When the Oscar-bait movies come rolling in, lamenting life’s misery, do they actually help anyone? Not really. Making movies about how crappy life is might gratify the filmmakers, and might please critics and film buffs if the movies are any good, but they seldom if ever effect any change. Documentaries like The Thin Blue Line sometimes do, and occasionally a narrative film like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang will stir things up. But mostly, movies about the grim dark side are just a stylish wallow meant to impress some unseen teacher, the way we used to show off our earnestness in high-school position papers. They certainly don’t do much to help or comfort the people whose tragic lives are reflected onscreen.
Preston Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels states its welcome thesis very early on, when the pompous director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) voices his desire to make films that comment on social ills and global horrors. The studio bigwigs call him on this immediately — “What do you know about trouble? When was the last time you ate out of a garbage can?” Besides, people know very well how screwed up the world is — they go to the pictures to get away from all that. (Would that these studio execs had been around when all those well-meaning flops about the Iraq War were pitched.)
For whatever reason, Sullivan isn’t discouraged; rather, he decides to go out and live the life of a bum, to gain real experience which he can then put into his agonizingly relevant new picture, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Some of what follows is picaresque farce, in keeping with the title’s debt to Jonathan Swift. Sullivan meets a wannabe actress (Veronica Lake), who tags along with him during his mostly unsuccessful attempts to get out of Hollywood and onto the road. Lake is pleasantly unassuming — neither a sex bomb nor a wide-eyed ingenue — and she has an easy rapport with McCrea (who reportedly didn’t care for her offscreen).
In the third act, Sturges shifts gears into surprisingly stark drama. Presumed dead, Sullivan finds himself serving a six-year sentence at hard labor. The shift isn’t hypocritical, though, because the satire remains; we’re not really asked to take Sullivan’s new suffering seriously, though we feel for the men around him who don’t actually have a mansion with a swimming pool back in Hollywood. It all leads to a superb scene at a Negro church, notable for its day for depicting black people as dignified human beings and not just comic relief. (There is, however, a pop-eyed Negro cook earlier in the film, though the fact that he appears in the movie’s Hollywood section might be part of the point; out in the real world, Sullivan encounters real black people with real lives.) In this church, where a Disney cartoon is shown to the parishioners and the visiting prisoners, Sullivan realizes that the studio philistines, damn them, have a point.
I often wonder if people who complain about the popularity of movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua during times like this have ever seen Sullivan’s Travels. When things suck, people don’t want to peel off $10 to go see further proof that things suck. They want to laugh. True, we could wish that the default pressure valves of comedy weren’t crap like Four Christmases. But stupid sight gags are as old as theater, and when Sullivan joins the audience in laughing at Pluto getting stuck to fly paper repeatedly, it’s not much different from whatever puerile junk is letting people forget for a couple hours that they got laid off on Christmas Eve and the baby’s sick and they don’t have health insurance any more. Sullivan’s Travels is not remotely a defense of junk, but it does respect comedy as a force for escapism, and it does roll its eyes at would-be makers of Art chasing after prestige and Meaning. And to complete the satirical cycle, it winds up saying something about social ills and world horrors after all.