I’ve always had a soft spot reserved in my heart for depression-era message yarns. You know the movies- the ones with bread lines, chain gangs and a not-so subtle message about the fragile state of the nation in 1930’s America. I have, and always will, consider them to be admirable pictures that depicted a stark, realistic picture of an America on the brink.
When I first sat down to watch “Sullivan’s Travels” I thought it would be one of those pictures. The movie begins in Hollywood, where director John L. Sullivan, famous for his light comedies and annual musical extravaganzas, decides to embark on a more important movie about human anguish. “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou” will be his ultimate masterpiece. He hatches a plan to go undercover as a vagabond to learn firsthand what it’s like to suffer. This decision sets him on a journey where he ultimately learns that sometimes all a person has is a light comedy or a musical extravaganza, or Mickey Mouse.
There are so many, many things about this movie that touched me, and changed my perception of movies and their importance in American life. Director Preston Sturges was known for his comedies, and this picture was advertised as such. But behind the comedic facade, this film also teaches us about oppression and poverty. Throughout the film, Sullivan encounters homeless families, desperation, starvation and hopelessness. Towards the end of the movie, after an unfortunate series of events, Sullivan finds himself in a southern prison camp, holed up most of the week in a sweat box. His only comfort is the one night when the prisoners are led to an African American church, where the prisoners join the congregation in watching cartoons and comedies. Sturges’ brilliant, subtle juxtaposition of the long-oppressed African Americans welcoming fellow oppressed peoples into their place of worship is one of the most powerful moments in the movie.
I’ve always enjoyed comedies, but until seeing this movie I never realized their importance. Ever since the first moving picture made its way onto the big screen, different audiences have sought different things from the movie-watching experience. Yes, many people wanted to see a realistic depiction of life, in all its gloom and sorrow. But perhaps most importantly, many people have sought refuge from normal life by going to the movies. During the depression, audiences flocked to see frivolous movies, cartoons and adventure pictures. That these films held the power to cheer up a disheartened and depressed public is reason enough to consider them some of the most important films ever made.
For years I’ve said that if I had to narrow down my thousands-long list of favorite movies to only four or five, Sullivan’s Travels would always make the cut. It isn’t just that it’s a great film, it is an important film. In this one motion picture, a moviegoer will learn about poverty, the brutal southern prison system in the early 20th century, the oppression of African Americans, and the importance of comedy.
Sullivan's Travels is available to rent on Amazon, here.
This post was originally published on my movie blog, Silents & Talkies.