Preston Sturges was a writer-director the like of which we haven’t seen since. He was a well-connected anarchist in a system that frowned on such tendencies – unless they made money. Directors such as Billy Wilder owed a great debt to him.
Sturges’s America was cheerfully corrupt, absurd and frequently unaware of its own ridiculousness, and his films were so high on comic dynamism that you could readily forgive the wayward lip service to logic.
His glory days were brief. Within 10 years of his directorial debut, The Great McGinty (1940), he was worn out, and he died bankrupt in 1959. But in his heyday he made half a dozen comedies as subversive as any now, and a good deal funnier. Sullivan’s Travels was probably his masterpiece.
It starts off with Joel McCrea’s Sullivan, a director of farces who wants to get serious with a script called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, being berated by studio bosses because he doesn’t know the meaning of the poverty that Brother talks about.
So he borrows a tramp’s outfit from the wardrobe department andtakes to the road, with a studio bus full of doctors, bodyguards and secretaries a discreet distance behind him. The more he tries to break away from Hollywood, the faster it comes towards him. After picking up a failed actress who says things like “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie for driving you into the open”, the rich man’s search for poverty ends in a fight with a policeman that has him incarcerated in a chain-gang.
In a key scene, he and the other convicts go to a black church hall, where the minister instructs his congregation to welcome those less fortunate. And together everyone roars with laughter at a Disney cartoon. Sullivan may not have found seriousness but at last he has found how valuable true comedy is.
Unconvincing as this may seem – and certainly sentimental – it is an unforgettable moment, perhaps telling us that the high art Sturges despised is worthless if merely inspired by middle-class guilt. Even if you don’t appreciate this defining sequence in the film, everything else gels perfectly: the ridiculous studio bus full of hangers-on trying to get Sullivan out of the scrapes he falls into, the butlers who object to the whole enterprise, the ghastly wife who thinks he’s dead and lays flowers on his supposed grave like a fashionable zombie.
Is the film serious underneath its hilarity? Perhaps not entirely, since Sturges, like Sullivan, never quite knew how to do it. But the way his assemblage of characters so often seem to realise their own failings at least betokens a sophisticated, perhaps kindly cynic. People have tended to say that Sturges’ films were as confused as he was. If that is so, long live abstracted directors, since they tend to see the world as it is rather than as we might wish it to be.