Sullivan’s Travels isn’t so much a film about Hollywood, nor even the human condition, despite it being outwardly concerned with John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a Hollywood director who momentarily leaves behind a million-dollar mansion to hit the road disguised as a tramp in order to discover the true meaning of suffering, which his studio execs inform him he knows little about. “Sully” wants to make a serious picture littered with “garbage cans” in order to leave behind the studio comedies he’s previously made, with titles like Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939. But when his butler (Robert Greig) informs him that the topic of poverty “is not an interesting one…only the morbid rich would find [it] glamorous,” writer-director Preston Sturges unveils the film’s real concern: an interrogation of humanism as a shield for liberalism to hide behind. That is, after all, what Sully embodies: a true-blue boy scout with a white-collar setup, whose economic infrastructure enables him to display compassion and empathy with little fear of being truly struck from the confines of comfort.
Yet such a description shouldn’t entail that Sturges’s film is snarky or condescending in any way; on the contrary, Sullivan’s Travels mounts rigorous philosophical and sociological inquiry through ironized consciousness raising, in which a brief taste of reality and a false epiphany for its protagonist are ambiguously put forth as a solution to the film’s dense and almost impossibly reconcilable bevy of representational issues. To understand the depths of Sturges’s reflexivity, nearly each scene requires a double take where what’s being stated by the film’s characters is taken bluntly in one sense, but read as procedural, Hollywood hypocrisy in another. That is, characters spend much of the film’s first half explaining why filmmakers should steer clear of lingering within impoverished spaces, only for the second half of Sullivan’s Travels to do just that, given its glimpses of starvation and implied strictures of racial prejudice, most notably in a climactic sequence set within an African-American church. Although issues of ethnicity are never explicitly stated or addressed, this late scene resonates with an earlier slapstick moment, in which a chef (billed in the credits as “colored chef”) played by Charles Moore has his face dunked in a bowl of cake batter, effectively giving him “whiteface.”
One would be remiss to assert this moment as either a cheap gag or a flash of racial consciousness, yet that dilemma seems to be Sturges’s very point: Representation holds significant power, certainly, but the artist is only capable of so much within even the most rigorous work of art, whether dramatic or comedic. A film as a political act remains a form of theorization, not practice, contrary to Sully’s adamancy that his aesthetic shift can be achieved and function as a tool for social change, so long as he gets his hands a little dirty first. But all roads lead to Hollywood, with every deliberate attempt to escape the Tinseltown confines landing Sully right back where he began, thanks mostly to the studio bigwigs that can “insure him for a million.” When Sully is imprisoned for stealing his own car and a police officer asks why he’s wearing such ratty clothes, Sully quips, “I just paid my income tax.” Whenever called to own up to his performance, Sully immediately sheds it for a return to class-based safety. Sturges plays these moments as satirical, but seldom blinks as to whether or not Sully is being offered as an empathetic figure.
Empathy depends on viewership, which Sturges dynamically realizes in two sequences focused on audience members watching a film. In the first, Sully accompanies two matrons to a seemingly “serious” movie, in which Sully’s sole focus is on other audience members, including a young boy with a whistle and an elderly man who chomps on peanut shells. Dialogue-free, the scene suggests its lower-class attendees as bored and unmoved by the matters being addressed. Contrast this with the film’s most enduring moments, where a chain gang that Sully has been sentenced to joins the aforementioned black church in order to watch a Disney short, which is met with uproarious laughter by all. Sturges frames laughing faces in close-up, relishing the smiles and displays of joy with ethnographic acuity. Nevertheless, these moments are largely a ruse on Sturges’s part, since the entire film has been warning about outsiders gaining easy access to troubled spaces and self-licensing an ability to authorize authenticity. If these moments are meant to be endearing, Sturges has transgressed his own warnings.
To take Sullivan’s Travels on its own “cockeyed caravan” terms is to fall victim to the very cautions Sturges surmises throughout. The film’s ending, with Sully and the Girl (Veronica Lake) in smiling close-up, is something of a disappearing act, as the complexities of Sturges’s comprehensive interests are boiled down into a simplistic one-liner by Sully, who’s adamant that he’s doing the indigent a favor by making comedies for them to lap up. In effect, Sully has shed one dogmatic persona for another, now understanding his plight as one of pacification, not enlightenment. Either aim is problematic, since both trade sincerity and conviction for a rote conception of what “the world needs.” Sturges advocates, in perhaps the most stoically satirical ending in all of American cinema, that hubris supplants humanism when an artist overdetermines a singular answer to healing. Such a mindset, by extension, could lead to fascism, exclusion, and class-based oppression. Finally, in a wonderful irony, Hollywood’s first writer-director—that envied position of complete creative control—was perhaps its biggest proponent of collective consciousness.
The Criterion Collection has given Sullivan’s Travels a Blu-ray transfer that’s a sizeable upgrade from the 2001 DVD, with image and sound quality significantly improved throughout. There was nothing particularly wrong with the prior disc, but it lacked the depth, precision, and focus that this nearly flawless upgrade achieves. There are some minor instances of blips and specks in various scenes, but no visible scratches or tears to mention. Most noteworthy are improvements with instances of camera movement and long shots, which reveal a depth to the image that the previous DVD only hinted at. When Sully embarks down a long road on his initial journey, a shot from behind provides a stunning composition, which this HD transfer finally captures as Sturges intended. Likewise, sound is consistently strong and balanced on the uncompressed monaural mix.
All of the extras from the previous DVD (which were extensive) have been carried over, with a video essay by film critic David Cairns being the sole, worthwhile new addition. There are numerous insights to glean from Cairns and director Bill Forsyth, who speaks throughout about the influence Sturges has had on his own work, most notably 1984’s Comfort and Joy. The essay addresses Sturges’s beliefs on authorship, which was licensed only to show certain conditions, not reach conclusions about them. Issues of race and influence are touched upon, as is Sturges’s preference to mock sentimentality in real life, but "wallow in it on screen." These are largely intriguing, but potentially dubious insights, given that fairly totalizing claims are often made with little evidentiary support. A commentary featuring filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean is a mostly disposable listen, as the quality of analysis and discussion varies from director to director. Baumbach mostly narrates what’s on screen, while Guest takes every opportunity to crack a joke about the fact that he seems uncomfortable offering up sincere commentary. Bowser and McKean are more useful, both in their personal testament to how the film has evolved "in over 50 viewings," in Bowser’s case, or how the racial material has seemed progressively less offensive, in McKean’s.
The best of the supplements is a 1990 PBS documentary called Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, which spends 75 minutes offering film clips, talking-head interviews, and contextual, biographical information about Sturges’s life and career. Although wholly conventional in form and style, the information contained within, including clips from every Sturges film, provides an essential take on one of classical Hollywood’s most unique and daring practitioners. Otherwise, a 2001 interview with Sandy Sturges helps explain how Preston transitioned from playwriting to screenwriting and details his friendship with Ernst Lubitsch. Also included are several audio recordings, including a 1951 interview that Sturges gave to Hedda Hopper, and an essay by critic Stuart Klawans.
Preston Sturges jammed volumes of sociological concerns into a 90-minute satire with Sullivan’s Travels, Hollywood’s greatest comedy, which the Criterion Collection has affectionately packaged into a must-own Blu-ray, featuring a top-notch audio-visual transfer and a suitable lot of diverse supplements.