Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
Director: Preston Sturges
Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment
It takes a certain type of director to transform a sexy vamp into a dowdy tramp within just a few short scenes but Preston Sturges was not your average auteur. In Sullivan’s Travels he cast the sultry blonde Veronica Lake as a Hollywood hopeful on the verge of throwing in the towel when she meets one of Tinsel Town’s most celebrated comedy directors trying to pass himself off as a vagabond. Swiftly unravelling the impostor’s ruse, the ingenue swaps her glam frocks for dirty britches and hitches her cart to his then they head off on a research trip for his next film; a serious social tragedy called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (a fictional story eventually realised by the Coen Brothers in their own wonderful way 59 years later).
Joel McCrea, who was to star in another two Sturges’ films, plays the eponymous Sullivan whose adventures into soup kitchens and chain gangs reveal the desperate need for laughter in a world full of human suffering. By the end the director is forced to reconfirm his commitment to making comedy; “It isn’t much,” he says, “but it’s better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan.”
The film’s message is like an affirmation for Sturges himself who was one of Paramount’s biggest money makers yet constantly dubbed ‘Hollywood’s Bad Boy’. The root cause of his unusual personality is revealed in a documentary extra which explains how his mother, who was a close friend of the famous dancer Isadora Duncan and even gave her the notorious scarf that eventually strangled her, dragged him with her on all her cultural peregrinations and instilled in him a unique perspective on the world in general and relationships in particular. It’s the latter that infuses his characters with the remarkable qualities that make them so very irresistible.