Sullivan’s Travels Blu-ray Review

     Actors: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
  • Director: Preston Sturges
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Black & White, Full Screen, NTSC, Special Edition, Subtitled
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Criterion Collection (Direct)
  • Release Date: April 14, 2015
  • Run Time: 90 minutes


            True film buffs have ongoing debates about certain cinematic icons to rival rock-and-roll fan’s preferences between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Charlie Chaplin admirers are contrasted by those who would hail Buster Keaton as the true king of silent slapstick, fans of The Three Stooges are often in competition with The Marx Brothers, and there is an ongoing rivalry between the sentimental films of Frank Capra and the more cynical and satirical work of Preston Sturges. The one film which seems to be in contradiction of this distinction between the two filmmakers seems to be Sullivan’s Travels, though it is still difficult to decipher how much of this was sincerity and how much was a subtle back-handed attack from Sturges against Capra’s iconic and popular style. Whatever the intentions may have been, Sullivan’s Travels remains my favorite Sturges film for the similarities it shares with that rival filmmaker’s movies.


            We are constantly reminded of Hollywood’s infatuation with itself, apparent in the success of movies about the industry itself. The Academy Awards alone are a yearly reminder of this fascination, with many of the Best Picture winners of recent years as prime example; The Artist, Argo, Birdman. Sullivan’s Travels was far ahead of the competition in the ability to deconstruct the film industry while playing with the genre expectations. Whether you analyze the underlining satirical elements of the storyline (which even include a few digs at Capra), or take this film for face value, Sullivan’s Travels is an inexplicable crowd pleaser in comparison to other films from Sturges.   


            Joel McCrea stars as the title character, a film director named John L. Sullivan. Although Sullivan is best known for his musicals and lighthearted film fare, he has a grand ambition to make a film that captures the heartache and struggle of poor American existence. This opus is called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and was clearly calling to mind the success of John Ford’s adaptation of Grapes of Wrath. When the studio executives point out that Sullivan has never suffered hardship, and therefore may not be the best equipped to handle heavy drama, he sets out on a journey of enlightenment. Thinking that he must live as a poor man in order to understand them, Sullivan dons a shabby outfit and leaves his possessions behind for a temporary vacation from privilege.


            Despite his ill-informed first initial attempts to escape, Sullivan repeatedly finds himself returned to Hollywood. During one of these returns he crosses paths with a struggling actress (played by Veronica Lake), who is also planning an escape from the film industry after years of failure. The two join forces, playing at poverty in a tour of the poverty-stricken areas of the country while simultaneously building a bond with each other. The cross-country road trip of sorts calls back to Capra’s It Happened One Night, which is thought to have been the jumping off point for the Screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. The relationship between these two in Sullivan’s Travels never reaches the level of banter or character development which made It Happened One Night so charming, however, and this is apparent in the fact that Sturges does not even bother to give Lake’s character a name. She is simple billed as “The Girl,” though this certainly could be referencing the tendency towards similar neglect in Chaplin’s classics. 


            This is the dual pleasure of watching Sullivan’s Travels; not only is it a fun take on the Screwball film, it has the added challenge and pleasure that comes with deconstruction. While the film can certainly be enjoyed on a merely surface level, I find myself far more entertained with the process of going beneath the surface to attempt to understand the intentions of Sturges. This is a pastime that is apparently shared by many contributors to this Blu-ray disc’s special features, including filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, who offer their praise and opinion in a commentary track from 2001. There is also a feature-length documentary that Bowser made about Sturges in 1990 for PBS, an interview with Sandy Sturges from 2001, and archival interviews and audio recordings of the late filmmaker. These features were previously available, but this new Blu-ray release comes with anal-new video essay from film critic David Cairns, as well as a high definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.


    Entertainment Value: 8.5/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 8.5/10

    Historical Significance:  9.5/10

    Special Features: 9/10



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