Sullivan’s Travels

Written and directed by silly-but-serious cynical genius Preston Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels starts out with a dark and gloomy film-within-a-film showing two figures battling on a train crossing a bridge, symbolizing labor grappling with management to their mutual destruction. But as soon as we get out of the screening room, things lighten up both visually and in mood, the movie becoming a bright, witty slapstick satire on Hollywood and a pretentious, self-important director, Sullivan (Joel McCrea). This auteur wants to make a sociologically and artistically meritorious picture with messages about grim death, war, and the suffering of the unemployed during The Great Depression but, coming from a privileged background, he knows nothing about trouble. So he decides to go looking for it by dressing as a hobo and drifting across America.

In this new 2K digital restoration, contrast is mostly excellent, with deepest black in cars and Sullivan’s butlers’ outfits and brightest whites in lights, shirts, and skirts, and a smooth range of delectable grays. There’s just enough grain to keep images film-like without any loss of resolution, detail being plentiful throughout in textures of tweeds, and other fabrics. cleaned-up soundtrack lacks hiss, pops, or crackle. Snappy dialogue is always crisp and clear, as are the strings and woodwinds making up the full and vibrant score that never breaks up or becomes sibilant even in the higher registers. Passing vehicles throb deeply as does the voice of the pastor in the beautiful and moving church choir sequence.

There’s a commentary by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Christopher Guest, Kenneth Bowser, and Michael McKean, each lending a different slant on the film. A 76-minute American Masters documentary tells, with plentiful clips, the fascinating, bizarre background leading to the rise and fall of Hollywood’s first screenwriter who became a director. There’s a video essay by film critic David Cairns with filmmaker Bill Forsyth telling how he learned to make screwball comedy from Sturges’ films, an intimate interview with the director’s widow that reveals his personality, and archival audio recordings of Sturges singing, reciting, and talking thoughtfully to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Together the extras provide a fine, wide-ranging portrait of the man and moviemaker.

Studio: The Criterion Collection, 1941
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: Linear PCM 1.0
Length: 90 mins.
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Preston Sturges
Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick