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Sullivan's Travels (December 4, 2007)

Sullivan’s Travels is a movie about a successful film director (played by Joel McCrea) who wants to make a film about the hard times Americans were having at the end of the Depression. In order to do that he wants to go on the road and do research into those hard times, because he went to Harvard and since then had been making films such as “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants in Your Pants of 1941.” Nobody around him – the studio heads, his servants, his publicist, his ex-wife, the girl he meets as he sets out (played by Virginia Lake) – thinks this research trip is a good idea.

The late Pauline Kael, who wrote film criticism for the New Yorker, called Sullivan’s Travels “a dance on the grave of Thirties social cinema.” By that term she meant movies like King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) where unemployed city dwellers find happiness and a meaningful life on a cooperative farm. The character, John L. Sullivan, in the movie we’ll see tonight is out of synch with everyone around him, a good recipe for successful comedy, based on the contrast between, say, the scenes in the “land-yacht” (what we’d call an RV) and the scenes on the chain gang.

Earlier in this series a lady of my acquaintance gave me a piece of her mind. She felt that the scenes depicting black people in The Palm Beach Story were stereotyped and, well, racist. I didn’t think so. American films over the years have made their African American characters more realistic and more human, as the majority sensibility has developed in the same direction. There are some films of the Thirties and Forties which are difficult to show today because of their extreme racial stereotypes. I just don’t happen to think the Preston Sturges comedies are in that group, but each person is entitled to an opinion.

Sullivan’s Travels, as it happens, has a long sequence that takes place in a rural black church. I find it compassionate, probably fairly true to life for the period, and I know that depictions of black churches were relatively rare in the mainstream Hollywood films of the time. Sturges received a letter from Walter White, who was secretary of the NAACP at the time, which said in part “This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a motion picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene. I was in Hollywood recently and am to return there soon …in an effort to induce broader and more decent picturization of the Negro instead of limiting him to menial or comic roles. The sequence in Sullivan’s Travels is a step in that direction and I want you to know how grateful we are.”

The movie John L. Sullivan wants to make is called “O Brother Where Art Thou.” This title has had a long and happy history since 1942 when Sullivan’s Travels came out. In 1993 a comedy called Amos and Andrew was released, which starred Nicolas Cage, and Samuel L. Jackson as a black playwright who buys a house in a shoreline resort community. Jackson’s character, “Andrew”, had written a Pulitzer Prize winning play called “Yo Brother Where Art Thou.” And in 2000, the Coen brothers appropriated the original title for their own wonderful movie, which like Sullivan’s Travels, also depicted chain gang prisoners.