Laughter Travels Well Too

As part of the last post about The Wind Journeys I planned to write about a second great road film I watched recently, but got off on a music tangent and decided enough was enough. Don’t worry, I’m not setting myself up as some sort of faux film critic, I won’t make a habit of these little movie reviews. It’s just that I really love movies and have been watching a lot of them recently and happened to bump into a couple of special ones, that’s all.

A couple of nights after seeing The Wind Journeys, TCM came through again, although at a more reasonable hour this time. My wife Anna and I were watching something that ended at 11 o’clock and flicked over to TCM, arriving in the middle of an old black and white movie. As soon as I recognized Joel McCrea dressed as a hobo riding in a boxcar, I realized it was Sullivan’s Travels, one of the greatest movies by that unique master of film comedy, Preston Sturges. I’d seen it once many years ago and didn’t remember much about it, or whether I really got it the first time.

Sturges is much admired and celebrated as a giant of comedy film-directing and screen-writing, but it’s almost rare to see his movies these days. He had a thirty-year career in Hollywood but most of his famous movies were made in a furious burst of creative energy between 1939 and 1944. He developed a kind of Midas touch in film comedy during this peak, ruling the roost as the fair-haired boy of Paramount. He made eight films during this incredible run, seven of them classic comedies, the lone exception being The Great Moment, a dramatic bio-pic about the dentist who first discovered the use of ether as anaesthesia, his only flop of this golden period. After this, his fall from grace with Paramount was precipitous, the result of clashes about his contract, independence of spirit, a surfeit of films and trouble with censors. His career went into a slow but steady decline and he died in 1959 at age 60. To give some idea of his sense of humour, Sturges was writing his autobiography when he died, the working title of which was “The Events Leading Up to My Death.” Now that’s funny.

He was a pioneer in many regards, he essentially took the screwball comedy genre of the 1930s and elevated it to new heights with numerous personal and original touches. He began as a successful playwright and screenwriter. His 1933 script The Power and the Glory was a noted vehicle for Spencer Tracy and a source of inspiration for Orson Welles and the other screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Increasingly dissatisfied with other directors’ treatment of his dialogue, Sturges became the first man in Hollywood to consistently direct his own screenplays after establishing himself solely as a writer. He first managed this in 1939, when he famously sold the script for The Great McGinty to Paramount for one dollar in exchange for the right to direct it. This paid off handsomely, as the picture was a huge hit and a triumph for Sturges, winning him the first-ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He was now able to write his own ticket in directing his own scripts and was granted a very lucrative contract giving him considerable leeway and independence, paving the way for later similar deals for other writer-directors like Billy Wilder and John Huston. The ground-breaking scope of his comedies and their often envelope-pushing innovations made possible the work of later artists like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Robert Zemeckis, the Coen brothers and many others.

His comedies are extremely rich and alive, quick-moving and witty, marked by a kaleidoscopic mixing of disparate elements like slapstick, romance and sharp dialogue in a single scene; anarchy is never far away, yet they hang together beautifully. He was essentially a satirist with a sense of the farcical, the absurd and the surreal. Often his satirical writing had multiple points of view, he will reverse directions to demolish what he has just been defending and vice versa. To some this may seem chaotic, but it only makes the humour more complex and varied. There’s definitely cynicism at work, often his heroes are portrayed as naive saps or hapless suckers, and he lampoons everything except the opportunists and operators, both male and female. His movies often end happily by way of a fairy godfather-type character who saves the day, not intentionally from a sense of rightness or duty, but rather from whimsy or caprice. The audience is left thinking, “Whew, they made it, but just by the skin of their teeth.” Very little is held sacred by him, the multi-directional satire makes irony flow throughout his movies like water, yet they’re generally benign and breezy. The great thing about his pictures is that you don’t have to think about all this stuff or analyze it, you can simply enjoy them. They’re beautiful to look at, wonderfully acted, hugely entertaining and uproariously funny all at once.

Apart from having a great visual sense, his greatest gifts were dialogue writing and his deft handling of actors, the two are very much connected. His writing style has been described as that of “a lowbrow aristocrat, a melancholy wiseguy.” Film critic Andrew Dickos (his real name) nicely described Sturges’ dense but natural language : “It establishes the standard of eloquence as one of poetry, of a cacophony of Euro-American vernacularisms, peculiarly – and appropriately – spoken with scandalous indifference.” His scripts abound with great lines, such as the following famous one from the Lady Eve, uttered by Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale con-artist who’s falling in love with her mark, the rich and naive bachelor played by Henry Fonda : “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”

Such great writing is enhanced by good acting and Sturges’ choice of actors is interesting, often quite offbeat. He occasionally used conventional movie stars like Stanwyck, Fonda, Veronica Lake, Dick Powell or Brian Donlevy in lead parts, but his favourite leading man was the great Joel McCrea, who starred in three of his movies. He also used the 1920s crooner Rudy Vallee as a second male lead in three movies, an idiosyncratic choice which worked – Vallee is often wonderful playing a series of rich, bashful and eccentric dreamer-boobs. Sturges also used the nebbish anti-hero Eddie Bracken as the male lead in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, his final great comedies. My favourite aspect of Sturges’ movies is his stock company of marvelous character actors whom he used again and again to hilarious effect. These included William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Al Bridge, Porter Hall, Robert Dudley, Robert Greig, Margaret Hayes, Georgia Caine, Chester Conklin, Robert Warwick, Sig Arno, Brian Foulger and Eric Blore, the last specialized in playing English valets. Sturges wrote with these actors in mind, deploying them much as Duke Ellington did his singular and famous sidemen in creating his own unique and colourful world.

Sullivan’s Travels stands out as the most autobiographical, serious-minded and message-oriented of his films, though also extremely funny. The title is of course a reference to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as the fish-out-of-water story involves a privileged silver-spoon type landing in the (to him) alien world of the poor during the Depression. Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan, a wealthy and famous young Hollywood director with a string of lucrative but shallow comedies under his belt, such as Ants in Your Pants of 1939. He has other ambitions and tells his studio boss Mr. Lebrand that he wants his next project to be an earnest and serious commentary on the plight of the downtrodden, based on the socially conscious novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? by one Sinclair Beckstein. (Yes, Joel and Ethan Coen made their movie of that title as an homage to Sturges, whom they revere.) Lebrand naturally wants him to churn out another profitable comedy, but the idealistic Sullivan holds his ground, insisting that he must do some research getting to know “the real people” by walking in their shoes, to “know trouble” first-hand as a hobo so he can make a movie that truly depicts the woes of humanity. His normally sycophantic butler and valet both openly wonder about the wisdom of this plan.

So our high-minded hero hits the road dressed as a broke tramp but no matter how hard he tries at first, he always finds himself back in Hollywood. Lebrand insists that Sullivan’s entourage of yes-men and hangers-on follow him closely in a double-decker coach. Nobody is really happy with this arrangement and Sullivan eventually convinces his staff to leave him alone, arranging to rendezvous with them later. Hitchhiking, he finds himself back where he started.

He meets a young, unemployed and down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake, simply billed as “The Girl”) who’s thinking about quitting the business. Without telling her who he is, and in return for her kindness, he gives her a lift in his car without telling his minions, who report the “theft” and the couple are nabbed by the police. After they’re bailed out, The Girl pushes Sullivan into a swimming pool for withholding his true identity, but decides to become his traveling companion, having few other options.

From this point on, Sullivan and The Girl succeed in living like hobos, riding the rails, eating in soup kitchens and sleeping in homeless shelters, experiencing true hardship and hunger for the first time. Catching a wicked cold in the process, Sullivan finally decides he’s had enough, the troubles of real people being perhaps more real than he’d bargained for. He returns to Hollywood and his experiment is publicized by the film studio as a big success. He and The Girl are falling in love, but he reveals to her that his business manager advised him to get married years ago to reduce his tax burden, but that his free-spending wife actually costs him double what he saves on his taxes.

Sullivan keeps thinking about the homeless and decides to thank them by returning to a work camp and handing out $5 bills. One of the hobos notices this and wants more than his fair share, so he stalks Sullivan and mugs him in a railway yard, stealing his boots and the rest of the money, leaving him for dead in a boxcar. When the wind blows the money out of the thief’s hands, he chases after it and is run over and killed by an oncoming train. The boots he stole have Sullivan’s identity card hidden under one of the soles, when these are found on the unrecognizable man’s body, everyone assumes Sullivan is dead.

Several days later, Sullivan comes to in the boxcar in another city, with a concussion and amnesia. He gets into a fight with a railway bull and clocks him with a rock. In a confused state at his trial, he’s sentenced to six years hard labour in a work prison. He eventually regains his memory in prison and protests his innocence which only worsens his plight, nobody believes him. He re-learns the importance of laughter when the prisoners are invited to a Sunday night movie screening at a nearby black Baptist church. Before the main feature, Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto cartoon is shown and the congregation and the chained prisoners alike collapse in helpless laughter, its intensity growing till they’re in hysterics, tears streaming down their faces, their troubles temporarily forgotten. Sullivan is not in much of a laughing mood at first, but eventually gives in to the irresistible urge, howling along with everyone else, it’s very cathartic for him.

Having rediscovered humour, Sullivan is still stuck in prison, when suddenly he has an inspired idea for getting out : he confesses to the murder of Sullivan. This gets his picture on the front pages of newspapers everywhere and when he’s recognized as Sullivan, the whole misunderstanding is cleared up and he’s pardoned and released. Back with his staff, he reveals that he’s going to scrap making O Brother, Where Art Thou? and make a comedy instead, this time a really good one, reasoning that laughter can do more for the poor than another do-goody social-conscience picture. Sullivan’s wife divorced him when she thought he was dead and has taken up with his business manager, who she’d been playing around with anyway, so Sullivan is now free to marry The Girl. The movie ends with a montage of laughing faces.

My apologies for revealing so much of the plot, but this can’t possibly ruin the movie, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated and bears watching several times, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It may be the best movie-within-a-movie ever made. Sturges has made a movie about a successful director who’s tired of making frothy comedies and wants to make a serious picture with political significance, and he’s succeeded in doing just that, while also making people laugh, it’s a neat trick.

Anna had never heard of Preston Sturges before and hadn’t seen this movie. It was interesting and fun to watch her react to it, she was blown away by its uniqueness and its ability to go from zany comedy to grim darkness in a heartbeat, saying of me, “No wonder you like this one.” She was right, nobody but Sturges could take you from farce to Grapes of Wrath territory so fast. Sturges doesn’t pull any punches or shy away in portraying the trials of the migrant poor – they don’t seem like actors in the film, they seem real. Nor does he flinch in showing cruelty and harshness, the filming of the scenes involving the hobo’s theft, the fight with the railway bull and the sadism of the head prison guard are masterfully done, stark and unsentimental. Anna was also stunned by the little surreal touches often in the background, such as the big placard on the wall of a homeless shelter, asking “Did you write home today?” Because it’s so quick and subtle, we missed one of the most notorious of these red herrings. During a mildly romantic scene when Sullivan and The Girl are innocently strolling through some woods around a lake, the legs of a human corpse hanging from one of the trees appear in the background. It has nothing to do with the scene or the plot and is not commented upon, it’s just there. Lynching is certainly no laughing matter, but Sturges’ deadpan use of this is unaccountably funny. It’s something you’d expect to see in a Mel Brooks or Monty Python movie done 35 years later, but not in a film released in 1941. No wonder the censors had some reservations about Sturges.

Further on being ahead of his time, the sequence in the Baptist church near the film’s end stunned me. The church is presided over by a large black preacher with glasses, a huge buffalo-shaped head and a voice like Paul Robeson. He shows himself to be man of great humour and grace, then leads the congregation in a stirring rendition of the spiritual “Let My People Go”. Then he tells his flock to make room for the expected guests, urging them to make the inmates welcome, to not shy away from them or look down on them, that they’re people just like them. First of all, it’s very unusual to see so many black people in a scene in a movie made then, unless they’re working as slaves in the background or singing and dancing in some kind of dreadful minstrel number. But seeing them portrayed with such dignity and respect is another thing entirely. Ad then to have it implied that black people could be in a position of superiority and might look down on white prisoners, then to see them freely mingling and laughing together was actually quite daring for a 1941 film, given the racial attitudes of that time.

Already being a Preston Sturges fan and having seen some of his films, I was prepared for these brilliant and original touches, but what surprised me about Sullivan’s Travels was how beautiful it is to look at. The cinematography has tremendous clarity and depth, the lighting and framing of each scene is perfect, the movie has a kind of magical, timeless glow to it. It’s a bit like looking at the work of a great photographer like Walker Evans or Ansel Adams, except the images are in nmotion. Anna was so knocked out by it that when it was over, she went straight to her office, turned on her computer, punched in Preston Sturges and ordered a seven-film collection of his movies, surprised that this was available not from TCM, but from Amazon instead. I was flabbergasted, Anna is not usually one to spend money so impulsively. But that’s Preston Sturges for you, he can make you a big fan in a hurry.

Seeing Sullivan’s Travels again made me realize fully for the first time how important humour and laughter are to me, to all of us really. They’re so much a part of our lives that we take them for granted sometimes, but I shudder to think where we’d be without humour, at how much pressure would build up without being able to blow off some steam by laughing. I’ve spent most of my life idolizing musicians, ballplayers, writers, painters, actors and filmmakers, but people who can make us laugh are right up there for me. Of course, some of these are acknowledged masters of comedy, like W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, P.G. Wodehouse, Sturges, Jack Benny, Billy Wilder, Mel Brooks and many others, including a whole host of stand-up comedians I haven’t even mentioned. But these are giants, pros, laughter is their business. I admire them all tremendously because comedy is hard, but I’m even more grateful for the presence of funny people in the ranks of plain everyday life. Some of the amateurs are just as funny as the pros and they live among us and work for free.

Certainly being a jazz musician comes with a ringside seat to a lot of humour, jazz players are really funny and have to be in order to survive the business they’re in. The wacky situations we often find ourselves in often promote laughter, and then some. Three who I’ve known well are among the funniest people who ever walked the earth – Al Cohn, Jake Hanna and Rob McConnell – they knew how to tell stories, how to make people laugh and how to laugh themselves. There are others, non-musicians in my life whom I look up to because of their great humour. My father for one, who could just kill you with laughs. And some others like Mike Maehle, Ronnie Burkett and my brother, who are each just wicked funny. With people like these, humour is not a show or a matter of “being on”, it’s a way of looking at and reacting to life, of seeing another side to things. And it’s a two-way street – they make you laugh and you can make them laugh. I feel I’m at my best and happiest when I’ve gotten off a good line or story to break people up, or am laughing myself; I probably care more whether people think I’m funny than I care what they think about my bass playing, such as it is. Humour allows us to turn our frustration – it’s mostly frustration I think – into laughter and joy, to get some release. The key to this is having the ability to laugh at yourself. Some people don’t seem to be able to do this and I feel sorry for them, they’re not funny.

I forget which comedian said that what separates us from the animals is “our ability to accessorize”, a very funny line. But what really sets us apart from our furry friends is our humour and the ability to laugh. I mean, look at pets like dogs and cats, they have it pretty good. They have owners that are like staff to feed and shelter them, love them up and walk them and buy them toys, play with them, pamper them and give them tummy-rubs, pay huge vet bills when they get sick and the whole bit. It’s a pretty enviable set-up, but when was the last time you saw one of them laugh?

© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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