Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Sullivan's Travels
Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake

'Sullivan's Travels' is a comedy film with a social message, made in 1941, written and directed by Preston Sturges and starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. It is a richly comic movie interspersed with some surprising passages of deeply moving drama. Although the movie was not immediately successful at the box-office and received a mixed critical reception on its release, it has since been recognised as one of Sturges's most remarkable films and is now regarded as a movie classic.

In 1990, 'Sullivan's Travels' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and In 2007, it was ranked at number 61 in the American Film Institute's list of Greatest Movie of All Time.

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As one of the first scriptwriters to make the transition to directing, Preston Sturges was responsible for a number of highly individual films in the 1940's which are now regarded as classics. 'Sullivan's Travels' was the fourth of the eight films Sturges made between 1940 and 1944, all of which were marked by sophisticated witty scripts mixed with slapstick comedy, together with an affectionate portrayal of eccentric, supporting characters who tend to steal every scene they are in. But Sturges's work is also consistent in its exploration of the possibilities and prospects of upward - and occasionally downward - mobility. In 'Sullivan's Travels' Sturges was assisted by future Western movies director Anthony Mann, and cinematographer John Seitz.

In 'Sullivan's Travels', Sturges cleverly mixes comedy with sharp social commentary. The very title invites comparison to Jonathan Swift's famous eighteenth century novel, "Gulliver's Travels", about another journey in search of self-knowledge. Once again - as in 'The Great McGinty' in 1940, 'Christmas in July, the same year, and 'The Lady Eve' in 1941 -Sturges reveals social identity to be a highly unstable proposition, capable of hyperbolic transformation through such prosaic means as disguise, confusion and self-deception.

Basic Plot

John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, is a successful Hollywood director who specializes in lightweight entertainment, exemplified by broad comedies such as the 1939 film 'Ants in Your Plants'. Naive and sheltered by a solicitous staff who have no interest in seeing their meal ticket change genres or become overly ambitious in his cinematic pursuits, Sully nonetheless sets his sights on directing an epic social commentary picture about tough times in depression-era America, to be entitled 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (a fictional title eventually used by the Coen Brothers for their own 2000 film, in clever tribute to Sturges). To research his topic, which involves such unpleasantries as suffering, deprivation, and racial inequality, Sully insists on disguising himself as a hobo and making his way across the country to experience 'real life' first hand.

Once on the road, assorted adventures, meetings (notably with Veronica Lake's down-on-her-luck ingenue), and mishaps - some hilarious, others surprisingly poignant - transpire before Sully eventually comes to terms with his true calling as a lowbrow moviemaker with a gift for making people laugh.


Sturges himself wrote the script and he was determined to write a film with the primary goal of making people laugh, but which also contained a social message. Paramount purchased his screenplay for $6,000.

Shooting began on 12 May 1941 and lasted until 22 July, nine days over schedule. Filming took place in various locations around Los Angeles including Canoga Park, San Marino and Lockheed Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport). The film cost almost $690,000 to produce which was over $85,000 over budget.

Veronica Lake required a double for some scenes, such as being pulled into the swimming pool, because she was six months pregnant at the start of filming. She had kept her pregnancy secret until shooting began and Edith Head, Hollywood's most influential costume designer, was entrusted with the job of designing clothes which would conceal her condition. Lake was an unpopular actress, generally disliked by her co-stars. McCrea considered her inability to learn her lines as unprofessional and refused to work with her again.

There are cameo appearances by Ray Milland and by Preston Sturges himself, who appears, naturally enough, as a film director, in the scene where Veronica Lake's character recognises Sullivan's picture in the paper.

Main Cast

Joel McCrea ... John L. Sullivan
Veronica Lake ... The Girl
Robert Warwick ... Mr. Lebrand
William Demarest ... Mr. Jonas
Franklin Pangborn ... Mr. Casalsis
Porter Hall ... Mr. Hadrian
Byron Foulger ... Mr. Johnny Valdelle
Margaret Hayes ... Secretary
Robert Greig ... Burroughs
Eric Blore ... Sullivan's valet
Torben Meyer ... The doctor
Georges Renavent ... Old tramp

Joel McCrea (1905-1990) McCrea came from California and cut his acting teeth at the Pasadena Playhouse. He got his big break in 'The Jazz Singer' in 1929, and became one of the most popular romantic leads over the next decade. After 'Sullivan's Travels' he concentrated on the Western genre. He was as successful at business as he was in movies and became one of the richest men in Hollywood.

Sturges wrote 'Sullivan's Travels' with Joel McCrea in mind, and McCrea performs the part brilliantly, in one of his best screen roles.

Veronica Lake (1922-1973) The film's other main star is Veronica Lake in one of her first leading roles. She brings charm, sparkle and personality to the movie and her chemistry with McCrea helps to make the film the delight it is. Her success in Hollywood was short-lived and after a successful pairing with Alan Ladd in seven movies she faded from public view and into alcoholism and mental instability.

William Demarest (1892-1983) A prolific actor who appeared in almost 150 movies after beginning his career in vaudeville. A prominent member of Sturges's unofficial "stock company", 'Sullivan's Travels' was the sixth Sturges film in which he appeared He later had a starring role in Sturges's 'The Miracle of Morgan's Creek' in 1944. He is best remembered for his television appearances as Uncle Charlie in 'My Three Sons' from 1965 to 1972.

Franklin Pangborn (1889-1958) Another frequent performer in Sturges films Pangborn was a well known comic character actor in movies of the 1930's and 1940's.

Sturges had the knack of getting the best out of his actors and he cleverly uses a strong body of supporting performers such as Eric Blore and Robert Greig as the valet and Burroughs, the butler, Esther Howard as the lonely widow, Almira Sessions as the prickly housekeeper and Jimmy Conlin as the trustee at the work farm.

Another member of the production staff appeared in the film as well: associate producer Paul Jones appeared as "Dear Joseph", the late husband of "Miz Zeffie", in a photograph in which the man's expression changes.


The movie describes a journey, not only a road journey, but a journey to self-understanding. The lesson here is that strained seriousness and forced profundity have far less benefit for the masses then good old-fashioned humor, with its power to help people forget their troubles, if only for a while.


Director ... Preston Sturges
Producer ... Preston Sturges
Studio ... Paramount Pictures
Writer ... Preston Sturges
Cinematography ... John F. Seitz
Music ... Charles Bradshaw, Leo Shuken
Format ... B & W
Running time ... 90 minutes
Release Date ... 5 December, 1941

Academy Awards

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