A steam locomotive barrels at high speed through the night, as two men desperately battle it out hand to hand until falling into a river. This turns into three men in a screening room watching this film. The director is unhappy, saying “I want to hold a mirror up to life.” He argues with the studio executives about what kind of films to make in troubled times. He wants to make a serious social commentary. The studio wants light, fluffy entertainment. The director decides to take off to travel, learning what problems common people have. Everyone is against it; even his butler argues that the poor don’t need serious movies. The studio threatens to sue him unless they can turn his travels into a publicity stunt. They follow in a luxurious camper, with cook and staff in tow. He tries to ditch the crew, but soon he gets into real trouble, first from a farm widow, and then he meets Veronica Lake in a diner. She becomes his guide and companion through the underside of life.
Sullivan’s Travels is one of the funniest films about film and the place of art in everyday life. It veers around, from slapstick to despair. You have seen some of this before: a kid driving hand-decorated car, prisoners watching a cartoon, even the title of the unmade film are all appropriated by the Coen Brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou? As the saying goes, “When you steal, steal from the best.” And Sturges’ film is one of the best comedies of the nineteen forties or any time.
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