I watched Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels again at the weekend. Without rehashing the plot, Sullivan, celebrated (and rich) Hollywood comedy director, decides he wants to make a film about the suffering around him – in an age of migrants and depression – and needs to get some experience of it before he does so. Well, be careful what you wish for…
Without giving the plot away, at least too much, he discovers the hard way, after the security and protection of the studio is finally stripped away from him, that being able to make people laugh is worth something.
A couple of things to say. The first is that it is a film about Hollywood, but it is knowing rather than cynical. The second is that the power of the scene in which Sullivan has his revelation is phenomenal, set in a black church in the south in the days when segregation was the norm. (And actually, the whole plot is a finely crafted machine; if I had to teach people about this they could do worse than deconstruct the mechanism: as Robert McKee says in his script writing classes: “Make it worse” (i.e. for the protagonists)). And something I only noticed this time around: the Veronica Lake character has no name: she’s just “The Girl”.
There’s something about Preston Sturges’ career which is enigmatic. He made around five or six wonderful, and popular, films, several of which tested the limits of social acceptability (Hail The Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), in and immediately after the war, and then lost his touch. I sometimes think you can say much the same about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who tested the limits a bit more, and were sometimes a bit less popular as a result). But it’s difficult to know whether this is just because it’s impossible to maintain that level of artictic intensity for long, or whether the war and its aftermath produced a sense of disruption in which it was possible to tell different stories – before ‘normalcy’ was restored.