Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Sturges reminds me of a proto-Verhoeven, an almost misanthropic director who makes films that play like incompetent, almost juvenile Hollywood trash, yet have a dark, bitingly satiric undercurrent and subtext that mock the system that created them (along with everything else). That he managed to make such films, as Verhoeven does, with Hollywood money is astonishing and hilarious.

The first time I saw Sullivan’s Travels, I was quite unimpressed. It struck me as stultifingly shallow with its sententiously melodramatic middle-eight and denouement. But tonight, I got to see it on the big screen, as I suppose it should be. (The fact that the idiots that run my local “arthouse” felt the need to crop the academy ratio print to fit a matte screen, chopping off the top and bottom of the image, is a pit thread in and of itself.)

“Eureka!” I exclaimed, running wet and naked about the theatre. Errr… Nevermind. At any rate, I finally realized what the film was about. It was a satire of everything. A satire of Capra, a satire of the populists, a satire of Hollywood, a satire of the goodhearted yet pitifully shallow people who try to put bandaids on the gaping wounds of the poor, on the rich folk who blithely throw money at any problem they face and above all, I suppose, a mockery of the people in Hollywood who think that they reflect or dictate modern culture.

I began to suspect as much after the speech of Sullivan’s manservant (“Poverty must be shunned at all cost!”) and when we see the black cook on the bus, but it was really driven home to me by the ridiculously over the top ‘uppity Negroes’ in the church, and the dialogue about how they don’t put away picture directors for disagreements with yardmen. At the end, when Sullivan says “that’s all some people have in this cockeyed caravan” and the image fades out to the convicts laughing, I suddenly realized that they were laughing at him. The idiot. He hasn’t learned anything except that his money entitles him to privileges that the proletariat don’t enjoy. His attempts at curing the societal ills he has seen amount to making Ants In Your Pants of 1941. The irony in the picture is just brilliant.

Unfaithfully Yours pulls a similar trick, throwing cultured people into violent, murderous rages while making the audience cheer for them, then delivering a maudlin happy ending, which everyone fails to notice is driven by the still-present misogynistic jealousy of the lead. It’s a shame that Sturges didn’t make more pictures than he did, but we got Kubrick and still have Verhoeven.

Mentioning a hack like Verhoevan (who wouldn’t know satire if it came up and bit him in the ass) as comparable with a genius like Sturges is just plain appalling. Sturges is better than Verhoeven in every conceivable way.

I don’t think Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’s best (my money goes on Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), but I do agree that it’s a good film at skewing the pretentions of filmmakers. Verhoeven should watch it; I doubt he has any idea of Sturges is.

The OP is a perfect example of the problems with a context-free reading of a film, in that while it’s perfectly legitimate to say “I interpret the film as…”, that is not synonymous with “The director is intending…” This is particularly true with Sturges, who was a conflicted individual and nowhere near as arch and cynical as the reading of his film suggests. One only has to watch his film The Great Moment to understand that despite his adept ability at corrosive social commentary, he could also be an unironic sentimentalist.

See, this is a “modern” reading of this scene, while Sturges intended the congregation to be quite dignified. What exactly makes them “uppity” anyway? Nobody puts on airs, and they’re all obvious, humble, rural folk. Does the fact that the preacher is articulate (which shouldn’t come as any surprise) make him “uppity”?

I suppose in the OP’s comparison of Sturges to Verhoeven, I’d readily admit that such a single-mindedly shallow message would be straight up Verhoeven’s alley. But Sturges is more complex than that. Though there’s no question that he makes his digs at the “deep dish” directors aiming for social relevance, he’s also quite ambivalent as his role of filmmaker. Sturges enjoyed making people laugh, and found a certain honor in it. He knows he can’t cure social ills, but he can contribute something to the general discourse, even if it’s a belly laugh. The convicts aren’t laughing at Sullivan; they are Sullivan’s justification for continuing his craft with a lack of pretension (a pretension, that Sturges himself wasn’t immune from). The OP’s interpretation rules out any room for Sturges’ capacity for genuine introspection.

Sullivan has learned more than that. He now understands that knee-jerk liberalism in a privileged vacuum is very different than the true hard-scrabble life of the destitute. There is kindness and nobility in the “proletariat”, but also ignorance, goofiness, and cravenness. It is pointless to sentimentalize a population too diverse to pin an adequate label on. His travels start as a naïve lark, but he quickly descends into a hell that is much more real and nightmarish than he could’ve contrived. Sure, he returns to his wealthy house, but he is humbled by his experience.

Sturges, around this time, was one of the highest-paid men in the USA (not to mention an inheritor of quite a fortune), so he knew all about his privileges, and though he knew better than to apologize for them (with the echoes of the Great Depression still resonating), Sullivan’s is an effort to try to make some sense of it. The film is brilliant, in part because it is unresolved. The OP’s interpretation is too pat, too glib. Sullivan has resolved to “contribute” the way he knows how, but one can sense that Sturges’ doubts still linger.

But he never tried to “cure” anything. Bringing light to a subject is not the same thing, and what he learns is that connecting to people is more valuable to him than soapboxing for a cause.

And the film title is Ants in Your Plants of 1941.

Consequently, this comment

is completely laughable, since Sturges films never played as “incompetent, almost juvenile Hollywood trash”. He was incredibly well-respected as an exceptional Oscar-winning screenwriter, the first writer to transition into the director’s chair (paving the way for Wilder, Huston, et al), and an early heir apparent to the sophisticated comedies of Lubitsch (whom Sturges worshipped). Though his genius may not have been wholly appreciated at the time, he was never relegated to third-tier status as this comment suggests. And, of course, Verhoeven would need several lifetimes of productivity to even suggest a glimmer of the brilliance P.S. showed in that incredible 1940-44 timespan.

Preston Sturges is one of those director’s I read about and I say “I need to see his movies!”, (or did he make films?), and I never do so. Anyway, is Sullivan’s Travels the one where the director wants to make a film called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

All of that, PLUS it had Veronica Lake.


I guess I’m a little confused by the OP. The surface level “moral” of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is: Don’t worry about making art that is socially uplifting, make what people enjoy. I don’t see a need to twist that into anything deeper?

While I think SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is the Sturgest best satire, I love PALM BEACH STORY, which is pure screwball comedy and thoroughly enjoyable.

I will concede that I do not have the best contextual background for viewing the film, but occasionally I think this can help, seeing something fresh, without any preconceptions.

It’s the way they greet the congregation. “Now, here are some people less fortunate than ourselves… Let’s do our best to make them feel welcome…” These are the poorest “dregs” of society, poor rural black folk. Then there is the very campy “Let My People Go” scene with the convicts. I find it difficult to accept that Sturges wasn’t mocking the audience here, playing against their preconceptions of the congregation and the chaing gang, inverting their typical societal roles.

I think that they are laughing at Sullivan’s justification for continuing his craft without pretension. That he assumes that he knows what they need, and is going to continue his philanthropic mission of producing Ants In Your Plants of… for them. Living in his house, with the pool, the tennis courts, the outdoor dining room with the barbecue, blathering on about lifting the common man with the Ants In Your Plants series. Seeing it on the big screen, with Sullinvan’s face in the middle, surrounded by people laughing directly at him, its hard to believe that they aren’t laughing at him.

I don’t think that we disagree all that much. This is really my point. Sullivan thinks that he has everything wrapped up, but Sturges point in the movie is that he hasn’t really scratched the surface. Sullivan starts a naive lark, and ends a naive lark who has seen trouble.

I suppose that was a little harsh. I just think that, viewed solely on the surface, Sullivan’s Travels is pretty shallow.

Uh, yeah. That would make them compassionate, not “uppity”.

Sturges studied films like I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to try to emulate a genuine social realism in this segment. This is the least ironic portion of the film, and one that is supposed to instill genuine empathy for the convicts who are victims of the brutal gang boss. You may find it hard to accept, but Sturges rarely, if ever, indulged in “camp”.

He doesn’t claim that he “knows what they need”. He only knows what he can contribute. He doesn’t pretend to think what he does is socially relevant in the big picture, but he does look at his films in a different light–the artist doesn’t have to wade in “messages” in order to make an impact, no matter how small. You did hear the last line of the film, right?

You’re entitled to your opinion, though I believe you’re reading what you’d like to believe the film is saying, not what it actually does.

Obviously, we disagree even more than you think. Sullivan’s story may have wrapped up nicely like a Hollywood ending, but that doesn’t mean he’s resigned himself to complacency. He’s not a revolutionary, but he has emerged from his travels transformed. His eyes have been opened, and he isn’t naive anymore. That’s the whole point of the film.

FWIW, my reading is closer to AG’s than to IL’s. I don’t think Sullivan was half the misanthrope that Verhoeven is, though I think it’s a tossup which is the better satirist. Verhoeven’s satires are vicious and misanthropic, while Sullivan’s were pretty darn affectionate. Even in a movie like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which never shoulda got past the censors–a satire on the Virgin Birth, ferchrissakes–his affection for his characters and, by extension I think, his audience, is pretty obvious.
Sullivan’s Travels *is my personal favorite Sturges film, precisely because at the same time it’s pretty grittily self critical, it’s also very uplifting and humanistic.

I think Sullivan learns exactly the lesson he’s shown to’ve learned. *Sullivan’s Travels *is the perfect response to Woody Allen’s leaden, defensive non-comedies.


Hmmm… On further reflection, I suppose you all are right. I was approaching the film too cynically. It was the sheer honesty of the film that I interpreted as bitter sarcasm. I still think Sullivan’s rescue from prison is pretty silly.

The main thing that had been bothering me was the sudden shift in the film from slapstick to melodrama. It didn’t seem to fit and seemed to indicate some ulterior narrative motive of Sturges. I suddenly realized that it signalled the major paradigm shift that Sullivan experiences which is embodied in the ultimate moral of the film. While setting up the premise of his film, a screwball comedy about a filmmaker trying to make a social consciousness film, the filmmaker realizes that the world needs screwball comedies, while the film itself has shifted into a social consciousness piece.

They aren’t laughing at Sullivan, they are laughing at Capra. It all makes sense now.

Incidentally, on the IMDb page for the film, it recommends The Big Lebowski if you liked Sullivan’s Travels. :smack: