How can a comedy from more than seventy years ago still be relevant today? Two reasons, the world really hasn’t changed that much, and writer/director Preston Sturges’ script is unbelievably clever and an on the mark. A timeless satire and social comedy/commentary that is as much about life as it is about films and the movie business.
Film director John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is disillusioned and dissatisfied with the shallow, superficial and lightweight comedies that he has been making. Determined to make his masterpiece by adapting the (fictitious) social realist novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, this is where the Coen Brothers got the name from). Looking for inspiration and to help him understand the life he hit’s the roads and rails of America disguised as hobo. Along the way he meets “The Girl” (Veronica Lake) a young woman who has given up of her dream of making it in Hollywood.
The first and most comic part of the movie sees Sullivan attempting to escape the his studio minders and live like a hobo. A little like Bill Murray reliving the same in Groundhog Day Sullivan finds that despite his best efforts all roads lead back to Hollywood. The film makers and the studio executives find it as hard to charge the direction of their lives as the hobo’s they are impersonating. For all the wit of its clever, sophisticated dialogue the movie isn’t afraid to descend into slapstick from time to time and is all the better for it. The film is at its best when it introduces Veronica Lake as the unnamed girl. She is tough and streetwise but broken girl, broken by her failure to make it in Hollywood and like Sullivan looking for a way out of town. The two characters bounce off each other with a natural ease with real chemistry between the two actors.
SPOILER WARNING: To be honest, there is no big twist you will see the conclusion coming. After been knocked unconscious and thrown into boxcar Sullivan finds himself sentenced to six years in a labour camp for assaulting a railroad worker. Through the one part of the plot that feels forced or contrived, everyone believes Sullivan to be dead. A classic case of be careful what you wish for, it isn’t until he truly hits rock bottom that Sullivan understands the value of his work and he finds a direction, but not the one he thought he was looking for. As he finally sees another side to life he still believes his destiny is to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? A social realist story in the vein of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). It isn’t until from the kindness of a local church that he and his fellow prisoners get to see a Disney Pluto cartoon. Not only does he find himself laughing at the lowest point of his life but he sees the escapist enjoyment in the faces of the rest of the audience. In other words: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have?”
For all his ideals and big ideas Sullivan is a fool, blind to the importance of what he does and the effect has on audiences. His humility and humbleness are not the virtues they first appear to be. Where he thinks he understands ordinary people, his preconceptions separate him from them. It is no great surprise that during the recent economic downturn, cinema attendances went up just as they did during the depression. For a man at the top he needed to find bottom before he can understand this. Hollywood isn’t always great at turning the camera on itself but once in a while it gets it right, really right, and when it does it is something very special, that’s what Sullivan’s Travels is.