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Laughing Through the Great Depression With 'Sullivan's Travels'

The real charm of Sullivan’s Travels is the way it exposes Hollywood’s mediation of the Depression and the trauma it inflicted.

Sullivan's Travels

Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Margaret Hayes, and Porter Hall
Distributor: Criterion
US DVD Release Date: 2015-04-14
“After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy-directors, which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.”

-- Preston Sturges

By 1941, the time of the release of Sullivan’s Travels, Hollywood was on the economic rebound. The studios were roughly 90 million dollars ahead of their pre-Depression box office numbers in 1929. Paramount, the studio that produced the film, ranked second in terms of overall profits of the eight major studios, earning $9.2 million dollars compared to the industry leader MGM that pulled in 11 million dollars in 1941.

Despite the encouraging economic forecast, however, labor and political unrest boiled over at the studios. Although the Screen Writers Guild formed in 1933, the studios did not recognize its existence until 1941, when screenwriters threatened to strike. At the same time, Disney animators became increasingly upset about their lack of screen credit regarding their work and the studio’s wholesale appropriation of their intellectual property. The strike was finally sparked in May 1941 as Disney fired all animators who were perceived as union activists. Over half of the 1000 animators walked out, leading to a nine week strike.

The political unrest within Hollywood was noted earlier by Martin Dies, the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, as he investigated the studios in 1938 for Communist subversion. His inquisition was cut short when he accused ten year old Shirley Temple of Communist sympathies, a clearly ridiculous accusation to any impartial observer. Yet his failed witch hunt served as a dry run for the reactionary showdown that would reach a crescendo in 1947 with the creation of the Hollywood blacklist and gray list (those who weren’t officially accused of being Communists but were considered sympathetic to the cause).

On the surface, the plot of Sullivan’s Travels advocates a completely reactionary political position, particularly when one keeps in mind the labor and political unrest that engulfed the studios at the time. The film suggests that Hollywood director John Sullivan’s (Joel McCrea) desire to make a social problem picture about the Depression, although well-intentioned, is a misguided attempt to engage a public that doesn’t want to be reminded of the socio-economic catastrophe onscreen. Instead, the audience simply wants to laugh. Sullivan concludes at the end of the film that making people laugh “isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing.” His character mouths a general studio line advocated by most producers at the time. As Louis B. Mayer chided director Mervyn LeRoy, who created some of the most politically-engaged films during the '30s like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and Five Star Final (1931), “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.”

The only time the film gestures towards labor unrest is in its opening scene. We watch two men struggling on a speeding train. They climb over boxcars, crashing into one another, fists flying, until finally pulling each other overboard as the train crosses a trestle, their bodies sinking into a turbulent river beneath. The scene cuts to a projection room, revealing what we have seen is a sequence Sullivan hopes to include in his upcoming social problem picture. Sullivan excitedly jumps up and exclaims “You see the symbolism of it? Capital and Labor destroy each other. It has social significance.” A producer unexcitedly comments, “Who wants to see that kind of stuff?”

As Sullivan attempts to justify his interest, the producer and studio head remind him of his upper-class background of boarding schools and college that make him distinctly ill-equipped to address working-class troubles. Yet instead of discouraging Sullivan, their comments set the plot in motion: he will travel the road anonymously as a hobo to see how the other half lives.

The film’s self-reflective opening scene of presenting a film-within-a-film signals how Sullivan’s Travels will poach many of the '30s social problem genres and imagery of the Great Depression. Although at a narrative level the film asserts no one would be interested in watching political and economic unrest, visually it keeps returning to the traumas of the Great Depression, albeit in an often neutered form.

The images found in this sequence are reminiscent of those found in William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Like many films emerging out of the Depression, the severe suffering and economic despondency cannot be kept at bay even for someone like Sturges, whose most powerful material often relies on the low-budget aesthetics of the B-picture, as film critic Manny Farber once noted. For example, the film’s most powerful evocation of Depression-era America occurs in a scene that directly references William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933). Like Wellman’s film, Sullivan’s Travels has a girl (Veronica Lake) dressed as a boy tramp. She, who is not given a name in the film, accompanies Sullivan, also dressed as a tramp, through a hobo encampment. Trash is strewn around the makeshift cabins as both black and white dispossessed men loiter alongside train tracks. The camera pans over an unfurling scene of misery and dejection. As a train approaches, the men run alongside it, some boarding, some falling by the wayside. The sequence is shot with a documentary-like flair as the camera bounces as we watch the men struggle to board. This is a highly unusual moment for a Sturges’ film that normally holds only a very tentative relation to realism at all. As Farber notes, “Sturges eliminated from his movies the sedulous realism that has kept talking pictures essentially anchored to a rotting nineteenth-century esthetic” (Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, 98).

Yet such realism is quickly jettisoned as the film shuttles through a series of other genres that don’t necessarily provide for a coherent picture, which never seemed to concern Sturges all that much anyway, but instead immerses the viewer into the chaos and speed that defined Depression-era industrial America. For example, another interesting moment occurs near the film’s end as it pillages the prison genre that was popular during the early '30s with films like The Big House (1930), Hell’s Highway (1932), and, most famously, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Much like Fugitive, the sequence when John Sullivan is incarcerated for beating a train yard guard with a rock is shot in high-contrast, low-key lighting and reveals the utter barbarity and blind stupidity of authority as it beats its prisoners into submission. The film directly links itself to Fugitive in an earlier sequence. The judge who sentences Sullivan is played by William Robertson, a character actor who also played the vindictive prison board chairman within Fugitive who unjustly sentences James Allen (Paul Muni), an innocent man, to countless years of hard labor under inhumane conditions. Can Sullivan’s Travels be suggesting that the judge’s ruling also comes from a small-minded, vindictive, and bigoted position?

Also, like Fugitive, the sequence implies how such brutal conditions level whites and blacks into the same state of abjection. Fugitive does this as we watch a series of black and white prison hands being chained together. Each shot alternates between black and white prisoners as the sound of clamping iron accompanies the outstretched hands being shackled. The film reveals an interracial chain of misery taking place.

Sullivan’s Travels even more inventively presents this connection by fusing the prison film with that of the all-black musical, another popular genre in the early days of sound in Hollywood found in films like Hallelujah (1929) and The Green Pastures (1936). A black preacher invites the convicts to watch one reelers like short Disney cartoons at his church. The congregation sings “Go Down, Moses” as prisoners enter the church. But the sequence focuses solely on the men’s shackled ankles and legs as they proceed down the aisle, completely dehumanized as individual identity is stripped of them. A stream of headless bodies enters as the shuffling chains rattle underneath the lyrics of song: “Tell Pharaoh, to let my people go.” Images of historic slavery converge with that of the chain gang (as well as Jewish exile), suggesting that the latter is simply an extension of the earlier regime. Although the film narratively wants to hold such social commentary at a distance, the combination of imagery and sound in this sequence connotes the utter injustice, brutality, and racism that defines modern-day incarceration.

Yet this unique sequence of black and white unity distinctly jars against an earlier racist moment when Sturges employs the insulting image of the coon figure as a black cook is thrown around his kitchen on a speeding bus for comic relief.

The most direct images of economic misery of the Depression can only enter the picture obliquely. A long montage sequence occurs two-thirds into the picture as Sullivan and the Girl dressed as tramps encounter squatter camps, charity help in the form of showers, sermons, and stale food, and cramped shelters. Interestingly, this sequence is overlaid with music, distancing the viewer from the immiserating conditions through a melodramatic score of forced pathos. Also, the montage is interspersed with humorous moments: Sullivan and the Girl scratching wildly as they are bitten by fleas and watching a toothless old man gum his food while distorting his face. This suggests the film’s discomfort with such misery. It cannot be ladled out to viewers in an unadulterated form. Instead, humor and music must provide a buffer. Tellingly, before Sullivan and the Girl have to finally eat from a garbage can at the end of the montage, they instead run off back to a bus full of amenities and food that Sullivan’s studio has provided them with. Their retreat encapsulates the film’s own hesitancy to address the Depression head-on and allow those suffering a real voice.

At its worst, the film promotes a reactionary view of the poor and the general public. The idiocy of the latter is witnessed during the film’s two-movie sequence where we either watch people stuffing their face with popcorn and peanuts to only intermittently look at the screen between talking or see them laughing with abandon at a Disney cartoon as its characters pratfall and engage in other slapstick behavior. This is the film’s view of us.

The world of the poor gains sinister connotations when Sullivan decides to distribute five dollar bills to the homeless lining the streets. Once again, a melodramatic soundtrack eclipses any other sound, distancing us from the poverty as we hear swelling violins. But the sequence is shot in extreme low-key with awkward angles reminiscent of film noir that was emerging at the time. We watch shots of Sullivan’s feet walking as he is trailed by a homeless man who will eventually rob him of his money by knocking him unconscious. Sullivan is backlit as he walks out of a tunnel, the camera looking down to his silhouetted body. He is shot through the metal stairs of a fire escape, implying the claustrophobia of a world closing in on him and the imminent danger posed by the man waiting for him.

This sequence stands in decided contrast to the well-lit, middle-class world of Hollywood that the film often returns to. Unlike the banter between the middle-class and their general good looks we see during the film’s Hollywood moments, the world of poverty is silent, brutal, and stupid. Those in the middle-class world assist one another as when the Girl buys Sullivan a meal or a dinner owner provides Sullivan and the Girl free food. The poor instead relentlessly exploit one another as we see when Sullivan is robbed of his money and has his boots stolen in an earlier sequence. The class bias between the filming styles become abundantly clear and seems to support Dennis Broe’s belief that film noir was birthed during a time of enormous labor strife and middle-class anxiety. Sullivan’s Travel, more than almost any other film, most directly relates such anxiety onto the screen.

Although one might rightfully suggest that the film’s reactionary outlook towards poverty and the poor results from Sturges’ privileged background of being shuttled across Europe as a child by a preening mother who wanted him to experience the very best of high culture, which distanced him from the very poverty and everyday people he wanted to address, not unlike Sullivan, it also is the product of a studio system that, contrary to popular opinion, never wanted to fully escape from reality but instead mediate it. If anything, Sullivan’s Travels provides a primer on how various Hollywood genres were utilized to address social issues. The lack of coherence found in Sturges’ films are nothing more than an exaggerated incoherence that inhabited all classical Hollywood films -- in part dictated by the restrictive codes of censorship and in part attempting to meet audience demand.

How does Sullivan get out of serving six years of hard labor through the simple discovery that he is a director later on? The film glides past this transition. Perhaps all the justification that we need is when Sullivan states, “They don’t sentence picture directors to a place like this.” The “they” refers less to the criminal justice system than the studio system itself. The producers, directors, and writers constitute the “they”. To further justify this point, Sullivan states almost immediately afterwards, “If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does,” drawing further attention to the self-reflexive nature of the film.

Sturges’ films draw attention to their own artificiality, the same artificiality that dictates all Hollywood films from this time. Although most films tangentially mediate reality, they are more faithful to their own internal (il)logic that genre, censorship, and other formal codes produce. What makes Sturges’ films so enjoyable is their blatant disregard of fidelity to a singular genre or attempting to smoothly blend genres together. Instead, his films are a hodge-podge of ramshackle assemblages, their gears never perfectly meshing as they thrust the plot forward, tumbling their characters together in the process regardless if it makes narrative sense. Sturges’ films are more based on unpredictability than anything else. In many ways, Sullivan’s Travels is most true in relating the sensation of the Great Depression than most other Hollywood films. It reveals how all of a sudden one’s world can come crashing down into complete chaos without warning. Of course, the film also wants to suggest that rightful order can be restored by its final scenes. But Sullivan’s Travels at least exposes the happy ending and good fortune as nothing more than contrivances to appease viewers and generate profits. After all, “they” don’t want to have the boy not get the girl in the end, do they? That would be bad for business.

As always, Criterion provides an excellent transfer of the film onto DVD. Extras include an American Masters 1990 documentary on Sturges, an interview with Sandy Sturges, his last wife, and some radio interviews with Sturges. None of the extras are particularly enlightening, but for those unfamiliar with his background, they are useful to some degree.

But the real charm of Sullivan’s Travels is the way it exposes Hollywood’s mediation of the Depression and the trauma it inflicted, not by simply ignoring it but instead by rendering it incoherent and safe for consumption under a moody score, behind low-key lighting, and taking place in between pratfalls.

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