Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on July 18, 2010
I rarely attend films on opening night, but made an exception for Christopher Nolan’s Inception, knowing that it would be one of those films, like The Usual Suspects, whose ending can be telegraphed in two or three words by anyone who’d seen the film before me. Among other things, Inception is about dreams, dreams within dreams, lucid dreaming and shared dreams – which is ripe terrain for cinema since films themselves reveal the collective unconsciousness of the nations that burp them into existence. I followed up Inception with Sullivan’s Travels, and found it an appropriate choice. After all, Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic is, like the dreamer who knows he’s dreaming, very much self-aware. It’s a film about films that knows it’s a film. The more precise and academic term that Bruce Kawin, my Film History professor would use for this is “self-reflexive.”
I first saw Sullivan’s Travels in Kawin’s class 25 years ago. Sullivan’s Travels came out in 1941, which Kawin noted as a good year for self-reflexive films since that was the same year of release for W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break and H.C. Potter’s Helzapoppin’. But I’m pretty sure Kawin’s favorite self-reflexive films were Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953), and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) – three films that take self-reflection to the kind of disorienting level one gets when putting mirrors up against mirrors to create hallways that extend out into infinity. Which, by the way, is what Inception does quite literally.
Sullivan’s Travels is only mildly self-reflexive by comparison, with Sturges deft touch providing a half-wink at the audience. It’s a film about John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a filmmaker who wants his “picture to be a commentary on modern conditions,” but whose producers implore him to make sure it has “a little sex in it.” Sullivan sets out on his travels and comes to understand that, ultimately, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.”
I’ll describe Sturges self-reflexive half-wink using dream terms that people, after seeing Inception, are now hopefully familiar with (and then get back to regular English – don’t worry): Sullivan is the celluloid-dream projection of Preston Sturges who, as writer-director of Sullivan’s Travels, is the dreamer who is aware he’s dreaming – a lucid dreamer. When we watch Sullivan’s Travels, we are sharing his dream. This dream called Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on modern conditions – and, yes, though it was made 70 years ago, films, class struggles, and the search for meaning in our life remain modern conditions. Sullivan’s love interest, “The Girl” (played by, unbeknownst to all but the costume designer and director’s wife, a pregnant Veronica Lake) provides us with necessary sex appeal. As to the third component, it should go without saying that the man who also wrote and directed The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (aka: Mad Wednesday), starring Harold Lloyd, is going to make us laugh.
(Back to regular English:) Of course, there’s plenty of other things to chew on here. There’s a scene in Inception where an oft made point is brought back around; if someone tells you not to think of an elephant, you can’t help but think of elephants. In the original prologue for Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges wrote that “This is the story of a man who wanted to wash an elephant. The elephant darn near ruined him.” (That, by the way, would be a perfect prologue to Inception.) In either case, the dreamers in Inception and the would-be hobo in Sullivan’s Travels are warned to be careful what they wish for.
But this is all getting a bit heady, which is ironic, because as Ted Sennett points out in his On-Screen Off-Screen Movie Guide, when Sturges wrote Sullivan’s Travels it “was intended to tell his fellow comedy directors that they were ‘getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.’” The seed of the idea behind Sullivan’s Travels may have had its inception when Sturges heard of John Garfield’s life as a hobo back in the 1930′s, thus allowing us grim views of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, petty thefts, and murder – but it also knows how to get big laughs. (Sennett writes that Sturges “acknowledged that the movie’s mixture of comedy and tragedy had a kind of oil-and-water effect.”)
Last night when I screened Sullivan’s Travels to people attending my backyard cinema series, lines written 70 years ago still nailed it, while the serious scenes lost none of their impact – quite the opposite. Being awash today in a world where the spectacles previously only viewable in dreams are the currency of the realm, the elegance and perfect comic timing of a film made on far less money made an enormous impression and had me laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair (which in Inception is one way to wake up).
Consider the following exchange between Sullivan and his producers, the former wanting the successful director behind Ants in Your Pants to stick to shallow comedies rather than embarking on a message picture to be titled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title cribbed by the Coen brothers for their own film of ten years ago). Sullivan’s producers remind him how his previous serious film fared:
LeBrand: It died in Pittsburgh
Hadrian: Like a dog!
Sullivan: Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh…
Hadrian: They know what they like.
Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.
With apologies to the fine people of Pittsburgh, that made quite a few people unstable in their chairs. Probably, in part, because we haven’t been to Pittsburgh ourselves to defend it, but also because it illuminates the hubris of the director perfectly. Sturges, on the other hand, is a director who would rightfully deserve a huge dollop of pride for what he hath wrought with Sullivan’s Travels. Consider the incredible scene that takes place in a Southern church, where prisoners watch a cartoon (originally meant to be a Chaplin short, had Chaplin allowed it). It’s worth repeating the note that then-secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, wrote to Sturges in regards to this scene:
Sullivan’s Travels is so rich in form and content that anyone wishing to revisit it, as Kawin reminds me, can be pointed to a Criterion DVD with four commentaries, interviews, a documentary, and it even includes Sturges singing a song and reciting a poem. One last note of synchronicity: we screened Sullivan’s Travels last night, July 17th, and that same day I read that production for the film took place between June 22 and July 22 – so the timing was certainly right. But, really, there’s no such thing as a wrong time to see this film, it’s a dream worth sharing on any given night.
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