Monday Matinee: Sullivan’s Travels

Rough day at work?  Need to forget your troubles for a few hours?  Sullivan’s Travels is escapist entertainment at its very best.  In this satire of super serious socially relevant films, which we have lots of today, you can soar to the 1940s and laugh.  …And I do mean LAUGH!

John L. Sullivan, a movie director, longs to make a socially relevant drama.  However he disocvers through both funny and serious misadventures that people often need not a long cry but a good laugh. This film was directed by the fabulous Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, Miracle at Morgan’s Creek) who was sick of socially relevant, preachy films.  Sturges felt they had, “abandoned the fun in favor of message.”

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Sturges wrote this unique film with Joel McCrea in mind from the very beginning.  Joel McCrea was an extremely hard worker and considered himself more of a rancher than an actor.  He starred in such classic films as The Most Dangerous Game, The More the Merrier, Foreign Correspondent, and another Sturges directed comedy The Palm Beach Story.  Later in his career he starred in a long string of successful westerns.

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McCrea could not comprehend that he was the only one ever considered for Sullivan.  “No one writes a script for me.  They write a script for Gary Coop, and if they can’t get him they use me.”  Sturges and McCrea got along famously and when production had wrapped McCrea gave Sturges a watch engraved, “For the finest direction I’ve ever had.”  McCrea loves Sturges’ work and Sturges made McCrea feel like the biggest star in Hollywood.  McCrea later said, “[Sturges] would spoil you if you wanted to be spoiled.  I didn’t want to be, but he treated me as though he had borrowed Gable from Metro.  He just felt that way.”  McCrea had such an enjoyable time making this movie that, “I would have given the money all back. I would have done it all for nothing.  [Sturges] was that easy to work with.  He never put pressure on us.  Not only not on me, but not on some little guy who some directors use as patsies, putting the pressure on for some reason we don’t know…  Preston Sturges never put the pressure on anyone, never.”

Veronica Lake plays “The Girl”.  Lake rose from a bit player making 75$ a week to raking in 4500$ a week at Paramount.  Her star shone brightest from 1941-1944 when she starred in This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, So Proudly We Hail, this film, and several others.  She is perhaps most remembered for her gorgeous, over one eye, blonde wavy hair.  The girl with the “peek-a-boo” bangs!  Her look was widely copied and so popular that during WW2 the U.S. government asked her to cut off her famous locks as an example for working woman whose long hair was getting caught in factory machinery.

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Amazingly, Veronica Lake was six months pregnant when production began on Sullivan’s Travels.  Rumor began to spread throughout the production company that she was expecting but she emphatically denied the idea.  Edith Head, the costume designer, and Preson Sturges wife were the only two involved with film who knew the truth.  The brilliant Edith Heath cleverly designed outfits to hide her pregnancy.  You can definitely still detect a tummy bulge in certain scenes if you’re looking for it though.  Because the role was physically demanding she was deathly afraid that this plum job would be taken and given to someone else if Sturges knew the truth.  When Sturges did find out well into filming he was furious and had to be physically restrained.  He called in a doctor to advise him if it would be safe to proceed with Lake.  The doctor felt that if they brought in a stunt double for a few of the falls and tumbles she would be fine.  They hired Cheryl Walker, former Tournament of Roses queen, as Lake’s stunt double.   Her little girl, Elaine Detlie, was born Aug 21, 1941, only one month after filming had wrapped.

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Veronica Lake was a complex person with a difficult personality.  She was not well liked on the set and Joel McCrea dreaded the thought of every working with her again.  When offered the lead in I Married a Witch with Lake he turned it down cold.  “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”

 

The film opened January 28, 1942 to mixed reviews.  Some critics felt the film was “brilliant” while others labeled it a “pretentious mistake”.  Sullivan’s Travels was largely forgotten in the ensuing decades.  It has been rediscovered and is now appreciated as a true classic and a comedy masterpiece.

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I love Joel McCrea in this film.  He is very good looking, sweet, and charming.  McCrea and Lake are very cute together and have a good onscreen chemistry even though we know that behind the scenes relationship was not so cozy.  This movie has so much plot progression.  Just when you think the story is winding down it delightfully pulls out another wonderful twist or turn.   This movie is just what audiences needed in the dark days of WW2 and just what we need today too.  Grab your special someone, your loving pet, boyfriend, wife, or stuffed bear and cuddle up for a CLASSIC film.

Rating: A+

Fun Facts

  • Barbara Stanwyck and Frances Farmer were both considered for the role of “The Girl”.
  • The author of “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” is Sinclair Beckstein a combination of the names Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck.
  • They Hays office objected to the use of the word “bum” in the script because of British sensibilities.
  • The U.S. Office of Censorship declined wartime export because of concerns that the brutal chain gang scenes could be used as enemy propaganda.
  • The opening 10 page scene involved 4 minutes of overlapping dialogue and was all shot in the first take.
  • In the scene were “The Girl” throws her hands up in surprise at finding Sullivan’s picture in the newspaper, Preston Sturges can be found in the background reading.
  • Ray Milland can be seen walking in the background when “The Girl” runs through the studio lot.
  • The secretary of the NAACP Walter White thanked Preston Sturges for his portrayal of African American’s in the church scene. He said it is a, “dignified and decent treatment of negroes in this scene…” and, “a step in the right direction.”
  • Sullivan’s Travels is listed 61st on The American Film Institute’s 2007 Greatest Movie list
  • Joel McCrea became a multi-millionaire from shrewd real estate investments.
  • Joel McCrea was considered one of the two best horsemen in Hollywood along with Ben Johnson who had been an actual cowboy.
  • Veronica Lake was very short, only 4’11”.
  • This was the sixth of ten films written by Preston Sturges with the wonderful character actor William Demarest.

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Click here to read another blogger’s review of the Sullivan’s Travels blu-ray release.

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