The Great Movies Series at the Severna Park Library: Sullivan's Travels (1941)
I’ve been home from Noir City 17 for several days, but in trying to get caught up at work and at home, I’ve had little time for writing. I’m still working on my Noir City report, but wanted to post a brief rundown of last night’s Great Movies event.
I showed Sullivan’s Travels (1941) to an audience at the Severna Park Library that (with a few exceptions) had never seen the film. Looking it over again earlier this week, I was concerned that the shift in the film’s tone would be off-putting to my audience. If you’ve never seen the film, I’ll try to give you a spoiler-free run-down of the story:
Movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is tired of making light comedies and instead wants to make a film depicting the life of the downtrodden in America. Against the studio’s wishes, Sullivan decides to experience the plight of the downtrodden by posing as a hobo and traveling across the country. During this adventure (or misadventure, as the case may be), he meets a young actress (Veronica Lake) who has given up on acting and is simply ready to go home. At this point, the shenanigans really start, but the film soon takes a decidedly different tonal direction, one I wasn’t sure the audience would appreciate.
As one audience member pointed out during our discussion after the film, Sullivan’s Travels borrows some (mostly comedic) elements from Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), yet turns very dark. Some commented on that darkness as far as the representation and treatment of the downtrodden, but I was surprised to discover that many audience members picked up on the darkness of the movie industry itself. For instance, Veronica Lake’s character (referred to only as “the girl”) was (and probably still) serves as an “everywoman,” representing uncounted actresses who dreamed of Hollywood stardom and awakened to the fact that those dreams were never going to materialize. The Hollywood executives are only interested in one thing: making money. If comedies make money, make ‘em. If, for some unknown (to them) reason social commentary films work, make ‘em.
Another viewer pointed out that they were uncomfortable with the treatment of African-American characters (particularly the cook) in the first half of the film, yet the later scene in the African-American church was far different and quite powerful. This viewer couldn’t understand the difference in how African-Americans were represented, but another viewer mentioned that as Sullivan comes to his revelation, perhaps this was Sturges’s way to having his audience come to their own revelation about race in America.
Yet another asked the question of whether Sturges subverted his own premise in the film by Sullivan’s revelation. (Again, no spoilers, so I can’t go into details. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand what I mean.) I think the genius of Sturges comes into play in that he’s able to pull off the nearly impossible feat of delivering an entertaining comedy and equally effective at delivering a social commentary that’s undiminished by the film’s comedic elements.
As I normally do, I thanked the audience for coming out to see a movie in a group, and sticking around afterward to discuss it. That sharing of opinions, feelings, and questions is what makes our library movie events so enjoyable and memorable. If you live in the Baltimore/Washington DC area, I hope you’ll join us every first Thursday. And if your local library isn’t showing movies to the public, talk to a librarian and see if that’s possible. Seeing movies together as a group and discussing them. That’s what keeps cinema alive.
(We screened the Criterion Blu-ray edition of Sullivan’s Travels through a digital projector with a sound system.)