In an amazing burst of brilliance from 1939 to 1943, writer-director Preston Sturges virtually defined the “screwball comedy,” a uniquely American style of comedy characterized by farcical situations, witty dialogue, social satire and cheeky battles of the sexes.
In a frantic run of popular hits, Sturges (one of the first studio screenwriters allowed to direct his own scripts) turned out “The Great McGinty,” “Christmas in July,” “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero.”
But the crown jewel of that amazingly creative period was “Sullivan’s Travels,” the 1941 comedy of Depression-era Hollywood that starred Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake and followed the odyssey of a pampered director of escapist movies who goes on the road as a hobo to learn about life and discovers the healing value of laughter.
Previously released in a Universal Studios boxed set of Sturges films and a state-of-the-art Criterion Collections disc, “Sullivan’s Travels” is now available as a stand-alone DVD as part of Universal’s gala 100th Anniversary celebration.
The disc comes in a glossy foil slipcover that opens to reveal the original theatrical poster, facts about the film (it was actually produced by Paramount and later sold to Universal) and a studio timeline that places it in relationship to other Universal classics of the era (such as 1936’s “My Man Godfrey,” which is also receiving the royal anniversary treatment).
While the Criterion DVD contains the most extensive selection of extras, the new Universal release is more limited, with only two brief centennial featurettes included – “100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era” and “100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era.”
Younger movie fans might not be familiar with the witty, urbane Sturges, but “Sullivan’s Travels” is the source of one brilliant nugget that inspired a latter-day hit that should be familiar to all young hipsters – Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 hit “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”
In “Sullivan’s Travels,” the title character, Joel McCrea’s Sully yearns to leave behind his pampered life as a maker of glib Hollywood hits and go out into America’s heartland to learn first hand the rough-and-tumble life of the country’s poor and downtrodden.
His goal is to make a serious, socially relevant movie that will be “a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!” The title of that proposed picture? “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
- Dennis King