Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

One of the unspoken biases of film critics is the assumption that there is more value in the serious, artistic motion picture than the crowd-pleasing escapist flicks. While I myself must admit at certain leaning towards what I perceive as important and thoughtful films, to outright deny the pleasure and power of escapist cinema would mean to give up such titles as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Speed Racer in my own collection.

For Director John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea), he’s caught up in this idea that in order to make a truly impactful and enriching film, he must make a serious and artistic piece that speaks deeply to the problems and issues facing the audience, but, as the producers insist, with a little sex in it. He endeavors to find out what life as a vagabond would be, striking out on his own to live the simple life.

And yet it smacks of a falsity which ruins his noble intentions. The entire thing becomes a media frenzy as a group of reporters tag along behind him. It’s much to his chagrin, but it’s not long before he must remembrance the life of the wealthy again, stumbling upon a small time actress (Veronica Lake) who he decides to help out.

The constant flopping back and forth between the small treks into the life of poverty and the return to the posh Hollywood mansion denies the film any forward momentum. While it does express the hypocrisy of the Hollywood industry, attempting to address an audience they can’t ever bother to spend time with, it makes the relatively short film seem far more drawn out that it actually is.

The film tries to sate this problem with a number of comedic set-pieces, none of which I found funny. Some of them are the kind of pie in the face humor which I’ve never found particularly amusing and others attempt to play with the goofiness and absurdity of the situation. The timing never works, the punch-lines fall flat and the gags are overextended.

I get that the film is simultaneously trying to be serious and funny, appealing to the very audience Sullivan is trying to connect with while the film also attempts to humanize that audience, but the extreme comedic face and dark dramatics never line up as part of the same cohesive world. It’s an ambitious duality and the film certainly has guts for trying it, but the execution makes me wish it found a tone and stuck with it.

It’s the last act of the film where the story begins to take off. In fact, I almost wish that the first act ended where the last act starts, because there’s the potential for a powerful and dramatic narrative arc in the last bit. The film still achieves that arc, although it’s a bit rushed, and the last few sequences of the film are powerful and revelatory filmmaking.

That last act can’t redeem the bumpy, inconsistent and unfunny hour that preceded it, but it makes Sullivan’s Travels a film worth watching. Perhaps, you’ll find it far more gripping and amusing than I did. It certainly has its moments, I just wish itcould have been an entire film of such moments.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing