Retro Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Written and directed by Preston Sturges, and starring the great combination of Joel McCrea and the beautiful Veronica Lake, this comedy gets little mention today, and is worth revisiting.

McCrea plays film director John Sullivan, famous for his popular comedies. But he feels that his work has no significance, and yearns to make socially-important documentaries. With this in mind, Sullivan dresses as a tramp, and sets off on a road trip, intent on discovering how hard life can be for the lowest in society. His studio boss arranges for a bus to follow him, containing his usual luxuries, as well as a butler and valet. But Sullivan is unhappy with this arrangement, choosing to go off alone, and to travel by hitch-hiking.

On the way, he meets a girl, (Lake) a failed actress trying to return home. Believing him to be down and out she pays for his breakfast, and he is so touched by this, he takes a car from his own luxury home, in order to give her a lift. But his staff are unaware of this, and report the car stolen, resulting in Sullivan and the girl being arrested for stealing the vehicle. The girl then discovers his true identity, and decides to accompany him, dressing as a boy to blend in.

Eventually, the pair discover just how hard life can be, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating free food from soup kitchens. When Sullivan is seen to be handing out $5 notes to help other tramps, he is beaten and robbed for the money. More confusion reigns when Sullivan forgets who he is after the beating, and attacks a railway guard, getting him a term in a prison camp. When his memory returns, he is unable to convince anyone who is really is, and why he got there, but during his time in prison, he finally learns that comedy films and laughter actually mean a great deal more to those unfortunates than any serious documentary ever could.

When his photo hits the front page of the newspapers, the girl remembers him, and his plight is publicised, leading to his release from prison.
Everything ends well, for all concerned.

This sounds lightweight, I know. But it is a real tale of morals, greed, privilege, and discovery. At times very funny, and at others poignant indeed. If you have never seen it, I recommend it for being something very different, with a great cast of actors delivering completely convincing performances.

31 thoughts on “Retro Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

  1. Great review 🙂 I love this film. Preston Sturges always had a great ear for dialogue and this one is no exception. One example: A police man says “How does the girl fit into the picture?” to which John L. Sullivan replies “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?” Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So this is a comedy about a film director famous for his comedies who yearns to make socially-important documentaries but learns to stick with comedies. Funny enough, I’m familiar with the title, but haven’t seen the flick.

    By the way, I recently ordered “Adam’s Rib” because I once borrowed the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film (1949) from the library, and put it immediately on my wish list. Somehow, I got the Milton Sills-Anna Q. Nillson silent movie (1923) of the same title. So I put it in the player last night. Aside from the goofy caveman sequence, it was worth watching (and reading). But I’ve ordered the Tracy-Hepburn film again… I enjoy the classics.

    Liked by 1 person

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