When Sullivan’s Travels was released in the USA in December 1941 the New York Times called it “the most brilliant picture yet this year”. That’s saying something considering Citizen Kane had come out in September. The pictures is still brilliant and can now be seen on glorious Blu Ray for the first time in the UK.
The film’s director Preston Sturges had been a darling among Hollywood screenwriters through the 1930s, and this was only his fourth film behind the camera. His first, The Great McGinty, had won him the Oscar for Best Screenplay a year earlier, while establishing that he could direct too. Indeed, he accepted a fee of only $1 for the screenplay on the condition that he was allowed to direct it. So by now he had proved himself as a director to the studios – and to himself – and he was ready to make a masterpiece.
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), or Sully to his mates, is a successful young director who has made his name making lighter-than-air comedies, but now wants to change direction to something more substantial. He has in mind adapting the socially-concious novel O Brother Where Art Thou? and feels the need to travel across America and get to “know trouble” as part of his research. The studio bosses, and even his valet and butler (a fantastic double act played by Eric Blore, of Fred and Ginger fame, and Robert Greig), think it is a ridiculous idea.
Not to be dissuaded, Sully sets off on his travels dressed as a poor broken-down hobo. Followed closely by his bosses and a media team sitting in a luxury coach. So begins Sullivan’s journey across the USA, where he meets real penniless hobos, a failed actress, convicts in a work party and rural blacks from the Deep South. The moral of the story is announced at the very beginning with a dedication:
“To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.”
The funny thing is though (funny peculiar, not funny ha ha), despite these encounters with genuine desperation, the film is very droll indeed. There is some sparkling repartee between Sully and The Girl (Veronica Lake, near the beginning of her short lived career). Sullivan himself gets into some hilarious scrapes – there’s a fantastic chase sequence in particular – and some not so amusing. Yet despite the film being about its hero learning the value of good old-fashioned comedy for raising the spirits of mankind, the film is in parts extremely serious and moving.
Sturges ranges from screwball to farce and drama – even adding a dash of the surreal – with great deftness. Sullivan’s Travels fully deserves its reputation as a classic.
This Arrow Blu Ray release comes with a variety of exciting extras including a commentary by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, the PBS Emmy-winning documentary Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer by Kenneth Bowser, two in-house Arrow documentaries (one offering a thorough appreciation by the critic Kevin Jackson and the second celebrating Sturges’ regular repertory company). Plus a new collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by screwball comedy expert Peter Swaab, plus archive pieces by Geoff Brown and Preston Sturges, illustrated with original stills. All this comes wrapped up in original and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw. The film is a new HD digital transfer by Universal Pictures and features uncompressed mono 2.0 PCM Audio.