Sullivan's Travels (1941)

A commentary about commentaries, a movie about movies, a comedy about comedies, a misguided notion about a misguided notion—"Sullivan's Travels" shares a lot with "Gentlemen's Agreement" in that its main character very much wants to feel badly. He wants to suffer, he wants to feel the bottom of the barrel, he wants to cry. But being from a different world, he decides to immerse himself in a new culture, study, learn, and observe.
In "Gentleman's Agreement" the main character was a reporter doing a story about Jewish people and the racism they encounter. To do so, he posed as a Jew and then suddenly everyone hated him. My problem with the film was that he was supposed to endure a lifetime of cruelty and racism within a few weeks—that's condescending to all involved.
With "Sullivan's Travels" we have a similar premise. A esteemed Hollywood director wants to make a picture for the people. No longer does he want to craft stupid comedies that are mindless and fun. He believes that film can change people and should be given the due respect it deserves. But what does he know about poverty and the poor? Though those are the subjects of his hopeful movies, he grew up in luxury.
An idea occurs to him: why doesn't he live like a bum, a tramp, for a period of time? Then he'll have the point of view he always wanted. The severity of "Gentlemen's Agreement" is not present here. The film takes a more comical approach to this man's study and the woes that it will cause him.
John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is our main man, the director who wants to make heavy dramas but doesn't know how. His bosses don't feel like letting a big money maker walk out on the street by himself where anything can happen to him without a little insurance. They have rejected the idea of Sullivan making the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", but Sullivan is obsessed with this experiment now. They have no choice but to bend to his demands.
Still, they may have the upper hand, they get a crew of reporters to follow Sullivan around, detailing every move the man makes. Sullivan gives them the slip and lets them know that they're in for a world of discomfort if they keep up their shenanigans. Agreeing to leave him in peace, the group takes off and Sullivan is at last by himself.
Yet the situations of his travel keep bringing him back to Hollywood, to his home, towards his work. It's as if the cosmos doesn't want him to be a famous director for dramas that evoke change in people.
For as many points as "Sullivan's Travel" is trying to emphasize, there are as many styles to do that in the movie. The cutesy way that real sorrow can be portrayed with a musical montage is somewhat unforgivable. The movie feels like slapstick comedy, a drama much like "The Lost Weekend", a prison flick, and at last a farce.
Jumping from scene to scene with no care for the viewer, "Sullivan's Travels" pulls out all the stops. When it all culminates in the ending, the viewer is left wondering what's so wrong about comedies? They make people laugh...what's wrong with that?
To be fair, I don't find most comedies funny. I sympathize too much with everyone involved. Though some works can make me laugh, most of the time I just feel sorry. I think this is because most modern comedies take the viewpoint on looking at a hopeless situation. When faced with extreme trials and heartache, the only two options may be to laugh or to cry.
Still "Sullivan's Travels" plays out more like a piece created for the sake of the argument it presents. Sullivan and the people he encounters really have no forbearance on the rest of the film.
In the end, comedies are good.
Great! So why did I watch a drama about that?

Score: ★★½

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