish, into an epistemological enterprise.
Criterion’s Sullivan’s Travels contains even more bounty, ranging from the entertaining and informative PBS “American Masters” documentary on the director to interviews with Sturges and his widow, Sandy, and rare archival recordings of his singing and poetry readings. The commentary on this DVD comes from a variety of quarters, including comedians Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. While the former is too wry for my taste, the latter makes one astute comment after another.
The opportunity to re-watch these two delightful films reminded me of three crucial qualities of Sturges’ work. First and foremost, his love of language. Watching any of Sturges’s films illustrates how word-drunk he was, how few people have so nimbly combined sophistication and tomfoolery in dialogue. It is not only that his scripts bear quotation, but that the discursive cleverness never detracts from the action. Sturges doesn’t just call attention to his skills, but revels in the malleability of words and how different individuals wield them in unique ways.
Second, Sturges can be a subtle visual stylist. True, he is prone to overuse the master shot, but in doing so, he reminds us how much pleasure can be had in simply watching the actions of compelling individuals. At a time when fast-cutting seems a habit Hollywood cannot relinquish, the relaxed pace of Sturges’ flow of images and emphasis on observation over technical bombast are a welcome relief. Nonetheless, it must be said that he can also manipulate the camera with irreverence and audacity. The mirror shot in The Lady Eve, where Jean observes a stateroom full of women virtually throwing themselves at Charles, is a dazzling use of space. Or again, Sturges draws out the Gothic dimension of the prison at the end of Sullivan’s Travels and then lightens the oppressive atmosphere with the montage of memorable faces as the convicts roar with laughter at a Disney cartoon. The sequence shows that he was entirely capable of thinking “visually.”
Third and finally, Sturges has been aptly described by Andrew Sarris as “the Breughal of American comedy directors,” not only for his range of character types, but also the evident affection he has for all his idiosyncratic individuals. This love comes across in every frame, even for those who speak but a single line. When Eugene Pallette’s big baby of a beer tycoon in The Lady Eve bellows for his breakfast, we simultaneously observe corporate power demoted to virtual infancy, and that social authority rarely answers our most basic needs.
You also get the feeling, in Sturges’ hiring of many actors repeatedly, that he cherished watching them ply their craft, whether the bluster of William Demarest, the slow burn of Edgar Kennedy, or the affected elitism of Eric Blore. As he shows in Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges thought of the movies as a uniquely effective arena for the depiction of life’s cockeyed caravan. Before it, a spectator can only sit back and succumb to laughter, admiring the audacious mixture of sarcasm and sentiment that Sturges brings to the process.