A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)

Let us now praise Joel McCrea, who never became an icon like Cooper or Gable or Grant or Stewart, but could always be relied on for a fine performance when the others weren't available. He starred in two of Sturges's best, the other one being The Palm Beach Story (1942), and gave solid and sometimes memorable performances for William Wyler (Dead End, 1937), Cecil B. DeMille (Union Pacific, 1939), Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent, 1940), and George Stevens (The More the Merrier, 1943) before becoming a durable fixture in Westerns. His performance in the title role of Sullivan's Travels is just what the movie needed: an actor who could do slapstick comedy but turn serious when necessary, a task that among major stars of the era perhaps only Cary Grant and Henry Fonda -- the Fonda of Sturges's own The Lady Eve (1941) -- were also really good at. The genius of Sullivan's Travels is that its serious parts jibe so well with its goofy ones. As Sturges has characters warn Sullivan at the beginning of his scheme to pose as a hobo to get material for his turn as a "serious" director, poor people don't like to be condescended to. The pivotal scene of the film is the one in which the convicts go to a black church to watch a movie. It could have been an embarrassing display of the era's racial stereotypes, but Sturges handles it with tact and sensitivity, so that it becomes emotionally effective and brings home the dual points about charity and the need for humor without excessive sentimentality and preachiness. Sturges's usual gang of brilliant character players -- including William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Eric Blore, and Jimmy Conlin -- are on hand. Sturges and McCrea found working with Veronica Lake a pain, but fortunately it doesn't show.