Writer-director Preston Sturges's third feature, 1941's Sullivan's Travels
, remains the antic auteur's most ambitious screen effort. Having added the producer's stripe to his duties, Sturges combines breezy romantic comedy, arch Hollywood satire, and social essay into a single, screwball story line.
The titular pilgrim is John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), an Ivy League grad who's enjoyed a meteoric rise as the director behind escapist movies like Ants in Your Pants of 1938, but is now determined to raise his sights toward more exalted, serious-minded cinematic art. His proposed breakthrough, portentously titled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, elicits a studio response closer to "Oh, brother," given the director's utter lack of first-hand experience on the wrong side of the tracks.
Instead of capitulating, Sullivan sets off disguised as a tramp, ready to meet life's crueler lessons face-to-face--albeit followed at a discreet distance by a motor home filled with studio handlers and reporters. His ludicrous odyssey may give the boy director no real insight, but it gives Sturges the chance to inject some reliably fine gags and a romantic subplot featuring the luminous Veronica Lake. It's at this juncture that Sturges the writer's darker objective throws a jolting shift in tone. Suffice it to say that just when a comic, upbeat denouement seems imminent, Sullivan travels instead from the sunlit California of the comedy's early reels toward a darker, relentlessly downbeat world influenced more by the social realism of the movies the hero desperately wants to make. By the final reel, Sturges has flirted with real tragedy, turning his conclusion into a meditation on his own seemingly carefree, dizzily comic art. --Sam Sutherland
This Criterion Collection DVD uses filmmaker Preston Sturges's best-known film as a springboard to assess the filmmaker's life. For the film itself, there's a sparkling transfer of the comedy and some cagey commentary by modern-day humorists Christopher Guest and Michael McKean (among others). There's just the right number of production stills, backstage photos, publicity materials, and some intriguing storyboards and blueprints of how the film was shot. Even better is the material on Sturges himself. Included are radio segments of Sturges reciting poetry, singing songs, and interviewing Hedda Hopper--the kind of stuff that falls through the cracks on many definitive DVDs. A new interview with Sturges's last wife, Sandy, fills in some key points of the filmmaker's later years. Yet the crown jewel of this disc is the 76-minute documentary that won an Emmy for writer-critic Todd McCarthy (Visions of Light
). "Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer" is an entertaining tale of Sturges's intriguing life and how he redefined, forever, the role of the screenwriter in Hollywood. --Doug Thomas