06 July 2009

What Film is Even Better than Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and Hey Hey in the Hayloft?

Answer: Sullivan's Travels (1941).

But I immediately introduce a new question: Why is the main character, a film director, named John L. Sullivan? Oh sure it's explicitly John Lloyd Sullivan but it can't be coincidence that the writer director of the film, Preston Sturges, gave him the same name as a heavyweight boxing legend.
No way.

Get back to me on that one.

And say, I've got another question for you. How come they don't write dialogue as good as this these days?

Sullivan: This picture is an ANSWER to Communists. It shows we're awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches. I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.
Lebrand: But with a little sex.
Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity - a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
Lebrand: But with a little sex.
Sullivan: With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How about a nice musical?
Sullivan: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this? With the world committing suicide, with corpses piling up in the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep!
Hadrian: Maybe they'd like to forget that.
Sullivan: Then why do they hold this one over for a fifth week at the Music Hall? For the ushers?
Hadrian: It died in Pittsburgh.
Lebrand: Like a dog.
Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?
Lebrand: They know what they like.

That's pretty good stuff, no? If you're anything like me (God forbid) you answered with an emphatic, yesiree. It comes at the beginning of the film when Sullivan is pitching his latest film idea to studio bigwigs.

It's interesting the way Joel McCrea plays Sullivan. There is such earnestness, such naivete and such noble aspirations. Here's a director making pictures like "So Long Sarong", a man of 31 born with a silver spoon in his mouth, or at least a nice clean spoon. Look, it was clean enough that he could go to boarding school and one of them fancy eastern colleges. Point is, he was a whiz bang director but with a conscience from here to the Poconos. It's not that he couldn't live with taking a postage stamp from the office, no his conscience is about the whole friggin' world. There's war in Europe, poverty and despair everywhere. Given that, how the deuce can he make light comedies and musicals? No, not our Sully, he's got to expose what ails us. He wants to hold a mirror up to society.

Not only does this not sit well with studio execs, but even his butler pooh poohs the notion that what the world needs now is take a good hard look at itself through film.

Butler: The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?
Butler: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy...I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir...You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health, but it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with Filth, Criminality, Vice and Despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.
Sullivan: Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it.
Butler: Quite unwillingly, sir. Will that be all, sir?

But Sullivan, convinced that he must experience poverty to truly tell its story, decides to go out into the world as a hobo, torn clothing, bindle and all. He does take a dime, I mean there are limits.

Now we get the "sex" in the form of Veronica Lake. She plays an aspiring actress who has given up aspiring and is heading home. She meets John L. and they fall for each other and into his pool, don't you know.

So yes there are laughs aplenty but also right smack dab in the middle of this romp, a long stark and wordless look at life among the dispossessed, of which there was still quite a bit in the U.S. in 1941 (and not incidentally the extremely poor are making a comeback in this day and age often through no fault of their own). That stark look is not an insignificant interlude.

The course of true love does not always run smooth and neither does the course of trying to find out what life in the raw is really like. Sullivan's last grand gesture costs him a trip to a chain gang. I have to ask: don't you just hate it when that happens? I thought so. But there he finds that what those on the lowest rung want is to forget, to laugh like they've never laughed before. In this case it comes via Pluto and Mickey Mouse. Says Sullivan, "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

There are great truths in this film. It's the best of Sturges' films which is going some considering he also wrote and directed The Lady Eve (1941) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) just to name two others. You want I should go on? But I already did and this sentence is linked to that post of last summer wherein I did, go on that is.

We like McCrea's studied indifference to the external in his pursuit of the internal. Don't say anything to him, he needs to experience. We like Veronica inasmuch as that Lake looks so inviting -- care for a dip? We like the Sturges acting troupe with reliable chaps like Porter Hall, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin and well, you get the idea. We also like that he augments this group with Eric Blore and Robert Grieg as his valet and butler, respectively and yes they were typecast in those sorts of roles but so what, they were good, weren't they?

We also like the messages. Sure we get it. Everyone, perhaps especially the down and out, really really need all the chuckles and guffaws they can get. Hell, we all do. Savvy. But we further note that Sturges is poking a wee bit of fun at Hollywood, or hadn't you noticed? He's also shining a pretty bright light on the sorrowful conditions that beset those aforementioned tramps and hobos (today they are less colorfully known as homeless). In saying we all need to laugh he can get pretty serious.

Gracious. How can you not love a movie that has the main character confess to murdering himself to get out of jail? How, sir or madam, can you not love a movie that references "Hey Hey in the Hayloft" and "Ants in Their Plants of 1939?" And oh I almost forgot, the movie he was gonna make, "O Brother Where Art Thou" is based on the novel by Sinclair Beckstein.

Prutty cool.

1 comment:

Kate Gabrielle said...

This is my favorite movie of all time. Period. I actually chose this film for my essay topic when I applied to college.

Ants in Your Plants of 1939 runs a close second though...