SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (Criterion Blu-ray Review)

SULLIVAN TRAVELS (written and directed by Preston Sturges) is the latest release from Criterion (#118). It was great to revisit this 1941 comedy/drama...maybe it's even one of the first American dramedies?

I haven't seen it since Criterion first released the film on DVD in 2001. I picked up the film to watch one of my screen crushes, Veronica Lake. It was not the screwball comedy that I was expecting.

I'd never seen anything like it before and wasn't sure how I felt about it. If anything I found SULLIVAN’s TRAVELS rather odd. Revisiting it 14 years later, the film is much more profound than I remembered.

THE FILM

Here's Criterion's official synopsis:

Tired of churning out lightweight comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?—a serious, socially responsible film about human suffering. After his producers point out that he knows nothing of hardship, Sullivan hits the road disguised as a hobo. En route to enlightenment, he encounters a lovely but no-nonsense young woman (Veronica Lake)—and more trouble than he ever dreamed of. This comic masterpiece by Preston Sturges is among the finest Hollywood satires and a high-water mark in the career of one of the industry’s most revered funnymen.

This is one smart script, full of witty, snappy dialogue. It's full of memorable moments. I really love a hilarious car chase scene where Sullivan tries to outrun a press entourage by taking a ride in a sports car.

Driven by a 13-yr old.

It's as silly as it sounds.

Another brilliant moment sees Sullivan taken in by a love-starved Good Samaritan. The scene would be deleted if the film were remade today because it's quite a detour from the main story. But it stands out in a good way.

On a technical note....it was intriguing to watch the way Sturges and his DP (John F. Seitz) deal with the fact that Veronica Lake was pregnant during the filming. They do some ingenious framing and blocking to avoid showing her baby bump.

Also, the decision to shoot much of the film on location vs. a sound stage really helps lend a whole sense of realism to the movie (good call gents!).

And be sure to look out for their 4-minute oner. It's a joy to watch, knowing the filmmakers did it on a bet (allegedly) as well as to make it harder for studios to make cuts to the film.

The tone of the film is a bit uneven and unexpected for a film from this era. I was taken aback, particularly by its darker second half which seems to come out of nowhere. Revisiting it now the first half of the film is actually a bit clunkier to me, particularly its slapstick gags. McCrea is no Cary Grant.

I think the sudden shift from the comedic to dramatic tone is now actually what I love most about SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. It's unpredictability in story and theme is a welcome surprise.

As I viewed it, I couldn't help but wonder how SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS would be updated for a modern audience. Not that I'd want to remake the film, but it's an interesting exercise to think about how the story would unfold with its lead characters in today's world.

Movies at that time couldn’t be overtly sexual. Watch Veronica Lake get around the censors by playing with her hairbrush during the swimming pool scene. Or is that just me?

Nowadays, would there be more sexual tension and gratification with their relationship treated out in the open? Would they actually kiss? And how brutal and authentic would the homeless sequences play out in the darker half of the movie?

The more I think about it, Sturges was a clever filmmaker to get away with what he does for 1941. Bravo Mr. Sturges. Bravo.

VIDEO/AUDIO

  • Black and White
  • 1.37:1
  • English
  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray

It looks and sounds beautiful on Blu-ray. Criterion always does it right.

BONUS FEATURES

  • Audio commentary from 2001 by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean - This was pretty insightful in how each person explores the themes of the film and anecdotes surround the production. It was also interesting to see how the film relates to them. Thankfully, no one spends much time simply narrating what's happening on screen.
  • Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (1990), a seventy-five-minute documentary made by Bowser for PBS’s American Masters series - A thoroughly and fascinating exploration about Sturges' rocky career. It sounded like a dream to me until I learned what ultimately happened to him.
  • New video essay by film critic David Cairns, featuring filmmaker Bill Forsyth - This one was fairly interesting. It used too many straight clips without any VO/narration over it so it felt like bit overlong.
  • Interview with Sandy Sturges, the director’s widow, from 2001 - A quick interview. Pretty candid. More sad than anything knowing she's passed away.
  • Interview with Sturges by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper from 1951 - a fun 4-minute interview (I believe in front of a live-audience). Sounds a bit staged, but cool to hear him talk.
  • Archival audio recordings of Sturges - Nothing earth shattering. Probably of interest to die-hard Sturges fans (which I'm not).
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans

 

BOTTOM LINE

A classic film that explores more serious subject matter than expected. Veronica Lake is lovely. The Criterion treatment helped educate me more about this production which I value.

Add this one to your shelf!

Viva physical media.