Sullivan’s Travels, by Albert W. Vogt III

Today, I am reviewing a film called Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  In a few hours, I will be going to see John Wick: Chapter 4.  Though I have yet to see the latter, I cannot imagine two more different films.  I try to avoid comparisons because they are seldom useful.  Having said that, sometimes it is useful to put one up against another in order to take stock of how far Hollywood has come over the decades.  In the time of Sullivan’s Travels, which is the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of film, movies could have substance and charm, and that would be enough to get people into the cinema.  These days, as I am sure I will witness with yet another entry in the nearly unbearable John Wick saga, motion pictures rely on titillation to get butts in seats and stuffing their faces with popcorn.  This may seem obvious, but it makes films made these days that are more similar to Sullivan’s Travels stand out, which is number sixty-one on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list.

The title character in Sullivan’s Travels is well-known Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea).  He, along with his studio heads, are viewing the first cut of his latest film.  While they are mixed about the production, he is dissatisfied.  The movie he wants to make is O Brother, Where Art Thou?  In the movie it is based on a book that does not exist in real life, though it was the inspiration for the 2000 movie of the same name.  At first, the heads poopoo the idea, even when John protests his seriousness.  They tell him that he does not have the frame of reference to make a picture about the downtrodden.  This only emboldens him to take drastic measures to get that experience.  This means leaving behind the trappings of wealth and prosperity to don the accoutrement of a tramp and wander about the countryside with only ten cents in his pocket.  Things were different in these days.  The studio bosses are horrified by this prospect, but John’s mind is made up.  The compromise they come to is to let him walk down the road while the staff follows behind in a luxury bus.  Eventually, he manages to lose the bus and its occupants, agreeing to meet up with them in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, his first night as a tramp he falls into the clutches of a mad woman who offers him labor in exchange for room and board, and apparently is hoping for more.  In his escape, he ends up back in Los Angeles.  Stepping into a diner, he meets the Girl (Veronica Lake).  She is never given a name in the film, but she does buy his meal.  In exchange, he offers to give her a ride out of town, which she is seeking to do after failing to make it as an actress.  At the moment, John is keeping his real identity a secret, even though she wonders how someone of his supposed means can have access to such a nice car.  This is all derailed when they get pulled over by the police, and John admits to his true identity.  Still, she has taken a liking to him, so much so that she offers to go with him in his next attempt to live the life of a tramp.  Though he is reluctant, he relents and they board a boxcar leaving on a freight train out of town.  From here, they seem to settle into a pattern of living the life of homeless people, eating in soup kitchens and sleeping in community boarding homes on the floor.  The last straw comes when they contemplate eating out of a garbage can, and John terminates their experiment.  During this time, a bond has formed between the two.  Yet, they cannot marry because John is wed to another.  To this point, you do not see much of Mrs. Sullivan (Jane Buckingham).  They had gotten hitched, on the advice of his business manager, for tax purposes, which is a special kind of horrible.  While John promises to do whatever he can for his traveling partner, they cannot be together as they truly want.  Thus, he is about to get on a plane with the Girl to take her home when, the night before, he goes out to give five-dollar bills to the indigent population of Los Angeles.  Despite being dressed in his tramp clothes, you can guess a guy walking around passing out money might attract some unwanted attention.  Predictably, he is knocked on the head and thrown into a box car that takes him far away.  Meanwhile, the Girl and the rest at the studio begin a search when John does not turn up the next day.  Their dread turns into sorrow when a search of the morgues brings the discovery of a John’s driver’s license on an otherwise unrecognizable course.  They assume that John is dead.  Meanwhile, when John awakens and stumbles out of the train, his disorientation leads him to assault the yard’s security man.  He cannot fully remember who he is, and he is forced to serve time on a chain gang. When he does remember, it is too late, and he is sentenced to six years.  The work is brutal, but he tries to go along with it as best as he can.  Yet, one day he notices a newspaper proclaiming his death.  This gives him the idea of confessing to his own murder, which works because they do not have any suspects.  Doing so gets his face in the paper, and he is brought home.  To his now ex-wife’s fury, he is now free to move on with his life with the Girl.

I have been thinking throughout the course of this day what I would like to say about Sullivan’s Travels from a Catholic perspective.  It is not that there is little inspiration in this department, far from it, actually.  For one thing, I admire his desire to walk with the poor and destitute in order to better understand their plight.  I know of Catholic youth groups that each year spend a night living with the homeless.  It changes the hearts of those who do so for the better, which is particularly important when you understand that Jesus is always with people in this station in life.  To be clear, He is with all of us, but such people have a special place in His heart.  There is also the well-intentioned, though ill-advised, action of giving out money.  That is a corporal act of mercy.  I also appreciate the Girl’s dedication to John.  At one point, she tells John that wherever he is, that is also where she wants to be.  The disciples say the same thing to Jesus, and it is such a pure expression of love that it could make any heart melt.  Finally, there is a scene that I did not describe in the synopsis.  Towards the end, while John is still on the chain gang, the prisoners are invited to a local African American church where they watch Disney cartoons.  At first, John cannot understand why everyone is laughing, but before too long he is chuckling along with the rest.  You know the old saying about laughter being the best remedy?  It is a grace to be able to have such mirth in the midst of suffering.  It takes away bitterness, which often leads to worse feelings.  Some of my favorite images of Jesus are of him laughing.  This is something we tend to not think about when thinking about Faith: that God has a sense of humor, and that it can be used bring one closer to Him.  What John realizes at the end is that it is a more effective tool for uplifting people than whatever socially conscious film he had been contemplating.

Sullivan’s Travels, speaking of humor, is pretty consistently funny throughout.  The depictions of African Americans in it may not be the most dignified, but part of this is my problem.  I cannot see such things without a subtext running through my brain born of my experiences in higher education.  Either way, you should watch this one.


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