Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Probably Preston Sturges' best-known film, though not necessarily the funniest or finest comedy he made during his brilliant streak of hits at Paramount from 1940-44. Engagingly acted by Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, ably supported by Sturges' famous stock company of expert character actors, the film is at times quite uneven in tone, veering between fast-paced satirical farce and surprisingly dark moments of violence and grim social realism for a comedy.

The dramatic scenes make for some of the most self-consciously stylized moments in all of Sturges' filmography, particularly the courtroom sequence, in which McCrea is swiftly sentenced to a prison term while in a dazed and confused state, and the sequence in the Southern black church, where the chain gang inmates have been invited to join the congregation for a movie night, and the entire audience breaks down laughing hysterically at a Disney cartoon.

Where the film becomes problematic is in the heavy-handedness and contradiction of its message, that laughter is the most important thing of all to those who have nothing else ("It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan," McCrea intones somberly at the film's conclusion). Sturges' point seems to be a bit more complex than that, and he offers as much an indictment of self-righteous Hollywood types who want to change the world instead of producing entertainment. But if Sturges' personal philosophy is indeed that laughter is the best medicine, and that Hollywood should stick to entertaining the masses rather than delivering a message, then his explicit dealing with that message here can't help but seem a bit hypocritical.

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