Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sullivan's Travels: a Film that Every American Should See

I've been thinking a lot lately about Preston Sturges' classic 1942 film Sullivan's Travels. It has often been called the best movie about movies ever made. It takes sharp aim at privileged Hollywood liberals who try to raise awareness of social issues that they do not understand at all. Director Sturges also wrote the screenplay about a successful Hollywood director of light comedies who wishes to make an important movie about the plight of the downtrodden. Sullivan's project was to be called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title used decades later by the Cohen brothers for their homage to Sturges' film). Sullivan's studio tries to discourage him at first and then makes a publicity stunt of his attempt to do research by impersonating a hobo (brilliantly anticipating any number of modern "reality television" shows).

 While the movie was marketed as a romantic comedy, the comedy is definitely of the dark variety, and the romance does not take center stage. It does, however, play an important part in the story. Sullivan only begins to understand the real problems of poor people who cannot go back to their comfortable mansions when he meets Veronica Lake's character in this diner scene:



Their acquaintance grows, but they are separated when a series of misadventures leads to Sullivan losing his true identity, running afoul of the law, and being sent to prison.

The depiction of life on a prison chain gang is realistically bleak, so much so that the movie was banned from overseas distribution during wartime (for fear that it could be used as anti-American propaganda). Highly unusual for its time, it portrays incarcerated men in a sympathetic light and shows the very different versions of justice that exist for the rich and the poor.

In the end, Sullivan concludes that escapist entertainment is more valuable to the poor than serious films about their plight. Critics of the film point to that rather self-serving conclusion as the hypocritical moral of the story (when it was released, the NYT complained that "Sullivan should have been more affected by his experience than he seems to be"). I think they have rather missed the point. I believe the real moral of this film is that most of us spend our lives blithely unaware of our own privilege.

I think Sullivan's Travels should be annual viewing around the Thanksgiving holiday -- both to help us better appreciate what we have, and to help us feel genuine compassion for the downtrodden. I also think it should be required viewing for those in the publishing industry who make elitist distinctions between "literary fiction" and genre fiction. Just because a novel is structured to entertain and deliver a happily-ever-after does not mean it cannot make us think about larger issues. The value of entertainment and the HEA should also be weighed in the balance when considering the merits of a work.

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