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The Criterion Collection presents
Sullivan's Travels (1942)

John L. Sullivan: "I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realisms, the problems that confront the average man..."
LeBrand: "But with a little sex."
John L. 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."
John L. Sullivan:"But with a little sex in it."

- Joel McCrea, Robert Warwick

Review By: Jeff Ulmer  
Published: August 13, 2001

Stars: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
Other Stars: Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Robert Greig, Eric Blore, Torben Meyer, Victor Potel, Richard Webb, Charles R. Moore, Almira Sessions, Esther Howard, Frank Moran, Georges Renavent, Harry Rosenthal, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin, Jan Buckingham, Robert Winkler, Chick Collins, Jimmie Dundee
Director: Preston Sturges

Manufacturer: IFPI
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:30m:31s
Release Date: August 21, 2001
UPC: 715515012126
Genre: romantic comedy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ AAA A

DVD Review

The career of writer/director/producer Preston Sturges is a classic Hollywood tale of the rise and fall of a genius. The son of an aloof mother, who spent most of her time traipsing around Europe as best friend to famed dancer Isadora Duncan, Sturges spent his childhood shuttling from continental Europe to New York, where his adoptive father lived. After inventing a smudge proof lipstick for his mother's cosmetics firm, a near fatal attack of appendicitis caused him to rethink his career options. He became a playwright as a lark, in defiance of a former girlfriend who had left him to become a scribe herself.

While his first effort didn't amount to much, his second Strictly Dishonorable became a Broadway hit, and after it was optioned for the movies, Sturges decided Hollywood was where he would make his fortune, and got a contract job at Paramount. His writing craft backed over twenty films, and while he was turning heads as a writer, he was frustrated with the treatment the directors, who he saw controlled the motion picture world, were giving his screenplays. Determined to become a director himself, he sold his script for The Great McGinty for one dollar (raised to ten by the legal department) on the basis he be allowed to direct. Thus, he became the first screenwriter ever to direct a picture in Hollywood. McGinty also awarded him with the first ever Oscar® for a screenplay, an event he managed to blow for himself when he decided to have some fun with the audience and claim he was simply a stand in for the real Sturges, who was unable to attend the festivities. He didn't count on the fact that, while he was well known by reputation, nobody knew what he looked like, and therefore accepted his story that he was but a messenger.

After this recognition of his skills from the Academy, Paramount allowed him to move up to the A circuit for his third project, The Lady Eve (coming soon from Criterion), with Barbara Stanwyk playing opposite Henry Fonda. This film set the tone for his later works, combining sharp dialogue with slapstick humor, though his followup to Eve, and the subject of this review, threw a few curve balls in the formula.

Sullivan's Travels opens as successful film director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) screens the ending for his latest picture for a pair of Paramount studio executives. Known for previous work in comedies, Sullivan feels a responsibility to make a serious picture next, namely O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title honorably lifted by the Coen Brothers for their 2000 film), one that shows the realities of life and the hardship faced by the poor. His pitch is met with skepticism by the studio brass, who point out that Sullivan, a well to do man with an upper class upbringing, knows absolutely nothing about being poor, or working hard for a living. Rather than backing down, Sullivan decides that he will learn what there is to know about being underprivileged, by dressing as a hobo and living amongst the outcast of society as a research project. With only a dime to his name he sets off to discover what being poor is all about, though the studio doesn't like the idea much, so they assign a group of observers to accompany him on his outing, but Sullivan's travels really begin when he meets up with a young girl (Veronica Lake), disillusioned by Hollywood, who winds up accompanying him on his journey. Will the experiences of box cars, rail yards and soup kitchens give him what he needs to make his picture?

Having never heard of Preston Sturges prior to seeing his titles show up on the Criterion schedules, it took about fifteen minutes of watching this film to realize that this man is a genius both as a director and as a writer. Dialogue is amazing throughout Sullivan's Travels, written in a style that comes across completely natural, though incredibly witty. Lines are delivered by the ensemble cast in a highly lyrical fashion, and the ability of the script to pack as much exposition as it does into small amounts of verbiage is incredible. The opening scene plays a good four minutes long as a single shot, and the interplay between the three characters is bang on. Comedic timing is also perfect, with exchanges landing just where they should for maximum impact. In several places six or seven characters are firing off lines in quick succession, and nothing ever feels forced. While the comedic element plays out both in terms of language and situational antics, Sturges turns the film on its head on a dime, and continues to amaze while shifting gears on several levels throughout the second half of the picture, which in contrast, features very little dialogue relying solely on visual storytelling.

Of course, we should not overlook an outstanding cast as well, one that Sturges will utilize as his stock company (including Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger) for the remainder of his films with Paramount. Joel McCrea is best known as a western star, but his performance here is phenomenal, carrying humor and serious moments with equal skill. His equally gifted co-star, the stunning Veronica Lake keeps pace step for step. The supporting cast all are adept at establishing their characters by their very presence, and the combination of a great script and the actor's interpretations build a great ensemble performance. Even smaller parts are perfectly cast; Sullivan's butlers (Eric Blore and Robert Greig) the sisters (Almira Sessions and Esther Howard), the work boss and his assistant, all combine to create an experience that adds depth and dimension to Sullivan's journey, leading to its inevitable conclusion. Sullivan's Travels will reward from repeated viewings, as the brilliance of its creator becomes even more evident as the details of the production are revisited. This is a true artisan at work, and we are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy the results here.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Criterion presents a new transfer from a 35mm duplicate negative, and the results here nothing short of amazing. As with any of these older films I've seen, quality varies from scene to scene, but here that variance is from great to outstanding. While a few places seem a little over contrasted, others exhibit an extremely wide tonal spectrum, and incredible levels of detail in the image. There is an occasional artifact present resembling interlacing, though this hardly noticeable. Print defects are virtually non-existent. This is another first rate presentation, just ever so shy of perfect.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The clarity of the mono audio track is excellent, with no sign of hiss present. Frequency range is understandably limited with no deep bass or extreme treble, however the presentation still sounds very natural, with no brittleness and only very mild compression distortion during dense moments in the soundtrack, attributable to the optical source for this release.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Preston Sturges: the Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer documentary
  2. Sandy Sturges interview
  3. Photo galleries
  4. Radio interview
  5. Home recordings
Extras Review: Anyone disputing Criterion's crown for supplements has been dealt another serious blow with the accoutrements for Sullivan's Travels. As is the case on the majority of their releases substance takes precedent over quantity in and of itself, but you will have to invest a good bit of time to fully appreciate the full content of this disc.

We start with a running commentary track by Noah Baumbach, documentarian Kenneth Bowser, and writer/director/actors Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. Each offers insights into the film's construction, pointing out elements in each scene, and discussing the complexity of the film's many tonal changes, along with anecdotes about Sturges' affect on the industry, and the standard he raised for later writers aspiring to direct.

The 76-minute documentary produced for PBS' American Masters series entitled Preston Sturges: the Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer takes a look at the writer/director/producer through the eyes of his family, friends, associates and some of the actors who worked with him during his all too brief career. Documented is Sturges' upbringing, his early jobs and finally his breakthrough as the first writer turned director in Hollywood. The piece is punctuated by scenes from several of his films, including The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and Hail The Conquering Hero which would be my only reservation for those who haven't seen his other work yet, as they may contain spoilers. Still we get a nice insight into the man and his career, from its inception to its end.

This is followed by an exclusive interview (13m:37s), filmed for this release in January 2001, with Sandy Sturges, the director's widow, who brings many more stories from his life to focus.

Next we move on to the Archival Material section. Here you will find a vast number of photographs categorized by type. The Stills Gallery features two options; Production stills (91 shots including 6 from scenes not used in the film) and Behind the Scenes, containing 60 images from around the set and promotional sessions.

The Storyboards section is divided into one branch with 10 storyboards, and another containing 17 overhead blueprints from various shots, detailing the camera setups. Most of these have a great additional feature which allows you to actually see a still from the different camera locations indicated on the blueprints.

We also get a Scrapbook with 20 screens of poster art, headlines, reviews and so forth from the picture's release.

A trio of audio only extras follows. The first is a 4-minute, 1951 radio interview for Hedda Hopper's Hollywood in which Preston Sturges discusses amongst other things, the advent of television and its effect on the motion picture industry. Next is a home recording of a recitation of a poem by Justin Hartly McCarty from the stageplay If I Were King, which formed the basis for Sturges' 1938 screenplay of the same name. Closing out the section is Sturges singing one of his 100 musical creations, My Love in another 1938 home recording.

Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is also included. An essay on Sturges and Sullivan's Travels is contained in the insert booklet.

I would note that the menus are somewhat sluggish, and that this disc had extreme problems in my Mac's DVD drive, as it would not allow itself to be ejected and had to be forceably removed.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

Well, they done it again. Criterion presents this masterwork from one of Hollywood's most famous directors in grand style, with a pristine transfer and host of supplements. The film is brilliant, combining witty and impeccable dialogue scripting, superb direction and outstanding performances from its entire cast. Part slapstick, part serious, Sullivan's Travels takes us on a trip into the world of the underpriviledged, who just might have a thing or two to teach the upper class. An incredible journey from beginning to end, this gets my highest recommendation.

 


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