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Sullivan's Travels (Blu-ray Review)

4 May, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest.

Over and over again, I’m surprised to hear that Preston Sturges’ inside-Hollywood masterpiece enjoyed only iffy box office at the time — and then I catch myself thinking (again, over and over), “Well, of course; that figures.” With occasional exceptions, the great unwashed have never been too interested in moviemaking machinations as gotta-see-it subject matter, and almost above everything else, Sullivan’s Travels is tailored to movie junkies (it’s almost a deity, in fact). I guess it was just an ingrained assumption for me that after I Wanted Wings launched her peek-a-boo haircut into an overnight sensation, the masses stormed the gates to see more of Veronica Lake’s blondeness in her first follow-up (the Pearl Harbor December after Wings’ March of ’41 launch).

It probably didn’t help that, then and now, Sullivan’s Travels is a strange movie of contradictions, just as Sturges was himself. And anyone who doubts the latter should check out Kenneth Bowser’s first-rate “American Masters” documentary — Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer — which Criterion has graciously included again on this Blu-ray upgrade from DVD (the British Blu-ray equivalent from Arrow features it as well). An artsy mother and a nuts-and-bolts businessman stepfather: perhaps this is all the formative tension that was needed to generate a filmmaker whose skills were both verbal and visual and also one who (in this case) juxtaposed some of its decade’s wildest screen slapstick with long passages devoted to Depression poverty. Of course, even the downbeat scenes were stylishly lit by early Billy Wilder cinematographer John F. Seitz, who was also valued so highly by Alan Ladd that he took Seitz along with him to other studios when the longtime superstar’s Paramount days were over.

Far too soon, alas, Sturges’ own Paramount days would run their course as well. It didn’t take long for new management to tire of one (thus, the “fall” in the documentary’s title) whose brass and talent launched him as history’s first hyphenated writer and director (though hadn’t Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur done the same as a team for a brief while?). But this said, it’s tough to imagine any studio of the day bankrolling such a personal project — and one with a split personality at that — about a filmmaker (Joel McCrea) so tired of churning out profitable ephemera for his studio that he dons hobo garb and takes to the road in a search to discover what life is all about. After an escalating tally of false starts, his travels enable him to cross paths with the ’41 Lake (whose screen persona at that time wasn’t a bad answer to that question) and enough serious material to abandon screen escapism altogether in the future if that’s what he ultimately chooses to do. On this second point, and without tempting spoilers too much, I think the wrap-up here is a little more ambiguous than is sometimes thought (just like Sturges himself).

The movie has at least two distinct moods, which is what throws some people — yet this is also what makes it worth so many viewings (whenever it’s over, I want to see it again). Sturges and McCrea were harmonious in real life to the tune of three screen collaborations, and Lake (excellent here as well) never seemed as relaxed on screen despite having been not a little pregnant during filming, an initially undivulged surprise that couldn’t have made Sturges’ day. Yet according to one of the commentaries here, Sturges and Lake got on well nonetheless, and it would be interesting to know if this were true. (Eddie Bracken — who in real life was quite fond of the studio’s “other” blonde, Betty Hutton — referred to her as “Moronica Lake.”)

A sharp essay by The Nation’s Stuart Klawans rounds out a lot of good material in the bonus section, which includes the documentary (which won a writing Emmy for the great Todd McCarthy), an interview with widow Sandy Sturges (a mere young-un when they married) and a new David Cairns video essay that features a where’s-he-been? Bill Forsyth. Another treat carried over from the earlier DVD is a commentary by documentarian Bowser, While We’re Young filmmaker Noah Baumbach plus (hold on) Christopher Guest and a constantly amused Michael McKean, whose tickled fancy here is infectious.  


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