Seen: Sat., Feb. 20, 2016, Loew's Jersey (Jersey City), 35mm
It finally occurred to me why I fail to respond positively to this film, and to Sturges' work in general: it's marked by a self-conscious cleverness that I find ultimately distracting. I'd been considering this idea for some time, but it really crystallized after viewing SULLIVAN on a double bill with Capra's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, which -- I should point out -- I was also disappointed by but for different reasons, reasons that became apparent in comparing Capra's approach to Sturges'. However uneven ARSENIC might be in its tone, it certainly demonstrates a consistency of style in Capra's direction, which is typically effective.
With Sturges, I am always aware of his technique showing. In SULLIVAN I see this with erratic stylistic approach to the "dramatic" scenes, as if the director is proving his seriousness through self-consciously "artistic" (and disorienting) camera angles and filters -- as in the courtroom scene -- or the heavy-handed juxtaposition of the prisoners and the church congregation in a later scene, finally reaching a fever-pitch during the hallucinatory montage of laughing faces during the Disney cartoon.
It would be tempting to view these as temporary lapses in style due to the director working in unfamiliar territory, except that the same heaviness is apparent throughout even the comic scenes, which becomes even more apparent in comparison with the work of other filmmakers. Sturges' handling of dialogue, for example, strikes me as a case of a screenwriter in love with his own words, failing to achieve any particular sense of rhythm or poetry, as Lubitsch or Hawks say, were able to. Nor does his staging of physical comedy achieve the graceful, deceptive ease of McCarey or Capra, feeling rather too obviously constructed as opposed to rising organically out of the situations (see, for example, the rather forced way in which Sturges gets his characters to fall into a swimming pool).
The sharp, almost bipolar contrast in tone of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS magnifies these issues, but I think they are apparent throughout Sturges' filmography. With Sturges, I am too often aware of the clever screenwriter "behind the curtain".