Sullivan’s Travels (dir. Preston Sturges, 1941)

by Christopher B. Barnett

The great American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, have long been interested in the question of what it means to be an artist. However, this theme has been at the very core of their last two films — Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). The latter work attends to cinematic art in particular, and it probes the ambiguity of making films, from the hypocrisy of movie stars to the medium’s tendency to lapse into shallow, mindless entertainment. And yet, as Hail, Caesar! concludes, the Coens seem to land on a position: whatever the flaws of cinema, the world is better off with films than without them. Might as well pull up a chair and enjoy!

Doubtless, it is a thesis of which Preston Sturges would’ve approved. During his career peak, he was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated (and well compensated) auteurs, and he won a screenwriting Oscar for The Great McGinty (1940). Yet it is Sullivan’s Travels — a film centering on the failed attempt to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a title later repurposed by the Coen Brothers — that stands as Sturges’ most enduring work. That significance should be ascribed to Sullivan’s Travels is more than a little ironic, since the film is commonly interpreted as a dig at self-serious Hollywood “message pictures.” Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a director of popular yet vacuous comedies. Young, rich, and marketable, Sullivan is nevertheless unhappy, since his films are profitable at the expense of socially conscious themes. But, as Sullivan’s studio bosses ask, what does he know about poverty, loneliness, and heartbreak? Thus he resolves to acquaint himself with human misery and leaves his California mansion to ride the rails.

It is a plan fraught with difficulty, and eventually Sullivan comes to know more about hardship than he bargained for. But it is precisely here — in the film’s best and most poignant scene — that Sturges undermines his protagonist’s quest. Jailed and now forgotten by those who once lauded him, Sullivan and his fellow prisoners are hosted by an African-American church, where the pastor (Jess Lee Brooks, in a timeless scene) welcomes them with a rendition of “Go Down Moses.” And yet, just after this moment of sublime sympathy, the prisoners are treated to a Disney cartoon:

Here Sullivan comes to learn a profound lesson — that laughter can also help the poor and the outcast or, more precisely, that laughter is more beneficial than po-faced pontificating about “causes” and the like. Hence, when Sullivan is finally released from jail, he resolves to return to Hollywood and to resume his career in comedy.

It’s an ending that has been read as a validation of Sturges’ own vocation, and that may very well be true. However, it bears a wider and more ambiguous meaning as well. To be sure, one might wonder if Sturges is implying that all comedy is inspired work? Could we apply his premise, say, to Jackass: The Movie (2002)? Such questions get to the very core of the nature of comedic art — questions that date back to Plato (who generally warned against comedy) and Aristotle (who generally commended it).

What’s more, in linking Christian charity with comedy and laughter, Sullivan’s Travels makes a provocative theological point. Yes, a key aspect of Christian discipleship concerns the so-called corporal works of mercy, e.g., feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and so on. But there are also spiritual works of mercy, and, rightly done, comedy would seem to have a role here. After all, laughter provides comfort to those who are sorrowful, and the heart of Jesus’ message is, in the end, “good news.” (The English word, “gospel,” comes from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning “good message.”) Thus Sturges’ intuition to situate Sullivan’s redemption in a church is not incidental but, rather, critical to his overall point. Comedy’s most basic impulse — to make people happy — finds its footing in the salvific work of the Body of Christ.