Preston Sturges simultaneously lampoons and embraces Hollywood in his comedy masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels (1941).
A very low-key Joel McCrea play John Sullivan, a popular Hollywood director of lowbrow hits like Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who decides to make a serious film about social strife and human suffering called O Brother, Where Art Thou (a title later borrowed by the Coen Bros. in tribute to Sturges) and hits the road as a hobo to research the film.
Nobody marries crackling wit and spirited slapstick like Sturges, who brings a sassy edge to this satirical road movie through depression era America and the out-of-touch plenty of la-la-land (where well-meaning rich white men take it upon themselves to speak for the common man), yet imbues his heroes with a loving dignity. The celebration of the simple joys of Hollywood comedies may seem like a self-serving defense of Sturges’ art, but it’s so magical and genuine and full of hilarious ego-puncturing moments that it overcomes the overly sentimental finale.
Veronica Lake gives a career best performance as the sadder-but-wiser starlet wannabe who joins his odyssey and the whole darn Sturges stock company checks in with marvelous jewels of character bits. It’s a masterpiece from Hollywood’s master of satire, and the most personal film of his career.
It was added to the National Film Registry in 1990.
Black and white
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Criterion presents the supplements featured on the special edition Blu-ray, including a documentary on Sturges and video essay.
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Sullivan’s Travels (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Sullivan’s Travels (Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Sullivan’s Travels (Universal) [DVD]
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On DVD from Universal and special edition Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion Collection. The latter includes commentary by filmmakers and fans Noah Baumbach, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean, the documentary feature Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer originally made for the PBS showcase American Masters, a video essay by film critic David Cairns featuring filmmaker Bill Forsyth, an interview with Sturges’ widow Sandy Sturges from 2001, and audio interviews with Sturges (one by Hedda Hopper).