118 Sullivan's Travels

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essrog
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118 Sullivan's Travels

#1 Post by essrog » Fri Dec 03, 2004 2:43 am

Sullivan's Travels

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Tired of churning out lightweight comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?—a serious, socially responsible film about human suffering. After his producers point out that he knows nothing of hardship, Sullivan hits the road disguised as a hobo. En route to enlightenment, he meets a lovely but no-nonsense young woman (Veronica Lake)—and more trouble than he ever dreamed of. This comic masterpiece by Preston Sturges is among the finest Hollywood satires and a high-water mark in the career of one of the industry's most revered funnymen.

SPECIAL FEATURES

• New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• Audio commentary from 2001 by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean
Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (1990), a 76-minute documentary made by Bowser for PBS's American Masters series
• New video essay by film critic David Cairns, featuring filmmaker Bill Forsyth
• Interview from 2001 with Sandy Sturges, the director's widow
• Interview with Sturges by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper from 1951
• Archival audio recordings of Sturges
• PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans

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BWilson
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#2 Post by BWilson » Wed Jan 12, 2005 6:25 pm

essrog wrote:Just watched this for the first time and liked it quite a bit, but I want to talk about the ending. I guess that's a spoiler warning.

Right after I saw the ending, when Sullivan says the line about some people only having laughter in this "cockeyed caravan," I felt like rolling my eyes. But after thinking about it (and thinking more after Kenneth Bowser brought this up, but didn't elaborate, in the commentary), I wonder: Was Sturges giving us this typical Hollywood ending as further commentary on the type of movie he's "resigned" to making -- as one of the necessities of the comedy as opposed to the ponderous social commentaries he's been mocking the whole time? That's my take -- from the two Sturges films I've seen (this and The Lady Eve) I believe he's enough of a smart-ass to try to put one over on the audience -- simultaneously giving his audience what they want and winking at them.
I agree with your assesment.

Sulivan's Travels has a Chinese box construction; a film within a film. In the begining Sulivan wants to make Oh Brother Where Art Thou? In the end he doesn't want to make social drama anymore he wants to make comedies. The kind of film Sulivan would probably go and make is something just like Sulivan's Travels, the film we just watched. Given the guy's penchent for melodrama he would almost certainly end his film with an ending just like the one we get. In a way Sturges is making not only his own film, but a film very much like what he thinks the main character himself would make after his experience on the road.

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#3 Post by Andre Jurieu » Wed Jan 12, 2005 6:52 pm

BWilson wrote:Sulivan's Travels[/i] has a Chinese box construction; a film within a film. In the begining Sulivan wants to make Oh Brother Where Art Thou? In the end he doesn't want to make social drama anymore he wants to make comedies. The kind of film Sulivan would probably go and make is something just like Sulivan's Travels, the film we just watched. Given the guy's penchent for melodrama he would almost certainly end his film with an ending just like the one we get. In a way Sturges is making not only his own film, but a film very much like what he thinks the main character himself would make after his experience on the road.
... with a little sex in it?

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#4 Post by BWilson » Thu Jan 13, 2005 1:26 pm

[reluctantly] But with a little sex in it.

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#5 Post by Gregory » Mon Apr 11, 2005 12:26 am

flixyflox wrote:Am I alone in thinking SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is Sturges' masterpiece (and one of the great movies about moviemaking)?
I don't think I could ever pick a favorite Sturges, although The Lady Eve is close to my heart for many reasons.

When I first saw Sullivan's Travels I enjoyed it but had a hard time swallowing what I took to be its message. The oversimplistic categorization of movies as either tragic, heavyhanded social dramas or carefree escapist comedies continues to bother me. But I no longer see the film as pointing ridicule at all films that take social and political subjects seriously. At the end, Sullivan's reasons for not wanting to make O Brother Where Art Thou are strictly personal: "I'm too happy," he says, and "I haven't suffered enough to make O Brother Where Art Thou." Thus, it's just a criticism of social dramas churned out for all the wrong reasons by wealthy studio executives and producers who don't really know anything about the issues in their movies. The possibility is left open that someone who did come from poverty or did have enough knowledge or experience of whatever issue could have something of great importance to say in a film. Sullivan (and the people at Disney) may not have anything serious to impart but they can make people laugh. It's not much, but it's better than nothing, as Sullivan says.
P.S. Did adults ever really laugh that long and hard at Disney cartoons? Watching that today seems like the most unebelievable thing in the entire film, at least to me.

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#6 Post by devlinnn » Mon Apr 11, 2005 1:19 am

P.S. Did adults ever really laugh that long and hard at Disney cartoons?
If you were tied to a starving chain-gang in the South, I'd say so.

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#7 Post by Andre Jurieu » Mon Apr 11, 2005 10:50 am

flixyflox wrote:Am I alone in thinking SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is Sturges' masterpiece (and one of the great movies about moviemaking)?
You're not alone. It's among my favorite films, and easily in my personal top 10.
Gregory wrote: When I first saw Sullivan's Travels I enjoyed it but had a hard time swallowing what I took to be its message.
While I love the film, I still have concerns with the final scenes involving the chain gang and the movie playing in the church. I know the message is that Sullivan should realize there is some importance and nobility in making people laugh and alleviate their troubles and worries, but it always struck me as a bit short-sighted to think that creating laughter for 2 hours was enough to compensate for the fact that these people live in awful conditions for the other 22 hours of their days. I know the alternative is that they live in awful conditions for 24 hours a day, but it sort of lets the filmmakers and their audience off the hook.

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#8 Post by Doctor Sunshine » Mon Apr 11, 2005 11:37 am

The only problem with that is if you try to help poor people personally they'll only brain and rob you then get run over by a train. It's best to do it through proxy.

This movie is concerned with movies and the validity of comedies. A call-to-arms for the aid of the oppressed and downtrodden would be tagential. It's not in there for the same reason Spike Lee didn't address drugs in Do the Right Thing--it's not what the movie's about. I'd also argue that a two hour escape, like say Sullivan's Travels, can stay with a person for more that the runtime.

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#9 Post by Andre Jurieu » Mon Apr 11, 2005 12:13 pm

Doctor Sunshine wrote: A call-to-arms for the aid of the oppressed and downtrodden would be tagential. It's not in there for the same reason Spike Lee didn't address drugs in Do the Right Thing--it's not what the movie's about.
The plight of the oppressed and downtrodden isn't the primary concern of the film, but I don't know if it's completely tangential either. Drug use in Do the Right Thing would be tangential, since it's only a minor point. Meanwhile, Sullivan's Travels does spend a great deal of time focusing on the predicament of those in poverty, and attempting to reconcile whether or not it is the place of Hollywood movie-makers to convey their state respectfully to audiences. It's not the central issue, but it is somewhat of a concern within the film. It's not like the issue comes out of left-field.

The film's chief concern is with the validity of comedies and movies, but within that issue is the notion of whether of not movies must attempt to higher ideals, past merely entertaining their audience. Sullivan realizes there isn't anything wrong in entertaining the masses and allowing them the relief of laughter - a notion I agree with. He also realizes that he lacks the experience to instigate social change, but he doesn't dismiss it either. Unfortunately, I get the feeling that some audience members might walk away feeling that entertainment must always be a filmmakers primary objective (I guess I should fall back on my own motto of "let morons be morons" in this case).

Also, it bothers me a bit that Sullivan is whisked away from the chain gang once he's found to be a big shot Hollywood producer. There must be a few other innocent men in that chain gang, but they are unfortunately without celebrity status, and thus must be resigned to their fate. The film kind of forgets those people when Sullivan is resurrected back to Hollywood.

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#10 Post by Doctor Sunshine » Mon Apr 11, 2005 1:37 pm

I think it's too much to ask that Sturges should call for social reform, especially when he's likely admitting that it's beyond not only Sullivan's scope but his own as well. How does one fix the economy? How does one fix the judicial system? He does what he's good at. If the final message is coming off as laughable to some as is, tacking on a plea to fight the system wouldn't help that any. That said, the film does draw attention to the plight of the homeless and incarcerated by simple putting them--well, via actors I guess, but anyway--on camera. And in a sincere light, where most comedies use them as the butt of their jokes. The issue's there if people want to do something with it. I'd say that's pretty good. He's not saying that all filmmakers are strictly entertainers but that one should play to one's talents. I think it's a pretty honest, humble statement. He's no Danny Glover or Liv Ullman but he's doing what he can to make life more tolerable, if not enjoyable. And while championing these causes is a good thing nobody wants to think about this stuff--or say the Middle East or East Asia--all the time. It's unhealthy. Even those affected directly need distraction once in a while.

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#11 Post by ezmbmh » Mon Apr 11, 2005 1:50 pm

I agree, and I'd add that Sturges leaves the "bums" as realistic, in a sense allowing them a night out to laugh along with the rest of us. And while I love My Man Godfrey, there the poor are even more emblematic, and of course William Powell isn't even really one of them. By showing them in a real light, Sturges is drawing attention to them even if he doesn't end with a call to action.

ez

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#12 Post by Andre Jurieu » Mon Apr 11, 2005 1:58 pm

Well, I'm not saying Sturges or Sullivan have to actually reform society via their films, or make a rousing plea to the masses for immediate social reform through their films. I'm just saying I would have appreciated if the issue of social reform via art wasn't shelved towards the end of the film. It's not such a distraction that I suddenly detest the film - as I've said the film is among my favorites - but it is a momentary distraction that I must pause for slightly before moving on (but, then I feel slightly guilty at having been able to move on from the issue so quickly - but that's my own issues).
Doctor Sunshine wrote:That said, the film does draw attention to the plight of the homeless and incarcerated by simple putting them--well, via actors I guess, but anyway--on camera. And in a sincere light, where most comedies use them as the butt of their jokes. The issue's there if people want to do something with it. I'd say that's pretty good.
Well said. I agree.

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#13 Post by Jun-Dai » Mon Apr 11, 2005 3:07 pm

Also, it bothers me a bit that Sullivan is whisked away from the chain gang once he's found to be a big shot Hollywood producer. There must be a few other innocent men in that chain gang, but they are unfortunately without celebrity status, and thus must be resigned to their fate. The film kind of forgets those people when Sullivan is resurrected back to Hollywood.
I think this is the point of the film. The brilliance of the film lies in how easy it is for Sullivan to more or less lose sight of his incredible experience and be capable of returning to his normal life, regardless of how seriously it affected him at the time. It's also relevant that Sullivan, once his identity is established, is simply whisked away from it all. The poor and downtrodden are not of his world, and once the error is discovered, it is corrected. Nevermind that many of the others in the gang are undoubtedly innocent - at least they're amongst their own kind, so there's no pressing reason to correct the situation (besides, they're all probably guilty of something).

The idea here is that people with privilege tend to express only a fleeting or semiserious interest in the lower classes, and often they only do so for their own benefit or to stroke their own egos (on account of their benevolence). Additionally, realizations about how unfair society is may affect our lives or our worldview, but for most of us they have little lasting impact. One might read the Jungle and be overwhelmed by the plight of the working classes in it (and recognize that many people in the world face as much hardship), but for most readers, once they put the book down, it doesn't have much of a lasting effect on their consciousness. We live in a separate world from that kind of suffering, and we have to ignore it to keep on living in it. Even if we catch a glimpse of it, as Sullivan did, we go right back to living in our separate world and mostly ignoring what's out there. I can't think of another film that captures this phenomenon with anywhere near the same effectiveness as Sullivan's Travels, in spite of the fact that it is still a tremendous problem today (though it has changed--most of that kind of suffering happens outside of this country, and we are fairly aware of it and desensitized to it. It would be much harder to present the unfairness of the world's economic system as a shocking revelation). Remove that element, and the film becomes much less remarkable.

Another point is that Sullivan can't make a thoroughly earnest and authentic film depicting the life and plight of those people he's encountered. To begin with, the film wouldn't really do them any good, and while it might bring attention to people ignorant of those circumstances, it could only do so in a patronizing way (though even that would probably be beneficial). Making a comedy, on the other hand, is something he can do, and it probably serves them much better. Addressing the more serious issues is certainly something he can do outside of his films (he could, for example, work to empower the underprivileged to produce films of their own), but that's not brought up, for obvious reasons.
Last edited by Jun-Dai on Mon Apr 11, 2005 3:35 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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#14 Post by Gregory » Mon Apr 11, 2005 3:11 pm

I understand the concerns Andre is raising. Again, I think many of these issues come from the film's false distinction between tragic, preachy social dramas and escapist comedies with nothing to say. This is a somewhat narrow-minded way for filmmakers to view their craft, and that Sullivan accepts it from beginning to end puts him in a slightly bad light. I would stress that this is a subtle concern, and that bringing people beauty and laughter are inheretly valuable and Sullivan's Travels is no exception.

Still, I strongly disagree with Sullivan at the end of the film that one must be in an unhappy state of mind or must have suffered a great deal to make art that has a social conscience. Any genre of film, even musicals (many of which affirm the value of pure entertainment over that of "art") can have something relevant to say. I certainly do not believe that all films need to have a well-developed social/political dimension, but it's my view that not enough of them do. Resolute avoidance of having an active social conscience is something that's far easier for privileged people to do. Sullivan not only seizes this privilege but also believes that it's his responsibility to do so.

Jun-Dai, I find your analysis compelling but have a point or two and a question about it:
There are many, many people who are transformed forever by a glimpse or series of glimpses into a problem and then decide to try and do something about it. They read a book or have a personal experience that gives them special insight into poverty, war, racism, and they act on knowledge or ideas they didn't have before and continue to reach out to others affected by those problems. Sullivan goes in the opposite direction, retreating into his priveleged world away from those who are not his kind. Don't you think the film -- the dialogue and the feeling at the end -- affirms that this was actually the right thing for him to do?

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#15 Post by Jun-Dai » Mon Apr 11, 2005 4:05 pm

No, I don't. I think that the film affirms that this is what most people will do, or that this is the normal thing to do.
There are many, many people who. . .
Actually, I think that's a pretty small number of people. This isn't to say that people don't have pivotal moments in their lives, just that those pivotal moments tend to be reflections of ideas that people have been working through over time rather than reactions to an experience that they've had. More importantly, I think that many of people's most incredible experiences lose their power pretty quickly, even if they later come to revisit those experiences in their mind. How many times have I reexamined myself and thought about the world around me and felt that I desperetely needed to alter my life (e.g., fight the good fight and work for world peace, or to raise consciousness about AIDS, or to take piano seriously and abandon most of my other interests in life), only to wake up the next morning and return to normal?

I don't think that Sturges is presenting this as the correct thing to do. I think that Sturges is really questioning Sullivan's motivations, and more importantly, he's pointing out that Sullivan - who is merely human - can't live simultaneously in both worlds; when he is amongst the poor and destitute, the extent to which he can really see that world depends on how much of his old self he leaves behind. When he returns to the world of the wealthy and celebrated, he must wash off most of what he has learned, else he simply wouldn't be able to live with himself. His wealth - our wealth - is pretty disgusting when you think of how much we waste on our own indulgences. The price of an iPod can run a small orphanage in Indonesia for two weeks, and yet so many of us have iPods and there simply aren't enough orphanages for the orphans. The reasons for this are many and complicated, but one of them is that our consciousness can't simultaneously contend with the orphans in need and our own self-gratification, and rather than go back and forth (we are considered generous and caring in the US if we buy iPods half the time and help out the orphanages the other half), most of us choose to simply shut out the latter.

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#16 Post by Andre Jurieu » Mon Apr 11, 2005 4:25 pm

Jun-Dai wrote: The poor and downtrodden are not of his world, and once the error is discovered, it is corrected...

...The idea here is that people with privilege tend to express only a fleeting interest in the lower classes, and often they only do so for their own benefit or to stroke their own egos (on account of their benevolence)... We live in a separate world from that kind of suffering, and we have to ignore it to keep on living in it. Even if we catch a glimpse of it, as Sullivan did, we go right back to living in our separate world and mostly ignoring what's out there. I can't think of another film that captures this phenomenon with anywhere near the same effectiveness as Sullivan's Travels... Remove that element, and the film becomes much less remarkable.
That's a valid point, especially if Sturges expects us to really examine what we ourselves are willing to accept and be comfortable with. Interestingly, Sullivan's butler Burrows makes a few comments regarding this issue in the early portion of the film:
Burrows: I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and nedy, sir.

John L. Sullivan: Who's caricaturing? I'm going out on the road to find out what it's like to be poor and needy and then I'm going to make a picture about it.

Burrows: If you'll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.

John L. Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?

Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since....

Burrows: You see, sir, rich people and theorists - who are usually rich people - think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches - as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.
Statements regarding the poor by the wealthy, or affluent, should always be examined closely no matter which side they speak for. I just remembered that awhile back, a friend of mine mentioned that someone he knew had become quite politically motivated recently and had decided to engage in his own version of social experiment and protest. This guy's plan was to give up his upper middle-class lifestyle and live in poverty in order to experience what life was like at that level of society. When I heard about this, I was immediately quite offended, because there is no way that this guy actually experiences the same existence as someone normally living in poverty, simply because he has an easy escape route that he may fall back upon. His experience cannot truly mirror that of the poor because he has the option of choice that the poor do not possess. If they were granted the choice, none of them would choose to live at that station in life. He has an out from the lifestyle that none of the poor actually have. In that way, it is insulting and offensive to the poor to have their plight trivialized by someone who is just "roughing it", no matter how good his original intensions were.

Of course this is the primary reason that Sturges sends Sullivan to prison, since it eliminates his ability to choose his lifestyle, and therefore increases the stakes. However, it also does make a comment on the judicial system once he is recognized and whisked back to regular society.
Jun-Dai wrote: - our wealth - is pretty disgusting when you think of how much we waste on our own indulgences. The price of an iPod can run a small orphanage in Indonesia for two weeks, and yet so many of us have iPods and there simply aren't enough orphanages for the orphans
What was that? I couldn't hear it over these new tunes I'm listening to on my iPod, which I swear was a Christmas gift. As if I didn't have enough to feel guilty about...

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#17 Post by Gregory » Mon Apr 11, 2005 4:38 pm

Jun-Dai wrote:Actually, I think that's a pretty small number of people.

As a percentage of people in the U.S. it probably is a small number (in less privileged countries of course it's harder for people to isolate themselves from social issues). However, there are still huge numbers of people who have had their consciousness changed somehow. My own experience of this is probably different because I often keep company with people actively interested in social issues. The phenomenon we're talking about is also I struggle with myself; I try to prevent my interest in film from being pure escapism and instead make it something that enriches my other interests and activities.
I think that Sturges is really questioning Sullivan's motivations, and more importantly, he's pointing out that Sullivan - who is merely human - can't live simultaneously in both worlds.
I'd be interested in your take on how Sturges is doing that. Admittedly I haven't seen the film in a few years.
And again, I don't believe one has to be poor to be committed to examining and eliminating the causes of poverty (nor would such a commitment have to come from noblesse oblige). One of the things that makes me uneasy about Sullivan's Travels is that its happy ending doesn't even attempt to keep open the breach between those two worlds that had existed earlier in the film.
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#18 Post by luxetnox » Mon Apr 11, 2005 7:28 pm

Gregory wrote:One of the things that makes me uneasy about Sullivan's Travels is that its happy ending doesn't even attempt to keep open the breach between those two worlds that had existed earlier in the film.

I don't think there was such a breach shown in the film at all. Time and time again Sullivan discovers that he cannot truly recreate himself as poor and his 'rescue' from the prison is only the final proof (in the time frame of the film). Furthermore, Sullivan does not attempt to act as an ambassador from the film studios to the impoverished. In the speech he makes at the end about wanting to do comedy, he states that he is not the one to make O Brother not that such a film cannot be made. In fact, I would go further and say that by making a comedy (and we are not given any evidence of what kind of comedy - comedy can carry social comment as well such as Chaplin's films), Sullivan is running with the one inspiration that he did find in his travels - the unlooked for discovery that, while a social problem film may have good intentions, a comedy actually succeeds in connecting with people. Of course this is a simplification, but I feel that Sturges left the end of the film with the characters lives continuing just as he started it in the middle of a conversation that probably had been brewing in Sullivan's character for some time.

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#19 Post by Jun-Dai » Mon Apr 11, 2005 7:57 pm

One of the things that makes me uneasy about Sullivan's Travels is that its happy ending doesn't even attempt to keep open the breach between those two worlds that had existed earlier in the film.
I think the ending is only superficially happy. The film ends happily enough for Sullivan, but in the end all that has happened is that the experience has enriched Sullivan, and none of the poor and working class are the better off for it. There is no way for that breach to satisfactorily exist to the end of the film. In order for it to exist in the first place, Sullivan had to peel back the layers of his own being so that he could come to know another way of living. He can't maintain that and return to his society. The film could end with him trying to grapple with the problem and somehow improve humanity, but that would be problematic because it would provide us with a heroic figure (Sullivan would then become a Good person) and would serve to give us a positive reflection of ourselves, or some part of ourselves. We would, in a sense, have fulfilled for us the very need that the film reveals, because we would know that for such a problem there exists a man like Sullivan to take care of it. Instead, there exists a fairly negative (or at least sardonic) portrayal of us in the film, if one is willing to grab it. No force in the film is there to improve the situation that Sullivan has seen, and if we recognize that, then upon leaving the film we should hopefully have some compulsion to do something about it ourselves. To put it more explicitly would have been more revolutionary for a Hollywood film than Sturges was probably willing to be at the time, and in any case a more overt message would probably have been simply rejected by the film's audience.

Obviously most of the audience wouldn't have seen the poverty in the film as anything they need concern themselves with, and they would have been left with no compulsion to do anything about it, but such people are doubtlessly beyond the possibility of being persuaded to action by a single film.

I commend your interest in trying to find something in film beyond escapism, and I think you should start up another thread about what film can be beyond escapism, aestheticism, or intellectual exercise (e.g., decoding symbolism). I think this film serves some purpose to this end, but like all things the film has a context: it is meant to reach a middle-class. white audience from the 20s, not us. With this in mind, the film doesn't offer us much beyond a glimpse of how you can accomplish political goals with a film (a better way to approach this would be for us to find out what reactions people had to this film at the time). The ironically unhappy ending of the film is as valid today as ever, but I don't think it's useful anymore - it needs a modern context to reach anyone that doesn't already see the point.

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#20 Post by Gregory » Tue Apr 12, 2005 1:53 am

Jun-Dai, you've given me much to think about, and I will need to see Sullivan's Travels again soon. For now, though, I do have a few responses.
Jun-Dai wrote:I think the ending is only superficially happy. The film ends happily enough for Sullivan, but in the end all that has happened is that the experience has enriched Sullivan, and none of the poor and working class are the better off for it.
It's impressed upon the viewer that they'll be better off because they'll have laughter from the film he's going to make and others like it (if they have a chance to see them). "It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan," Sullivan says. Besides, Sullivan and Veronica Lake's character are happy, and that makes it a happy ending because they're by far the ones viewers care about the most. A common technique in the endings of Hollywood films is to show what happened to the important characters. If it's not made known whether things turned out well or badly for a character, that's usually a sign that that charater wasn't really important.
No force in the film is there to improve the situation that Sullivan has seen, and if we recognize that, then upon leaving the film we should hopefully have some compulsion to do something about it ourselves.
But what's to discourage us from following his example? We can decide as he did that we're too darned happy to worry about all that stuff, or that we haven't suffered enough (i.e. we've escaped the effects of the problem so far so let's go on ingoring the causes of it).
A better way to approach this would be for us to find out what reactions people had to this film at the time.
I'll look for something on that and report what I find.

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#21 Post by Jun-Dai » Tue Apr 12, 2005 2:36 am

We can decide as he did that we're too darned happy to worry about all that stuff, or that we haven't suffered enough (i.e. we've escaped the effects of the problem so far so let's go on ingoring the causes of it).
Sure, but that ought to leave a bad taste in our mouth. If it doesn't, then there was probably never any hope that Sturges could have had any effect on us with regard to this issue of poverty anyhow. The fact that it left a bad taste in the mouths of several here is an indication of the effectiveness of this. I think Sturges leaves us a few clues to indicate that this effect is intentional: (1) the rapidity, ease, and unrealisticness (is that a word?) with which Sullivan is whisked out of his difficulties. This deus ex machina is not meant to be believable, but rather, I believe, a comment in and of itself about the difference between Sullivan's world and the world of those he has been spending time with; and (2) the contrast between the gritty realism of the poor and the glamor, wit, and Hollywoodishness of Sullivan's normal life. We are meant to take the more serious scenes seriously and the less serious scenes less seriously. No other film of that time (that I know of) works so hard to combine the milieux, and I think the effect is similar to something like Life is Beautiful: we are meant to laugh, but there is a whole lot more going on in the context that should be affecting us emotionally. Sullivan's Travels just happens to be more subtle - not because Sturges is more sophisticated (he is), but because it's all he can get away with at the time.

I too need to see the film again. I'm pretty sure I could add a couple clues to that short list.

The purpose of the film is not to send you out to the trenches, battling for the poor. This would never work. The very nature of Hollywood and the money spent in making films prevents the sort of muckraking that existed in the journalism and literature of that time. A person can write a novel and get paid for it later, but no one could get funding to make a film with such a strong Socialist message (and anyways, the effect of the Jungle was only to raise people's concerns about what they were eating - not to raise consciousness about the plight of the working class). More effective, I think, to give people something to chew on wherein they begin to examine themselves and their own class. We are presented with Sullivan's travels in a context that we can digest, and hopefully we will be a little uncomfortable after the film is done. That is probably the best the film can do. In a way, Sturges has one-upped Sullivan. He has made a film to entertain, yet he also works to raise social consciousness, and he escapes the issue of authenticity: he's providing a very specific context within which destitution is to be viewed, and it is one that Sturges is probably quite qualified to work from. His film and the motivations that went into its making are probably far more complicated than the character of Sullivan.

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Gregory
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 4:07 pm

#22 Post by Gregory » Tue Apr 12, 2005 2:54 am

James Harvey in Romantic Comedy: "Sullivan's Travels -- a film about a filmmaker -- was too unorthodox a picture to be really popular."

Sturges, quoted in Between Flops by James Curtis:
"Sullivan's Travels is the result of an urge to tell some of my fellow filmwrights that they were getting a little too deep-dish and to leave the preaching to the preachers."

His friend Capra's last film had been Meet John Doe.

Harvey: "Sturges, on the other hand, dissocates himself from Sullivan ('I am not Sullivan. He is a younger man than I, and a better one') and from Sullivan's final stand on comedy. Now is the time, Sturges concludes, for all kinds of art, not just comic ones -- 'and now is always with us.'"

Curtis: "As planned, the ad campaign ... highlighted Veronica Lake's image and nothing of what the film was about. ... The publicity people did just about all they could do with Sullivan's Travels. The notices were mixed, however, and business didn't hold. Sturges theorized that audiences were expecting another Lady Eve. 'One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy,' Sturges reported, 'and another wanted to know what the hell the comic passages were doing in this drama. They are both right, of course.' ...
Sullivan's Travels managed one month as a Motion Picture Herald "Box Office Champion" and then disappeared. Sturges, expecting as much, was glad to have The Palm Beach Story waiting in the wings. It was about this time that Sturges conceived his eleven rules for box-office appeal:
1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
2. A leg is better than an arm.
3. A bedroom is better than a living room.
4. An arrival is better than a departure.
5. A birth is better than a death.
6. A chase is better than a chat.
7. A dog is better than a landscape.
8. A kitten is better than a dog.
9. A baby is better than a kitten.
10. A kiss is better than a baby.
11. A pratfall is better than anything."

Diane Jacobs in Christmas in July: "[It] suddenly lost steam. Still, wherever it was seen it made an impact. ... a coming generation of American artists and intellectuals, now in high school or college, were astonished to find a Hollywood movie that spoke to them. ... By the time Sullivan's Travels was released, in January 1942, Pearl Harbor had been attacked and America was last at war."

Preston Sturges by Preston Sturge: "Some of the New York critics felt they had been let down a little by the ending. The ending wasn't right but I didn't know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned by also to tie up the love story. It would have been very easy to make a big finish either way, but one would have defeated the other."
Jun-Dai wrote:The purpose of the film is not to send you out to the trenches, battling for the poor.
I know, Sturges just wasn't like that, even with The Great McGinty. However, there were plenty of radical Hollywood films that worked well within the confines of the system, especially in the '30s when the plight of the disadvantaged was often offset against corrupt entrepreneurs, bosses, lawyers, landlords, etc. Many of these were subtle works of art, not the kind of preachy films that Sturges was sick of.
My unease about Sullivan's Travels come not from the fact that Sturges was limited in what he could do; I understand that. As I've said, it's because Sturges goes so far in condemning preachy "message" dramas and includes any films that have a substantial sociopolitical subtext. He even presumes that poor and working class people aren't interested in films about lives like theirs. The film's ending not only praises Hollywood fluff (after all, almost any filmmaker can make people forget their troubles for a couple of hours) but also affirms that there's very little that can be done about poverty and injustice. Knowing how cynical Sturges tended to be supports this interpretation.
Perhaps you're right that in some ways Sturges wanted to make us feel uneasy at the end of the film to get us thinking, but it seems to me that what makes me uneasy, around 60 years later, would not have made audiences then uneasy, nor was it intended to do so. Every statement he made about Sullivan's Travels confirmed that he sincerely believed in what Sullivan learned in his travels. His misgivings about the ending were simply about how to do both things he wanted to do, one of which was to establish that his naive, Capra-loving main character had finally gotten the right idea. This moment is the purpose of the film. As you say, his motivations were probably more complex than the character of Sullivan, although from everything Sturges said and wrote about the film the main character's lesson is the point. Everything else, even Veronica Lake ("There's always a girl in the picture!"), is window dressing, a by-product of the story. Of course, as with Howard Hawks, there's far more going on in the film than the director will admit in his statements, and that makes interpretation of it far trickier.

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Andre Jurieu
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#23 Post by Andre Jurieu » Tue Apr 12, 2005 2:38 pm

Gregory wrote:... not the kind of preachy films that Sturges was sick of.
My unease about Sullivan's Travels come not from the fact that Sturges was limited in what he could do; I understand that. As I've said, it's because Sturges goes so far in condemning preachy "message" dramas and includes any films that have a substantial sociopolitical subtext. He even presumes that poor and working class people aren't interested in films about lives like theirs. The film's ending not only praises Hollywood fluff (after all, almost any filmmaker can make people forget their troubles for a couple of hours) but also affirms that there's very little that can be done about poverty and injustice. Knowing how cynical Sturges tended to be supports this interpretation.
Isn't this a bit of an exaggeration? Sturges doesn't really condemn the entire practice of drama, so much as state that drama cannot be done correctly or successfully by just any craftsmen trying to make something "important". Sturges seems to be questioning the motivations behind making a drama, and I don't believe he is entirely off-base in this area. I might agree that the presumption that poor and working class people are not interested in films about lives like their own is an incorrect one, but I have to disagree that any filmmaker is able to make people forget their troubles for a couple of hours. In fact, I'd say very few filmmakers can successfully accomplish that. In my mind, the ending doesn't affirm that nothing can be done about poverty and injustice, but merely says that it might not be Sullivan's place to do so, since he doesn't believe he can convey such matters properly. My main gripe is that this statement isn't as clear as I would appreciate, but I am certain it is present, only muted slightly.

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Gregory
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#24 Post by Gregory » Tue Apr 12, 2005 3:27 pm

Andre Jurieu wrote:Sturges doesn't really condemn the entire practice of drama
Right, but that wasn't what I said.
In my mind, the ending doesn't affirm that nothing can be done about poverty and injustice, but merely says that it might not be Sullivan's place to do so, since he doesn't believe he can convey such matters properly.
Sullivan's statement that laughter is "better than nothing" suggests that there's no way to improve the lives of poor and oppressed people, only to distract them temporarily with entertainment -- it's that or nothing. It doesn't leave much room for any real solutions. It's also strikes me as a pretty cynical view of filmmaking because distraction and escapism are not very high aspirations for any artist, and Sturges always pointed out that he was not an artist. And even in distancing himself from Sullivan, Sturges praised him as a wiser man than he. But again, I recognize that much of this was tongue-in-cheek.

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Andre Jurieu
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#25 Post by Andre Jurieu » Tue Apr 12, 2005 4:31 pm

Gregory wrote:
Andre Jurieu wrote:Sturges doesn't really condemn the entire practice of drama
Right, but that wasn't what I said.
Ok, but while I'd agree that Sturges is only denouncing the "preachy 'message' drama", I think it's incorrect to say that Sturges includes within this category "any films that have a substantial sociopolitical subtext". Neither Sullivan, nor Sturges, makes such a condemnation. In fact, I would almost have to say the two differ somewhat, since the preachy message drama probably would not include a sociopolitical statement within its subtext, but rather make their declarations regarding the sociopolitical issue in question through rather load, prominent, and blatantly obvious methods. To me, it seems that Sturges would be critiquing films such as The Life of David Gale, or I Am Sam, or Pleasantville, rather than attacking The Bicycle Thief, or Open City. It seems that Sullivan might not be ready to create something like Shoeshine, and it's better that he realizes this, instead of making O Brother Where Art Thou into Pay it Forward.
Gregory wrote:Sullivan's statement that laughter is "better than nothing" suggests that there's no way to improve the lives of poor and oppressed people, only to distract them temporarily with entertainment -- it's that or nothing.
Well, I'm approaching that bit of dialogue to be addressing Sullivan's actions, or his internal decisions, rather than the ultimate plight of those in need. Sullivan says:
There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.
In my mind Sullivan is saying "laughter isn't much, but it's better than if I were to completely ignore the issue and simply choose not to do anything for them, so I'll do what I can do best for them and perhaps they will appreciate that from me".

I don't see the statement as Sullivan saying "laughter isn't much, but what else can we do", or worse, "laughter isn't much, but I'm not going to bother making the effort to do anything more, because it's pointless anyway since the poor can't be helped".

I don't believe Sullivan, or Sturges, is making it a decision based upon what must his protagonist do to address the issue of poverty, but rather saying that this character is attempting to do what he feels he can, and that he (Sullivan) has realized that grand gestures are not always the most plausible answers, or the most welcome, when they aren't delivered sincerely.

Harvey may be correct when he says
Harvey wrote:Sturges, on the other hand, dissocates himself from Sullivan ('I am not Sullivan. He is a younger man than I, and a better one') and from Sullivan's final stand on comedy. Now is the time, Sturges concludes, for all kinds of art, not just comic ones -- 'and now is always with us.'"
Last edited by Andre Jurieu on Tue Apr 12, 2005 4:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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