Preston Sturges (1941)
ON CHRISTMAS NIGHT 2016, a truly punishing year, I sat in my brother’s living room. I was house- and dog-sitting and most importantly keeping Christmas with our elderly mom, who otherwise would have been alone with her nurse. My husband and I sat in front of a dying fire, dogs in sleepy heaps at our feet, cycling through the television channels, exhausted not just from the holiday but from the whole messy year.
My husband has often observed that one test of an excellent movie is when you land on it while flipping channels and pause to watch the present scene, thinking: Oh, this is a great scene, I’ll just watch this scene. Then the next scene comes on, and you think: Oh, wait, this is a great scene. I’ll just watch this one, too. Then the next strikes you the same way and you end up watching the whole movie for the hundredth time. A great film is a succession of great scenes.
This is what happened to us on Christmas night. We were both sunk in that strange, lonely, anticlimactic, unavoidably wistful mood that Christmas night can suddenly slam you with. Both devotees of classic Hollywood black-and-white movies, we turned to TCM. The film in progress was Sullivan’s Travels, written and directed by Preston Sturges in 1941.
I personally find all Preston Sturges movies immensely satisfying. Without necessarily having anything to do with the holidays, there’s something festive about how romantic, deliciously witty, and plain beautiful these films are. They’re crammed with eccentric characters, improbable plots, fabulous dialogue, and dazzling movie stars—dazzling in the way only the stars of the thirties and forties can be. Even on our digital-age televisions, the luscious, dreamy black-and-white photography and sleek deco interiors are endlessly romantic and soothing to me. I feel like a little kid with exactly the toy I wished for. I have had the thought, when looking at great paintings of scenes from the Bible in medieval European churches, that the saints on those walls were to the poor in feudal society almost like movie stars were in the Depression: larger than life, luminous, stories and characterizations that lifted people up out of their worries as they sank into that afternoon’s feature.
Christmas night, the scene that caught us up was the incomparable moment when Veronica Lake’s character (known only as “the girl”) meets Sullivan (Joel McCrea) for the first time. It’s cinematic chemistry of the first order. McCrea is lanky and cranky and unsentimental, an uncluttered actor—eternally contemporary and believable. Ms. Lake is tiny, but with a husky, knowing voice, her famous silky hair hiding half her face. She is unflappable as she quips with her tall, masculine co-star, whom she takes for a down-and-out. We know, but she doesn’t, that Sullivan is actually a famous Hollywood director. His movies are known to be cheesy, money-making comedies, but he’s desperate to make an “important film,” one that reveals human suffering on a grand scale. He wants to move people to feel for their fellow man, for the downtrodden. (His planned title is O Brother, Where Art Thou?—which the Coen Brothers would borrow decades later, in a grand gesture to the spirit of this movie.) In order to make an authentic movie, Sullivan decides he must dress and live as a homeless man, so that he can experience firsthand what so many suffered in the Depression. Until he does, he’s just a Hollywood phony.
Lake is dressed, adorably, in her best audition garb, and naturally assumes she is better off than Sullivan. But as they drink their coffee, she explains she’s run out of hope and money and will have to hitch her way home from Hollywood:
the girl: My next act will be an impersonation of a young lady
going home. On the thumb.
sullivan: In that outfit?
the girl: How about your outfit?
sullivan: Well, I mean, have you got a car?
the girl: No, have you?
sullivan: No, but…
the girl: Then don’t get ritzy.
Between them they don’t have enough money for breakfast, but the owl-wagon guy (“owl-wagons” were apparently all-night diners) can’t help but give in and hand them each a “sinker” (a donut). It’s the second act of generosity in the scene.
The next scene reveals Sullivan’s identity as a film director and his determination to experience a harsh existence he’s never had to live before. Even though we sense that her character has struggled and doesn’t need to go slumming to know what it is to feel down-and-out, she insists that she come along on his travels.
By then my husband and I had surrendered. Almost every scene in the film prompts an Oh, this is great. Let’s just watch this one, too. Without deciding to, we were watching till the end, again.
I have a pang of envy for anyone reading this who has yet to see the movie for the first time. So as not to impeach that experience, I will not entirely give away the plot. Suffice it to say that Sullivan has extraordinarily bad luck and experiences far deeper depths than he’d imagined possible. Poverty and trouble are no longer a romantic notion, but a horrible plague to be avoided at all costs. In a climactic scene, at his bleakest, most wretched moment, he has a revelation.
He’s in a backwoods church, where a poor, black congregation generously makes room in the pews so that some forgotten, presumably despicable convicts may watch a movie with them, projected on a sheet hung up in front of the altar. Sturges’s movies date from a time when it was normal to see segregation, and audiences thought nothing of it. But in this instance, the churchgoers offer their seats to chained, dehumanized, broken prisoners, many of them white. That night’s movie is a Mickey-Mouse-style cartoon, full of broad slapstick and simple sight gags. Sullivan watches the audience in the little church united in the experience of being transported by cinema. Sheltered together in the dark church, watching the bright, lively images projected on the screen, they are finally able to experience a moment of pure joy, and it truly feels holy. It is not by happenstance that Sturges has the scene take place in a church.
Then Sturges cuts to outside the church, the light of the projector flickering in the little window and the sound of laughter echoing out into the country night, far from Hollywood’s creamy art-deco mansions, swimming pools, and swanky convertibles.
So Sturges does, in Sullivan’s Travels, what Sullivan wanted to do: make a big, important film that makes its audience feel for the downtrodden, a film about suffering and empathy and generosity and human kindness. But it’s also a film about films and about how movies are an invaluable balm to the human spirit. Finally, it’s an authentic film. It’s not trying to be important or literary or have a message, but it is totally convincing by virtue of great acting, great writing, and glorious black-and-white celluloid. It’s truly a film worthy of a Christmas night, a film that allows one to experience the magical, uplifting, almost supernatural grace of cinema.
J. Smith-Cameron has acted for more than thirty years in television, film, and theater. Like everyone, she likes movies, but she loves great ones. She loves to read and write about them, too.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.