August 4, 2010

#61: Sullivan's Travels

"To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated."

Sullivan's Travels was another one I had pretty much no idea about. How can it have made it onto this list and it's never even crossed my path of consciousness? I think I'm a pretty knowledgeable movie buff but this one had eluded me thus far. I can see why, but that's not to say it's not a lovely little movie.

Company: alone again

Cuisine: a bowl of Multi-Grain Cheerios (health) and a big glass of water -- I think I threw out my throat this week at summer stock so I gotta get that back in tip top shape!

"You see the symbolism? It has social significance!"

John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea ... Joel McWho?) is a young-ish movie director trying to push art over commerce in Hollywood, while all Hollywood wants him to do is make comedies. What ensues is an expository conversation (one long three-minute take!) between Sullivan and the two execs, with crackling dialogue that reminded me of Altman's Hollywood ode The Player. Essentially, Sullivan becomes convinced the reason his movies aren't working is because he's never really suffered, growing up rich. (I suppose a contemporary audience would call it "liberal guilt.") Solution: go out on the road and live life as a tramp.

Of course, this journey of exploratory journalism would maybe work -- he's got to suffer somehow, after all -- but...

... it certainly won't work with a less-than-conspicuous media bus following his every move. In a ridiculous chase sequence, Sullivan flees the media in what appears to be a homemade race car driven by a thirteen-year-old boy. Lots of things in that bus fall on its riders, and the one woman on board shows a lot of leg. Still, I was laughing out loud.

Sullivan convinces the media to bide him for the time being, but he keeps getting pulled back to Hollywood somehow, as though it didn't want him to leave his comfortable life.

He resists until he meets a beautiful, mysterious, smoky and down-on-her-luck actress whose name is never revealed, probably because it's not important: she could be any girl. She's played with a contralto sizzle by Veronica Lake (again: who? I guess the two stars did not get along). Once he reveals himself (and several sequences show him and her falling into his pool, along with various members of his staff) and wants to help her, she jumps on the bandwagon and...

... together they brave the open road. It's never really clear what their end goal is, except to make a movie about poverty. One exec (and even his butler!) thinks the idea is not only farcical but won't sell. Maybe they're right, but that's not stopping Sullivan and his girl. A charming montage shows them on the road together, with a constant overtone of "these city folks just can't get the hang of the country!" This is where the movie starts to lose a little focus.

At some point, something makes the two of them give up on the expedition and head back to a life in his mansion. But what was it? And will the experiences he's had (however limited) warrant a screenplay? It appears that we might not know, since he's clubbed by a hobo and dragged into a freight car bound for who knows where. When he climbs out after regaining consciousness in another city, threats from a stockyard worker make him go berserk and beat the guy in the face with a rock. WHAT!?

He's sent to a labor camp for six years. (This is not where I saw the movie going.) He needs a way out. All of Hollywood mourns his death after a misunderstanding proves his untimely passing. And in an anticlimactic climax, he discovers an easy way out of the camp (never mind that nothing excuses his assault of that guy... but whatever). And by the end of the film, he's convinced of one thing.

"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. did you know that's all some people have? it isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

While imprisoned, he was witness to a crowd of his jailmates laughing uproariously at old Pluto cartoons. It's the only joy he experiences while he's there, and it's that joyous moment that challenges him to reconsider his bias against comedy: don't we all just want to laugh? Isn't that all any of us really want? To feel good?

Well, we've laughed at Sullivan's Travels (except for that heavy last half-hour). It's 90 minutes and rather inconsequential except as a love letter to broad campy farce. I think other films are funnier but Sullivan's Travels does a nice job of poking fun at itself, at Hollywood's constant art vs. commerce battle. Probably a good lesson for these times: can't we all just enjoy a comedy? In my next ten on this list, only two are comedies (Duck Soup and The Gold Rush) -- looks like I'm in for more heavy. :)

Next up: the cine-smackdown (feels like ages since the last one! Thanks, slow blogging!) and then back to the Marx Brothers with their masterpiece, Duck Soup.

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