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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Elements of Film Art - Sullivan's Travels and Preaching Not to Preach

I'll be posting these "reaction papers" every week. Originally for a class, these short write-ups are mainly simple overviews of elements from films I've screened in classes. These are primarily written for those who have seen the film, so if you haven't watched the movie of topic it won't make a lot of sense. Moving on...


It’s amazing how one’s perception on a film changes within its own running time. Although I greatly enjoyed Sullivan’s Travels by the end of the movie I could only think about how its existence is a contradiction.

Sullivan’s Travels
begins with great promise, but as it moves forward I can’t help but wonder if it lost its identity. Supposedly a screwball comedy, Sullivan’s Travels certainly doesn’t evoke the same laughter that His Girl Friday does. In fact the comedy feels very second tier to the dramatic elements. It’s almost as if director Sturges wanted exactly what Sullivan wants in the movie: To make a serious picture about the men and women suffering during the economic crisis. But to avoid looking too hypocritical, given the script’s “message,” he sprinkles some comedy here or there to pass it off as a screwball delight.

Now I doubt that’s really how Sturges thought of this movie, but its insight does confuse me. After spending so much time with a montage on the poor and watching the characters experience similar conditions the audience is given an ending that makes it all feel like a fluke. If laughter is really all people need, or want, then why did a “tramp” steal Sullivan’s shoes and money?

While looking through information on Sullivan’s Travels I stumbled upon a quote from The Hollywood Reporter that adequately sums up my feelings for the film, “[The film] fails to heed the message that writer Sturges proves in his script. Laughter is the thing people want-not social studies." Indeed if Sullivan’s final line were the case, where’s the laughter? Watching an ocean of homeless engulf an alley and dine on trashcans isn’t exactly hysterical. Sure Sullivan and “The Girl” grant us a few laughs, but it’s never a straight shot.

Going back to my His Girl Friday comparison, a movie I consider the king of screwball comedies, that film granted laughs every ten seconds. Sullivan’s Travels, however, lingers from one genre to another without a smooth transition. (For example, after the amusing image of a sick Sullivan swearing he’ll go back on the streets fades away the audience is gifted with a depressing montage of tramp-life at its finest.) Despite its screwball comedy reputation there’s heavy attention to serious drama. Include a moral that makes my head spin and I remain confused as to how seriously I should (or should not) take the film. On the other hand, such a contradicting film could be considered a work of genius. Like a double negative, maybe it’s supposed to support both a social commentary and a surrender to thoughtless entertainment. Although, either way it still feels messy.

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