Combustible Celluloid
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With: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Margaret Hayes, Porter Hall, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore
Written by: Preston Sturges
Directed by: Preston Sturges
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 90
Date: 12/05/1941

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Comedy Is Not Pretty

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Forgotten for years along with its maker, writer/director Preston Sturges, Sullivan's Travels has only in the past couple of decades enjoyed a comeback and induction into classic status. It actually describes the same conundrum that's still going on in real life; that comedy doesn't get the same respect drama does. In the film, Joel McCrea plays a comic filmmaker who feels guilty about his lightweight pictures and wants to make a serious drama (called O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to capture the hearts of men.

He dresses as a hobo and hits the road to find out what real life is like. But along the way he meets lovely Veronica Lake, gets sidetracked, catches a cold, gets mistaken for dead, and winds up in jail. Only with things at their very lowest, in a truly wonderful scene, does the filmmaker realize the healing power of comedy. Many of Sturges' stock company, such as William Demarest and Eric Blore, are at their best.

Criterion's black-and-white DVD transfer, is of course, top notch, but the real treasure here is the commentary track by four other filmmakers, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest from This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, Noah Baumbach, the director of Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, and Kenneth Bowser, director of Frank Capra's American Dream. Though their tracks are recorded separately from one another, only four comedians and filmmakers who understand the film from within could come up with such welcome insights.

In 2015, Criterion released a new Blu-ray edition, which includes the same commentary track, plus several other extras from the original release: a 75-minute documentary on Sturges, an interview with Sturges' widow, a Hedda Hopper interview with Sturges, and audio recordings of Sturges. New features include a video essay by film critic David Cairns, featuring filmmaker Bill Forsyth. Critic Stuart Klawans provides a new liner notes essay. The video transfer makes it seem as if it's an actual projected film, and the monaural audio track is presented uncompressed.

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