What I watched: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
How I watched it: rented DVD
Snacks: Popcorn and hard rootbeer
Synopsis: Director of profitable broad comedies wants to make a serious film about the state of the world during the Great Depression and against the wishes of his studio bosses goes on a research trip to see if he can’t discover what the plight of poverty is really like.
Why I watched: I watched this as part of the 1001-movies-to-see-before-you-die challenge. I was looking for a film set during the Depression and this one fit the bill.
Notes: This is a great example of Hollywood telling stories about itself, one of my favourite subgenres. Unfamiliar with either of the leads, (Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake) I had no other influences on the story than the characters created in the text.
If I was pushed into doing some very quick analysis: judging by some of the film’s promotional material, Lake’s womanly wiles prominently on display mean that her appearance as a young male hobo through much of the film is an ironic portrayal and played for comedy. This reminds me of Bette Davis’ role in Now, Voyager where you spend a portion of the movie waiting to see the glamourous Bette Davis upon being introduced to the plain spinster, Charlotte.
If you are looking for a scathing critique of Hollywood’s golden era of glamour, lavish spending and ludicrous wealth in the midst of the severe economic downturn gripping the rest of the world, you won’t find it here. The message of Sullivan’s Travels instead is that the moral duty of the Hollywood director during times of overwhelming strife is to make the audience smile and allow them to escape into another world for a short while.
Given the opening sequences of the film, I don’t think I’m coming across as too jaded by suggesting that instead perhaps the film’s message is that Hollywood will find any way of morally justifying the expense and continued production of the most profitable films.
Recommend: Yes, overall I liked it. I thought the writing was good, the comedy not overly slapstick-y and the romantic element sweetly underplayed (despite the movie posters). And it’s a great capsule of the period and includes some memorable iconography of both the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich.