Sullivan's Travels (Filmmakers Collection) (1941)

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Released 5-May-2007

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Satire Featurette-Preston Sturges:The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (75
Audio Commentary-Film Critic Paul Harris
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1941
Running Time 86:42
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Preston Sturges
Studio
Distributor

Umbrella Entertainment
Starring Joel McCrea
Veronica Lake
Robert Warwick
William Demarest
Franklin Pangborn
Porter Hall
Byron Foulger
Margaret Hayes
Robert Greig
Eric Blore
Torben Meyer
Victor Potel
Richard Webb
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI ? Music Charles Bradshaw
Leo Shuken


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    In the 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters a despondent Woody Allen faces up to an existential crisis. His life has no meaning, he reasons, and he is a hypochondriac facing the prospect that he may actually have a serious disease. He stumbles into a cinema showing Duck Soup by the Marx Bros, and experiences the flash of realisation that maybe the meaning of life is just to lighten up.

Not only is that scene a homage to Preston Sturges Sullivan's Travels but it is a sentiment at the core of this film, one of the few successful satires on Hollywood. Made in 1941 the movie was not only another step in the amazing career of Preston Sturges but also a justification of his dedication to comedy at the expense of weighty drama. In fact, it is almost impossible to say Preston Sturges without saying comedy straight after.

Sturges came to Hollywood as a scriptwriter having had some success on Broadway. In the 1930s scriptwriters were often seen as the lowest link in the Hollywood food chain. Sturges was to change that when he did a deal with Paramount Studios to sell his script for The Great McGinty to them for $10.00 provided that he was allowed to direct the movie. Although it was not the first time a director had scripted their own movie it did mark a turning point in Hollywood, allowing men such as Billy Wilder and John Huston to earn the same chance. It didn't hurt that The Great McGinty won Sturges his first and only Oscar for original screen play in the first year that award was handed out. Throughout the forties he had an unprecedented eight box office hits before studio troubles saw the well run dry.

Sullivan's Travels is a hard film to categorise. Although Sturges is perhaps best known for his perfection of the screwball comedy subgenre, with his films The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan's Travels is only partly in the screwball camp. At one level it is a sharp satire on Hollywood and its ideals. It is also a broad comedy featuring some slapstick. For the final third of the movie, however, there is some genuine drama which undercuts the frivolity of earlier parts of the film.

John "Sully" Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful Hollywood director. His success is built on producing a string of light weight comedies such as the enticingly named Hey Hey in the Hay Loft! However, with war raging in Europe and the depression still affecting America he has decided to turn his back on all that is whimsy. He wants to direct a social realist picture about the lives of the poor and homeless.

Sully's desire is to make the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou which fans of the Coen Brothers will instantly recognise as the name of their 2000 homage to the world of Sturges and the hobo life.

His producers are shocked and horrified and try to dissuade him from the project. Besides, they say, he knows nothing about the life of the poor. Sully agrees and decides to dress up as a hobo and travel through America to experience what it is like to "know trouble". The real trouble is that nothing he can do seems to take him away from Hollywood. Gulliver's Travels it is not, as Sully finds that it isn't so easy to just become poor.

At a roadside diner he meets "The Girl" (Veronica Lake). She is about to leave Hollywood after months of failing to get a break as an actress. Although initially angry when she finds out that Sully is a successful director she agrees to join him on the quest to discover the real American poor.

Real life intervenes when Sully finds himself in actual trouble, in prison and working on a chain gang under a brutal guard. Only when he is brought face to face with real trouble does he realise the flaws in his quest to capture the essence of the poor and he dedicates himself to making more funny movies just to make people laugh.

Sullivan's Travels is a joy for many reasons. The script is Sturges at his best. It is full of zingers and snappy lines:

Sully: I'm going out on the road to find out what its like to be poor and needy and then I am going to make a picture about it.
His Butler: If you will permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous."

The direction is impeccable both in the comedy scenes and the dramatic moments.

There are several standouts. The opening scene, in which Sully argues with his producers about the merits of Oh Brother Where Art Thou, is a four minute showcase of perfect dialogue and performance. In a single long take the performers sell their lines with style and aplomb. Similarly, a wordless seven and a half minute take in a hobo village serves to underline not only the real problems of the poor but how out of place Sully and Hollywood are just by being there.

Finally, the key scene in a chapel, with a black reverend and his all African American congregation playing host to the chain gang for a Sunday evening movie night, manages to balance sorrow and elation in perfect measure. Not surprisingly the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in America wrote to Paramount commending them on the depiction of African Americans in the scene.

As the leads Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake are near perfect foils. McCrea is all big blustering naiveté leading one to worry about what sort of movie he would have made out of Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Lake was a curious choice and apparently she and McCrea did not get on. In the documentary included as part of the package McCrea explains that he wasn't good with his lines but loved working with a Sturges script as everything just flowed off the tongue.

The production was further complicated when she arrived six months pregnant leaving costume designer Edith Head to improvise and create some wonderful costumes to hide the bump. Having the privilege of recently watching a Region 1 version of This Gun for Hire, featuring the first of many collaborations between Lake and equally diminutive actor Alan Ladd, has given me a better appreciation of her skills as a performer. She underplays this laconic role with great skill. Hollywood never really found a place for Lake and her career ended with a whimper not too many years later. Sadly, she is remembered more nowadays for her peek-a-boo hairstyle that her performances.

In any Sturges film it is not just the leads who are important but the whole coterie of supporting players. As the commentary from film critic Paul Harris points out Sturges used the same supporting actors in most of his films giving them a loose ensemble feel that particularly drives the comedy. The cinematography shows some noir hints as it was lensed by John Seitz who went on to film some classics of the genre including Double Indemnity and The Big Clock.

Sullivan's Travels is not really as hard hitting a satire as films such as The Player even though it does contain some bitter asides. It also has some real dramatic elements which give it a depth beyond many other Sturges films. It is an enjoyable film from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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Transfer Quality

Video

 Sullivan's Travels comes to DVD in a 1.33:1 transfer consistent with its original aspect ratio.

It was filmed in black and white. This is not a restored version of the film. Therefore the usual afflictions of old movies are to be found in abundance. There are artefacts throughout, such as minor blobs and scratches, and occasional flickering of the image. More noticeably there are changes in the look of the stock from shot to shot which would have been ironed out in a good digital restoration.

Having said that, however, the actual source print is not too bad and is certainly watchable. It is soft at times and there is occasionally a high level of grain, but generally fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood would be impressed that the film has held up so well for the past 60 years. The black levels are reasonably good and the shadows, of which there are a few, are well transferred.

There are no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
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Audio

   Sullivan's Travels carries a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound track running at 224 Kb/s.

The dialogue in this film comes thick and fast and you need to listen fairly closely to keep up. Having said that, the sound quality of the DVD is not too bad. There can be trouble picking up the full text during the ensemble scenes but the same could be said for any Altman film.

The music by Sturges collaborators Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken is appropriate to the piece quirky and whimsical during the comedy and quite respectful and moving during the dramatic parts.

Audio sync appeared fine.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
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Surround Channel Use
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Extras

The DVD of Sullivan's Travels contains three interesting extras.

Featurette - The Rise and Fall of Preston Sturges (75.14)

The Rise and Fall of Preston Sturges is a full length documentary on Sturges written by variety critic Todd McCarthy. It is a comprehensive overview of the work of this fascinating director. The documentary delves into his upbringing and the extent to which it either shaped his career, by adhering to the principles of his hedonistic mother, or defined his art by reacting against the high brow culture she represented. Sturges' mother was in fact a life long friend of Isadora Duncan, dancer and human headline extraordinaire. For the trivia buffs amongst us the film points out that it was Sturges' mother who gave Duncan the extra long scarf which was to catch in the wheels of her automobile and break her neck on a country drive!

Starting from Sturges' principle that a good script is the best insurance policy a producer can buy the documentary follows Sturges' career through the extraordinary period of 1940 to 1944 when he made eight box office smashes. Sturges was a devotee of the self help book "Live two Lifetimes in One" which accounts for his extraordinary work rate as he strove to write and direct so many films in such a short period.

The film not only chronicles his astounding purple patch but also the rot that set in for many years afterwards as Sturges fought with the studios. Making a deal with the devil he became one of the first producer, director, script writers when he signed up with Howard Hughes in a relationship that bore only sour fruit. Throughout this he apparently remained a optimist.

The documentary dates from 1989 and is in 1.33:1. Some of the source material is in poor condition and the documentary itself displays all the flaws associated with an 18 year old film but, despite this, it is engaging viewing. The film also features interviews with some of the stars he worked with, including an impossibly tanned Betty Hutton, and has Sturges relate a funny story about accepting his only Oscar. When he took the statuette he joked to the audience that Preston Sturges was unable to make it and he had come in his stead. However few in the audience knew what Preston looked like and most believed that the acceptee was a ring-in. Sturges rued the fact that he never got this chance again.

Audio Commentary

The commentary track is by Australian film critic Paul Harris. The genius of Sturges lies in quick wit and energetic performances and thankfully Harris does not fill the commentary with esoteric film theory or try to gild the Lilly. He presents the film as it is and draws out its strengths and weaknesses.

The overriding theme of the commentary is the great ensemble mood of the picture and hence he spends a great deal of time introducing and discussing all the cast right down to the smallest players. The only pity is that he finds himself running short at the end before he has given a summary of the careers of the leads. At times his wealth of knowledge about the world of Sturges is frightening in its depth.

This is a fun commentary which is definitely worth a listen. As an aside, Harris points out a strange moment where Sully and the girl are walking beside a lake. For reasons that are never explained there appear to be a pair of legs hanging in the trees. Creepy!

Theatrical Trailer

The trailer plays up the comedy of the film and also perhaps overstates the role of Veronica Lake.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

  Any consideration of the best version of this film on DVD begins and ends with the Criterion Collection edition which, as well as the features on the Region 4 DVD (not including the Australian critic commentary) there are:

Audio Commentary by Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean
Interview with director Preston Sturges' widow Sandy Sturges
Hedda Hopper radio interview with Preston Sturges
Archival audio recordings of Sturges singing his original composition "My Love" and reciting the poem "If I Were King"
Storyboards and blueprints
Production stills archive
Scrapbook of original publicity materials
Liner note essay on Sturges and Sullivan's Travels by Todd McCarthy

It also apparently sports a new digital transfer. For diehard fans of the film the Region 1 version is the one to buy.

Region 2 has a commentary by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame but no other extras.

Summary

Sullivan's Travels is classic Sturges combining trenchant wit and pratfalls with some delicious satire.

The film received an unadorned transfer to DVD however the source print is quite satisfactory in both sound and vision and will not disappoint any fan of Golden Age Cinema.

The extras are highly informative and a useful addition to the package.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DVR 630H-S, using Component output
DisplayPanasonic TH-50PV60A 50' Plasma. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080i.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX - SR603
SpeakersOnkyo 6.1 Surround

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