Director John L. Sullivan wants to make a social-problems film called 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' When his producers point out that he knows nothing about trouble or poverty, he goes on the road as a hobo. Joined by a down-on-her-luck aspiring actress, the results are hardly the kind of trouble he had in mind. But when the 'experiment' seems to be over, Sullivan falls into more trouble than he ever dreamed of...
Sullivanís Travels is a story about a successful comedy director John L. Sullivan, or ĎSullyí (Joel McCrea) who plans to make a drama about poverty for his next film. When his producers accuse him of not knowing anything about being poor, Sully decides to find out. He dresses up as a tramp and takes to the road. On the way he meets a girl (Veronica Lake) who offers to keep him company. But all too soon, Sullyís intellectual experiment leads to trouble. A pair of stolen shoes and a nasty case of amnesia serve to land him in a work camp, and heís forced to learn what real poverty is-and what he can really do to for the American people.
If you have worked, are working, or ever plan to work anywhere in the entertainment industry, there are two films you are required to see: Swimming With Sharks (1994) and Sullivanís Travels. You watch Swimming With Sharks so you donít forget to treat your coworkers with dignity. You watch Sullivanís Travels so you remember not to take yourself too seriously. Thatís it. Thatís all you need. And unlike many other Hollywood films (including Swimming With Sharks) you donít end up feeling like youíd rather slit your wrists than take your chances in show business.
But there is so much more to this movie than the glitter of Hollywood. Itís about people. Itís about the rich and the poor, and the entertainment that unifies them. Itís also a funny, lighthearted creampuff of a movie, with, as one of the producers says Ďa little sex in it.í
The film is a fun, escapist comedy all about the value of escapism. This is particularly noteworthy in a time where films like ĎHigh School Musicalí and ĎSuperbadí have proven more successful than anyone ever expected. Sully doesnít want success; he doesnít even want the Oscar. Like Leonardo DiCaprio and The 11th Hour, Sully wants to use his infinite money and power to say something to the world. But in a poor world, in a world with an aggressive need and an astronomical social divide, no one wants a movie about how hard things are.
And yet Preston Sturges, in this film, finds a way to address poverty without seeming preachy. And itís because Sully is so earnest and over the top. When Sully and the girl are at a diner, they find that they canít afford any food. The owner gives them a donut, and Sully launches into a deeply inappropriate speech about the manís goodness. Veronica Lake, billed only as The Girl, works as real world foil to Sullyís ivory Tower naivetť. When they first meet, Lake is a failed actress on her way out of Hollywood. Sheís no stranger to the real troubles, and one of the most charming aspects of her character is that sheís always hungry. (Honestly, when was the last time you saw a movie where a lead actress was hungry?)
Sullivanís Travels is sexy, witty, and heartfelt. It has butlers falling into pools, and bitchy ex-wives, and car races, and horny spinsters, and Veronica Lakeís legs. And (apart from the embarrassing portrayal of the black cook) it all stands the test of time. Sully learns humility from his travels. He learns that to reach people, you canít intellectualize to them. Sullivanís Travels is a successful version of what Sully couldnít have done. This movie laughs with the people, and at Hollywood. As Woody Allen once wrote, ďYou want to make the world a better place? Tell funnier jokes.Ē I think that says it all.