Monday, February 01, 2016

In Defense Of Screwball Comedy-Preston Sturgis’ Sullivan’s Travels

In Defense Of Screwball Comedy-Preston Sturgis’ Sullivan’s Travels

DVD Review

By Sam Lowell 

Sullivan’s Travels, starring Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea, directed by Preston Sturgis, 1942

It is always interesting when the point of a film gives itself as its own example. That is the case in the film under review, premier 1930s and 1940s screwball comedy director Preston Sturgis’ Sullivan’s Travels where the final point to be made is that film, whatever else it may be, can be a vehicle to chase away an audience’s blues, for a while. Then this film, not without some excess slapstick at the beginning, gives us many reasons to laugh and forget our troubles for a couple of hours. And that is these days, so you can imagine what it was like for audiences beleaguered by the seemingly never-ending Great Depression and the drums of war pounding in Europe.      

Of course it takes that couple of hours to figure out that comedic films can bolster the human spirit, as surely if not better, that some social justice drama. At least it took one John L. Sullivan, a well-regarded comedy director out in the hinterlands of Hollywood played by boy-next-door Joel McCrea, that long to figure out what he had previously been doing was all for naught. A number of characters in the play from his producer’s lawyer to his world-weary valet try to tell Sullivan that the poor, the forgotten, the misbegotten, the fellahin of the world already know they are up against it, that the cards are stacked against them, know that short of a salutary revolution, an unlikely occurrence for a lot of reasons in America, they don’t need to have their noses rubbed in that raw fact. Basically save the social concern dramas for the art houses and the intellectuals who hang there and leave the masses their moments of escape in a dark theater.        

Here’s how Brother Sullivan learned his lessons. Like I said John L. was sick unto death of comedy, wanted to do something meaty, that social drama mentioned earlier about the plight of the underclasses. Problem:  John L. was clueless about what made the working, and non-working poor, tick. How the scramble for necessities wore them out, made them too tired to pursue the finer things in life. Solution: John L. would hit the road, go among the brethren of the railroad “jungles,” breathe the same fetid air as the fellahin. New Problem: the film company knowing it has a valuable performer insisted on having him “chaperoned.” Not a good way to learn about the hobo life, and he bemoaned his plight for a while.  

Making that plight a little easier is easy on the eyes was girl-next-door Veronica Lake as a girl (the Girl) he met in a roadside diner who had busted flat in Hollywood and was heading back to  Muncie, Lima, Buffalo or where she hailed from before she got stardust in her eyes. She decided to go on the road with him, for kicks, mainly, not knowing for a while that he that he was a famous director on the bum. One thing after another lead this pair to some serious down and out places, with plenty of poignant scenes of the life of the desperate poor, before they abandon that scene for the wilds of Hollywood.

Except as a parting gesture John L. decided he would go down to the “jungle” and pass out five dollar bills to the brethren. Here is what the down and out have to deal with which he had not factored into his gesture. Among the poor are the lumpen, the criminals who feed off of plight on the poor, the main daily enemy of the poor if you think about it (and a very good reason why the Paris Communards of 1871 put a sign “death to thieves” above their headquarters at the Hotel de Ville). So one guy bopped him on the head and took whatever dough he had, among other things, after putting him on a train going east. Showing such characters wind up with no good end the robber was run down by a train. Then things got a little dicey since one of the things he took was John L.’s identification so everybody though he was dead. Worse the knock on the head left John L. punch drunk and he picked a fight with a railroad “bull,” not a good idea since he drew a six year sentence on the county and no good could come of that.                

John L. took his lumps in the prison camp getting on the wrong side of a prison guard. But it was also there that he got “religion” about what comedy could do for the downtrodden after attending a movie shown at a black church. But he didn’t want to make a career in the camp out of that knowledge so he got everybody riled up by saying that he had been the guy who killed John L. Sullivan. Presto all guns in Hollywood were headed east to retrieve the boy wonder, including that easy of the eyes girl. Yeah save the serious social and artistic stuff for the likes of Dalton Trumbo, Harold Clurman, John Steinbeck, and let boy wonder make people laugh. Got it.    

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