Sullivan's Travels is a American comedy film written and directed by Preston Sturges. It is a satire about a movie director, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who longs to make a socially relevant drama, but eventually learns that comedies are a more valuable contribution to society. The film features one of Veronica Lake's first performances as a leading lady. The title is a reference to Gulliver's Travels, the famous novel by satirist Jonathan Swift about another journey of self-discovery.
He decides to dress as a penniless hobo and hit the road to learn first-hand how the destitute really live. He repeatedly says he wants to "know trouble" so that he can return and make a film that truly depicts the sorrows of humanity. However, no matter what he does, no matter how often or how hard he tries, he somehow always winds up right back in Hollywood where he started from. On one of his attempts, he meets a young failed actress (Veronica Lake) who is contemplating quitting the business. She decides she has nothing to lose and becomes his traveling companion.
In the end, Sullivan finally gets his wish. After drifting and sleeping in homeless centers with the Girl, Sullivan finally decides he's had enough. His experiment is publicized by the studio as a huge success. The Girl wants to stay with him, but he explains he got married to reduce his taxes, only to discover that his wife costs him double what he saves in income tax &ndash and now won't give him a divorce.
Sullivan decides to thank the homeless, and goes back on the road to hand out $5 bills, but one man decides he wants more than his share and ambushes Sullivan when he is alone. Sullivan is knocked unconscious and thrown onto a train boxcar leaving the city, but the thief is run over and killed by another train. The man had earlier stolen Sullivan's shoes, which had a special identification card hidden under one of the soles, and was wearing them when he died. When the card is found, everyone assumes the unrecognizable body is Sullivan's.
Meanwhile, Sullivan wakes up in the railyard of another city, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. In his confused state, he assaults the railroad worker who finds him, for which he is sentenced to six years in a labor camp. There he finally becomes acquainted with trouble at first-hand. He regains his memory and learns the importance of laughter in the otherwise dreary lives of his fellow prisoners when they are allowed to attend a showing of Walt Disney's "Playful Pluto" cartoon. Sullivan comes to realize that comedy can do more good for the poor than his didactic and somber project, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, can.
But Sullivan still has a problem – he cannot convince anybody that he is Sullivan. Finally, he comes up with an ingenious solution: he confesses to being his own killer. When his picture makes the front page of the newspapers, his actress friend recognizes him and gets him released. His "widow" had taken up with his crooked business manager in the meanwhile, so he can now divorce her and be reunited with the Girl. A montage of happily laughing faces ends the film.
The film as released opens with a dedication:
To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.This was originally intended to be spoken by Sullivan. Sturges wanted the film to begin with the prologue: "This is the story of a man who wanted to wash an elephant. The elephant darn near ruined him." Paramount contracted with the Schlesinger Corp., who made the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, to make an animated main title sequence, but this was not used in the film, if it was ever actually produced.
The censors at the Hays Office had objections to the script which the studio submitted to them. They felt that the word "bum" would be rejected by British censors, and warned that there should be no "suggestion of sexual intimacy" between Sullivan and The Girl in the scenes in which they are sleeping together at the mission.
Veronica Lake was six months pregnant at the beginning of production, a fact she didn't tell Sturges until filming began. Sturges was so furious when he learned that, according to Lake, he had to be physically restrained. Sturges consulted with Lake's doctor to see if she could perform the part, and hired former Rose Bowl queen Cheryl Walker as Lake's double. Edith Head, Hollywood's most renowned costume designer, was tasked to find ways of concealing Lake's condition. Reportedly, Lake was disliked by some of her co-stars; McCrea refused to work with her again, turning down a lead role in I Married a Witch, and Fredric March, who got the part, didn't get along with her as well.
There were some minor problems during filming. Sturges had wanted to use a clip from a Charlie Chaplin film for the church scene, but was turned down by Chaplin. McCrea does parody Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character earlier in the film. Also, the "Poverty Montage" was scheduled to take three hours to film, but instead took seven hours. Incidents such as this may account for the film, which cost $689,665.16 to produce, going $86,665.16 over budget.
The film was released in December , but the New York City opening was not until 28 January . It was marketed with a number of taglines, including: A Happy-Go Lucky Hitch-Hiker on the Highway to happiness! He wanted to see the world . . . but wound up in Lover's Lane!
When the film was released, the U.S. government's Office of Censorship declined to approve it for export overseas during wartime, because of the "long sequence showing life in a prison chain gang which is most objectionable because of the brutality and inhumanity with which the prisoners are treated." This conformed with the office's standing policy of not exporting films which could be used for propaganda purposes by the enemy. The producers of the film declined to make suggested changes which could have altered the film's status.
Over time, the reputation of the film has improved tremendously, and it is now considered a classic, with at least one reviewer calling it Sturges' "masterpiece" and "one of the finest movies about movies ever made.
In 1990, Sullivan's Travels was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it as the #61 Greatest Movie of All Time, the first inclusion of this film on the list. In addition, the movie's poster was ranked as #19 of "The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever" by Premiere.
The scene where the prisoners are taken to watch a cartoon takes place in a Southern African-American church; and it's notable that the film treats the African-American characters there with a level of respect unusual in films of the period. The Secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, wrote to Sturges:
I want to congratulate and thank you for the church sequence in Sullivan's Travels. This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a moving picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene. I was in Hollywood recently and am to return there soon for conferences with production heads, writers, directors, and actors and actresses in an effort to induce broader and more decent picturization of the Negro instead of limiting him to menial or comic roles. The sequence in Sullivan's Travels is a step in that direction and I want you to know how grateful we are.
In the airplane scene in Sullivan's Travels, the author of the book Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? is shown to be "Sinclair Beckstein", which is an amalgamation of the names of authors Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck, all of whom wrote socially conscious fiction.