Sullivan’s Travels Criterion Collection Blu-ray review
Before the lights can come up in the screening room, director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea, whose previous movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT) is underlining the important themes of his latest film. When he declares it “a picture of dignity,” the suits at the studio insist it could use a little more sex. Maybe he could do a musical instead, or something more along the lines of his previous efforts, which have titles like HEY, HEY, IN THE HAYLOFT and ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1939.
Sullivan has a desire to adapt O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but the executives, including Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick, who would appear both credited and uncredited in a number of Preston Sturges films), don’t think he’s experienced enough to make such a serious picture. Maybe, one suggests, he could make ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941. Instead, Sullivan announces he’ll go to wardrobe and stock up on hobo garb so he can go out in the world and learn about human suffering.
So Sullivan takes to the road, bindle in hand. Shortly after his quest begins, Sullivan meets a lovely platinum blonde (Veronica Lake, in one of her most iconic roles; she would later star in I MARRIED A WITCH and a number of films with Alan Ladd), who once failed in Hollywood and believes him to actually be homeless. After the ruse is exposed, she decides to team up with him.
While Sullivan’s travels are intended to give him the weight to greenlight a serious drama, they actually work to highlight just how powerful the films that he is trying to avoid can be; it’s why he can’t help but fall in with The Girl (perhaps the execs were right when they said a movie could always use some sex?), why so many instances of slapstick occur (how many people fall into Sullivan’s pool?) and why much of the film is built on absurd, unbelievable scenarios (no one can recognize Sullivan as a director and not a legitimate bum?). There is also the lovely moment where a group of men in a labor camp get their sole release from the 1934 Disney short PLAYFUL PLUTO, which causes them to erupt with laughter. (Indeed, the film is prefaced: “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 is directed by Sturges, whose finest works include 1940’s THE GREAT MCGINTY (the screenplay of which earned him his sole Oscar), 1941’S THE LADY EVE, 1942’s THE PALM BEACH STORY and 1944’s THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. He was one of the great classic Hollywood comedy directors, and SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is one of the great classic Hollywood comedies, perhaps his best achievement.
SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is a wildly amusing and intelligent film that serves as a love letter to silly comedies. After all, as Sullivan puts it, “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.”
Video: 1.37:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine film scanner from a 35 mm fine-grain at Universal Studios in Universal City, California, where the film was also restored.”
SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS has been cleaned up rather well, with fine details and strong contrast—although a keen eye will notice some remaining scratches. Grain is present throughout, but this will please purists.
Audio: English Mono. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 3 mm magnetic track made from the original 35 mm soundtrack negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube’s integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4.”
Dialogue is clean and the score plays nicely.
Audio commentary by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean: This 2001 commentary (featured on the initial DVD release) features the foursome discussing their love of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, the style of the film, director Preston Sturges and much more. An excellent and amusing track that illustrates the influence the film had on modern filmmakers.
PRESTON STURGES: THE RISE AND FALL OF AN AMERICAN DREAMER (1:15:13): This stellar Emmy-winning documentary, made for PBS’ AMERICAN MASTERS in 1990, looks at the life and work of Sturges.
Sandy Sturges (13:12): Sandy Sturges, who was married to the director at the time of his death in 1959, reflects on her one-time husband.
Ants In Your Plants of 1941 (17:19): This video essay features critic and filmmaker David Cairns and director Bill Forstyh sharing their love of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, which the former notes “may be his greatest film.”
Archival Audio: There are three pieces here: Sturges Talks to Hedda Hopper (4:10), Sturges Recites “If I Were a King” (1:18) and Sturges Sings “My Love” (1:37).
Also featured with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by critic Stuart Klawans.