Written and directed by Preston Sturges, who revolutionized the American movie comedy, it tells the story of a film director (Joel McCrea), who though rich and famous from making light comedies (like Ants in Your Pants 1939), longs to make movies of gravitas and social commentary. His studio handlers don’t want to hear that–his most recent film, a serious drama, died in Pittsburgh.
Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?
LeBrand: They know what they like!
Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!
Sullivan wants to make a movie about poverty in America, called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, that’s where the Coens got that title). The studio bosses convince him that he, who grew up privileged, kind of like Mitt Romney, hasn’t suffered enough to make such a picture. That backfires, though, when Sullivan announces he’s going to incognito as a tramp, with only ten cents in his pocket, to find out what suffering is about.
The genius of Sturges’ script is that it succeeds on two levels: first, it is a tribute to comedy, as Sullivan eventually learns that people living in hard times sometimes need to laugh to forget about their troubles. Comedy has always played second fiddle to drama in many people’s minds, even among those who make it. Woody Allen has always said that he wished he were a tragedian, and that those who make drama are sitting at the grown-up’s table. Secondly, though, it also reinforces the division between the haves and have-nots in America; while ninnies in Hollywood lounge around pools, others are barely making it in shantytowns.
The tone shifts from comedy to melodrama often, and at times not easily, but I think that’s the point. The first half hour is flat-out screwball, as Sullivan sets out in old clothes, but the studio has arranged for an entourage to follow him in a bus. When he tries to make a break for it, we get some well done slapstick with the bus racing after him, the inhabitants tossed about (with some wince-inducing laughs earned from a Stepin Fetchit-style black cook).
Late the film shifts to a sweet romance, as Sullivan meets a struggling actress (Veronica Lake), who teams up with him on his trip. Lake, who is one of my favorite of the old movie stars, was just a teenager when she made this film, her first starring role. She was unusually beautiful, but apparently difficult. McCrea passed on making another movie with her, citing “Life is too short to make another movie with Veronica Lake.” Read up on her to hear a typically sad story of failed romance, alcoholism, and madness that ended much too soon at age 51.
The film’s final third dispenses with comedy altogether. Through a series of unfortunate events, Sullivan ends up arrested and imprisoned to a chain gang. He can’t prove who he is, and everyone back in Hollywood thinks he is dead. It is when, as a member of the chain gang, that he attends a movie at the local black church (this expansive view of African-Americans almost makes up for the cook). When he sees how the Mickey Mouse cartoon brings a little life into the grim lives of the prisoners, he changes his tune. The closing line is “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
Now, the film doesn’t always work. For one thing, the cartoon isn’t that funny. It would have been nice if Sturges had gotten the rights to a Chaplin, Keaton, or Laurel and Hardy movie. I’ve never, even when I was a kid, laughed my assed off at a Disney cartoon. And though the film is incredibly audacious for 1941, it still seems to hold back, and can lean toward the corny and sentimental (at one point McCrea says, as if in defense, “What’s wrong with Capra?”).
But these are minor quibbles. The film is so rich, and Sturges such a good writer, that it continues to dazzle. The performances are good down to the minor, with several familiar faces, such as Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest (as a press agent, who’s given to say things like, “It will put Shakespeare back with the shipping news”), and two drolly brilliant turns by Robert Greig and Eric Blore as Sullivan’s British butler and valet. Greig gives a memorable speech about how those who are poor know all about being poor, and only the morbidly rich would find it a glamorous topic.
The movie also is chock full of marvelous whimsy, such as the lines: “What about gin rummy?” “I never touch the stuff.” Or this exchange, early in the film:
Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
The DVD from Criterion includes a documentary on Sturges. He was the first screenwriter to make the leap from writer to director, and at one time in the mid-40s he was the highest paid producer/director/writer in Hollywood. His success ended quickly, though. He also made some other outstanding comedies. The ones I’ve seen are The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story. His great rival as a maker of comedies in those days was Ernst Lubitsch, and Sturges gets an inside joke in when Lake, not knowing Sullivan is a director, and thinking he’s a hobo, jokingly asks him for a letter of introduction to Lubitsch.