Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The importance of being funny: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Actor Joel McCrea as Sullivan
Raj Kapoor in Shree 420

In writer-director Preston Sturges’ film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Sullivan, a young, successful Hollywood film director (played by Joel McCrea) takes to the road by foot, in rags that he borrows from the studio’s costume department, to discover for himself what poverty is so that he can return with aplomb to make his dream project, a cinematic treatise on poverty.

In his tramp-like outfit, complete with a poignant-looking bundle hanging from a stick over his shoulder—very Chaplinesque—Sullivan verily resembles, in the Indian context, Raj Kapoor in Shree 420 (1955), who, in the beginning of the film, in ill-fitting attire, is pitted against the open landscape as he sets out on foot to Bombay. However, while Raj is really an impoverished tramp who plans to make it big in Bombay, and is all alone in the world, Sullivan, who is anything but impoverished and alone, plans to make a big social statement, and has an entourage following in a truck—this at the insistence of his producers who want him to stay safe. Sullivan is hell-bent on making a grand film on indigence, much to the chagrin of his shrewd producers who wish that Sullivan would stick to his trademark comedies, which make people laugh and rake in the profits.

In the character of Sullivan, an eager beaver for social realism in cinema, Sturges was caricaturing the contemporary trend of filmmakers trying, perhaps, a bit too hard to portray the grim realities of post-Depression America—this at the expense of the comic aspect inherent in human experience, regardless of what the tragedy might be. Sturges frowned upon the tendency to deliberately banish or expunge laughter in the name of social realism. Indeed, even in life’s starkest moment, there is something of the humorous, just as there is something stark in the most comically absurd situation. Sullivan—who wants, first-hand, to savor poverty, hunger, homelessness, joblessness, indignity, and despair, among other misfortunes—has the zeal of the immature on a mission at hand. Although Sullivan is earnest and sincere in acquainting himself with the hardships of the unfortunate, he is misguidedly, naively, and patronizingly so, as Sturges shows.

Actress Veronica Lake as "The Girl" is kind to Sullivan
Himself a master of the comedy genre, Sturges makes the viewer laugh at the irony of Sullivan imposing himself upon poverty, with not much success initially, and with a comic timing in the form of slapstick as the protagonist bumbles his way along in the first half of the film. Although Sullivan makes a deal with the entourage to just leave him alone for a while so that he can authentically lose himself in the world out there, he is strikingly inept at itinerancy, as he unfailingly ends up right back in Hollywood, in the midst of the familiar. Disheveled, disgusted with his inability to experience hardship, and with ten cents in his pocket, he meets a girl (Veronica Lake, referred to in the film as “The Girl”) at a lunch wagon, a frustrated extra in Hollywood, on the verge of quitting her dreams of making it big in the movies. She is kind to him—she buys him ham and eggs—and he commiserates with her on her rotten luck. Later, he tells her who he really is and she is adamant about joining him as a fellow hobo.

A clumsy pair of tramps
Together, Sullivan and The Girl make a clumsy, inexperienced pair of tramps as they struggle to court hardship the hard way. Sullivan’s enterprising butler even calls the train station to find out if freight trains carry tramps, and, if so, where the tramps could get on. This information procured, the tramps are dropped off near the tracks, where a freight train is shortly to pass by. They maladroitly climb into the moving freight train, into a compartment filled with hay, nearly breathless by the exertion, in sharp contrast to the deft climb of the professional hobos around them. The latter look on wryly, and as one burly hobo sums it up: “Amateurs.” Sullivan’s attempt at a friendly conversation starting with “So what do you think of the labor situation?” is met with disdain by the hobos who simply walk out. As Sullivan settles in, he tells his companion “Let’s just sit here and try to feel like a couple of tramps.” This is followed by a sneezing session as the novice hobos battle with the hay.

The impoverished crowd at the freight yard
Ready to clamber into the moving freight train
Sturges presents the gulf between the haves and the have-nots in his characteristically comic vein, which does not detract from the starkness of social realism. In fact, the comic element of the advantaged Sullivan sticking out like a sore thumb in the impoverished crowd underscores the social reality that it is only the poor who know what it is to be poor. It is they who climb into moving freight trains with practiced ease; it is they who sleep peacefully anywhere; it is they who, inured to hardship, grow a callus, in a boorish sort of way.

At one point, finally, Sullivan’s “noble experiment” takes off, with Sturges filming this sequence in the form of a silent musical interlude, almost an ode to Chaplin. We see the face of poverty: huts and slums; wrinkled faces and unkempt beards; overcrowded shelters and public showers; communal eating and sleeping; garbage dumps and empty expressions. The experiment is at last over and Sullivan returns to Hollywood with his companion, ready to make his picture.

Sullivan sees the headline of his own death
When, in gratitude to the poor folks he has spent time with, Sullivan returns to the scene of poverty one last time to distribute dollar bills, he is hit unconscious and pushed into a moving freight train by a beggar who steals the money. This is the same beggar who had earlier stolen Sullivan’s boots (that have his studio identity card sewed inside). An oncoming train kills the beggar and, going by the identity in the boots, the next day the newspapers report Sullivan’s mysterious death at the train tracks. In a twist to the narrative, Sturges has Sullivan taste what the latter had all along been looking for: hardship, the real way. Sullivan wakes up in the moving freight train with a severe headache, battered and confused. When the train pulls into the freight yard, he gets off and is accosted by a railroad officer for trespassing. Sullivan, who temporarily cannot remember who he is, pelts the officer with a stone, for which he is arrested and sentenced to six years of hard labor. It is only after he is inside the prison that his memory of who he is comes back to him. But it is too late and no one believes that he is a famous Hollywood director. By chance, when he sees a newspaper with the headline of his own death, he realizes what exactly has happened, but to no avail.

In fetters, and forming a sad sort of line
Laughter in the dark

A Sunday brings some respite in the lives of the prisoners, who are treated to a picture show at a nearby church. Faces downcast, the prisoners come in their fetters, in twos, forming a sad sort of line as they walk up the aisle to their seats in the front three rows, reserved for them. The lights dim, the projector rattles, and the screen comes alive with a Disney cartoon, filling the church with laughter. As Mickey Mouse and Pluto goof around, the prisoners laugh away in the dark, unbound, temporarily free from the sordidness of life. To his surprise, Sullivan catches himself laughing as well. This laughter is a revelation to the film director who has so far believed in the moral superiority of social realism to comedy.

Sullivan, determined to set himself free, declares himself to be the murderer of Sullivan, the Hollywood director. The plan works, and photos of the confessor are splashed in all the newspapers. The Girl and the producers rejoice that Sullivan is alive, and he is freed. Excited about Sullivan’s pet project on poverty, his producers give him the green signal. 

Laughter in the dark in Shree 420
Sullivan, though, has had a change of mind. Watching hardened men roll hysterically at antics onscreen has somewhere touched a nerve in Sullivan who realizes that laughter in the dark is all that some people have in their caged lives. On a comparable note, there is a scene in Shree 420, where the poor folks in the bustee, or the slum, yet another day of their difficult lives over, tell Raj the newcomer that their own lives are very sad, and so they want to hear him narrate something entertaining. Raj lightens the darkness of the night (and of their lives) with the lively “Dil ka haal suney dilwaala” number with his dafli, or tambourine. As he regales the audience with his comic mannerisms, the bustee people shut themselves off for a while by escaping into Raj’s story—which despite its sad undertones, engrosses them and makes them laugh. 

In what can unequivocally be ranked as one of the best last lines ever in cinema, Sturges has Sullivan say, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” As Sullivan decides to make another comedy, it seems that the genre cannot, after all, be discounted.

Disclaimer: My screencaps from the films are used for academic/discussion purposes only.


  1. This is a great review, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I think I am going to try and check out the movie. Thanks for introducing it to me.

  2. Thank you for the appreciation. I quickly checked out your blog: it is awesome!