Review: Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels,” Starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in
Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” That’s the thesis spoken by the main character of Sullivan’s Travels. In this film, writer and director Preston Sturges grapples marvelously with how a filmmaker can justify making light comedies—like his own The Lady Eve—with, as his surrogate in the film declares, “the world committing suicide.”

That surrogate is John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a successful director fed up with the hit comedies he’s made. He wants to make “something that would realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is,” to which one executive interjects, “with a little sex in it.” Sullivan specifically wants to adapt O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a fictional book whose title the Coen brothers would later take for their 2000 film), a story of “tramps, lockouts, sweatshops, people eating garbage in alleys and living in piano boxes and ash cans.”

Before he can make the film honestly, however, Sullivan realizes that he—having lived a life of privilege—needs to experience what that life is really like. Much to the dismay of the executives at his studio, Sullivan dons some hobo clothes from the costume department and heads out on the open road to find out “what trouble is.” Along the way, he meets an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) who joins him on his journey—as Sullivan later says, “there’s always a girl.” Only once Sullivan actually finds “trouble” does he come to understand the value of his work, and the arrogant nature of his whole endeavor. Before he starts his journey, his butler (Robert Greig) tries to tell him that “the poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.”

The fourth comedy Sturges directed rapidly at Paramount, of Sullivan’s Travels he wrote in his autobiography that he conceived the movie as a reaction to his colleagues. “After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy-directors which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.”1

Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea and Preston Sturges on the set of "Sullivan's Travels"
Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea and Preston Sturges on the set of “Sullivan’s Travels”

He cast the ever-reliable Joel McCrea as his leading man, and took a risk on Veronica Lake, who had just made a dent in the industry with her supporting turn in I Wanted Wings. “For some unexplainable, glorious and celestial reason, Preston Sturges suggested me for the part to Paramount’s brass,” Lake wrote in her autobiography. “‘NO!’ That was the initial response. ‘She’s a great siren but no comic. Sultry, yes. Funny, no.’ But Sturges persisted. God bless him.”2 Sturges fought hard to get her in the film, and together they worked to help her develop as an actress. “I always gave terribly stiff reading of lines that I’d learned long in advance of the day’s shooting,” Lake wrote.3 They decided to try a few days where she would wait to look at her lines until just before shooting, and it worked. “Don’t ever walk on my set knowing anything about your lines or scenes,” Sturges told her.4

“I didn’t for the rest of the film and for most of the other films I worked in,” she wrote.

She also neglected to tell him or anyone at Paramount that she was pregnant, with the film set to wrap about a month before the baby was due. Once she finally told him, a furious Sturges spent lots of time with his crew figuring out how to hide the bump. It was worth it however, because her witty detached performance is perfect—much better than every film she made later—and she found it “a joy to make. Preston Sturges displayed absolute genius.”5

Sturges’ most obvious form of genius is his writing—after all, he spent a decade as a writer before he started directing in 1940. The dialogue crackles here in a way few other writers today can match, and his balancing of comedy and drama puzzled critics because it was so ahead of its time. There’s also the ways he pokes fun at the industry, with references to Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra, and his understanding of the entire town’s perception of their superiority. His entire cast is superb, as always—including Sturges’ regulars, William Demarest, Harry Hayden, Arthur Hoyt, Torben Meyer, Jimmy Conlin, Eric Blore, George Anderson, and many more. Then there’s Sturges’ filmmaking ability, which he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for. Near the start, there’s a long take that makes The Revenant look bad; as Lake describes, it was “one of the fastest in feature film production. We did 390 feet in one continuous take. It included 95 separate speeches, 1,121 words and three actors—McCrea, Robert Warwick and Porter Hall. Hall had to give every speech in the film with a cigar in his mouth and went through 121 cigars during the shooting.”6 That scene is peak Sturges, in a movie that might be his best work.

Yet the film was met with a mixed reception, one Sturges seemed to, sadly, come to agree with. “One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy,” Sturges wrote. “And another wanted to know what the comic passages were doing in this drama. They were both right, of course.” He also felt he had failed when it came to the ending, writing that “the ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story. It would have been very easy to make a big finish either way, but one would have defeated the other. There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it. It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did.”7

At least Lake lived long enough to see the film take on the substantially more esteemed reputation it has today. “It seems to be falling into that vague area of the film classic, and it pleases me greatly to see this particular motion picture reach some plateau of critical acceptance. It at least gives me a running chance to be remembered for my best work, the secret dream of any actress.”8 She can rest easy: Sullivan’s Travels is today regarded as a classic, and one of the very best of 1942.

Additional research by Natalie Busch.

Where to Watch

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

Buy it on DVD / Blu-ray (Criterion)

For More on Sullivan’s Travels

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Preston Sturges, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 295.
2. Veronica Lake, Veronica (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), 83.
3, 5. Lake 1972, 87.
4. Lake 1972, 888.
6. Lake 1972, 90.
7. Sturges 1991, 295.
8. Lake 1972, 94.