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Sullivan is a successful, spoiled, and naive director of fluff films, with a heart-o-gold, who decides he wants to make a film about the troubles of the downtrodden poor. Much to the chagrin of his producers, he sets off in tramp's clothing with a single dime in his pocket to experience poverty first-hand, and gets some reality shock. Written by
Bob Doolittle <Bob.Doolittle@east.sun.com>
Studio director, on the set of 'The Girl's period movie. He is seen in the background when she reads the newspaper and throws up her hands in delight. See more »
When the supposedly unconscious Sullivan is being pulled by a bum who hit him into an empty boxcar, you can see the actor (Joel McRae) push himself along with his foot, apparently because the other man is not strong enough to drag him. See more »
Sturges' most daringly double-edged film, laced with bitter ironies. It is also arguably the most audacious film in Hollywood's (mainstream) history, audacious because it takes the kinds of risks that can so easily fall flat on their face, and right until the final image, as Sturges becomes increasingly ambitious and multi-layered, you wonder how long he can keep it up without getting ridiculous. It never does, but the film is so full of contradictions, tensions, suppressions, clanging lurches in tone - 'Travels' is ostensibly a comedy, and one of Hollywood's best, but the last twenty minutes are truly painful to watch, harrowing and not at all funny.
The overriding source of tension, of course, is the film itself, the plot, and the emotions that are supposed to be elicited. It is very difficult, and frequently impossible to gauge the tone of any one scene. Sometimes this is straightforward, as when information is deliberately withheld from the audience, it is asked to make a judgement, and then shown to be wrong, as in the scenes where the studio moguls claim a background of deprivation (which is historically plausible). This kind of comedy is familiar enough.
But what about the later montage of Sullivan and the Girl experiencing the 'reality' of poverty - are these scenes supposed to be genuine representation of poverty? Are they part of a wider satire on pious films like 'Grapes of Wrath', which dubiously aestheticise poverty - there are a lot of Expressionistic flourishes in this sequence? Are they a kind of abstract purgatory through which Sullivan finds spiritual understanding?
There is a big difference between the representation of poverty in this sequence and the one where Sullivan is attacked and sent to prison. But is one more 'authentic' than the other - the second one bravely rejects the view of 'noble' poverty, shows how it dehumanises people, turns them instinctual and brutal; but it also provides a neat moral, which suggests that if you do somebody wrong, you will be (horribly) punished for it. This realism, therefore, is as contrived as the first. Is this Sturges' point, that the good intentions of realism are always tainted by ideological assumptions, patronising good-will, or motives of elevation. This sense of artifice, of a film comprised of varying self-reflexive modes rather than a plausible narrative, runs through 'Travels', with characters talking about the film they're in as a plot - in direst danger, Sullivan acknowledges the need for a helluva twist which duly arrives, filmed in silent slapstick with barely concealed Sturges contempt (and did his friends seem terribly put out by his death?).
This would seem to uphold 'Travels'' ostensible theme, its celebration of comedy as a sugar with which to sweeten the harshness of reality. This is a very cynical view of comedy, and a highly manipulative, conservative one - distract an unhappy populace from the injustice of their lives. The best comedies - from 'Sherlock Jr' and 'Modern Times' to 'Playtime' and 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie' have always been about real life, encouraging their viewers to think harder about the society they live in, much more effectively than so-called naturalism.
'Travels' is no exception. It might be a celebration of comedy, but this is comedy a million miles from 'Ants in your Pants'. What other 40s film still manages to show the brutality of poverty, of the prison system, of race relations, the fate of young women in sexually voracious Hollywood (the Girl's ease with her body in the swimming pool scene speaks volumes), however we choose to read them? When Sullivan's determination at the end to continue making populist comedies is endorsed by the ringing laughter of the world's meek and suffering, the disjunction is grotesque. This is a man, on an airplane, completely removed from reality, surrounded by wealthy toadies. Those happy laughs could so easily be contemptuous guffaws, because what Sullivan wants to do, and Sturges hasn't, is hide the inequalities of capitalism, the system on which Hollywood thrives, and the flaws in which they would be only too happy to cover up with inanity. But to even suggest this is to fall into the 'Capra' trap mocked at the beginning.
This difficulty is what makes 'Travels' such a stunningly modern film - its shifts from sophisticated verbal wit to elaborate slapstick to blatant Carry On-like innuendo (the matronly sister dusting the bedpost after seeing a sweating, shirtless Sullivan work) to tragedy to hallucination and dream to satire foreshadows Melville and the New Wave, while the privileged rich man who cannot escape Hollywood would transmute into the guests who can't leave the house, or can't get dinner in later Bunuel films; or the film that begins with an end. The opening sequence takes off 'Citizen Kane'. The deadpan genderplay is quietly gobsmacking, and Veronica Lake as a (gorgeous) tramp would be alluded to by Jeanne Moreau in 'Jules et JIm'. But the joys are all Sturges', as he democratises comedy (see again that swimming pool sequence); I love in particular those glorious supporting actors: my favourite being the immortal Eric Blore and Robert Greig as Sullivan's servants.
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