November 30, 2000

Cornell Cinema

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Depression era comedy. Sick? Perverse? Disrespectful? Impossible? None of the above. In fact, the Great Depression, which loomed like a dark cloud over this country from 1929 until about 1939, yielded some of the best and most memorable comedic cinema of all time. This period of economic turmoil and patriotic heartache gave birth to such paramount American icons as Mickey Mouse, Shirley Temple, Laurel and Hardy, Bugs Bunny, and The Three Stooges.

These screen entertainers provided a few minutes of laughter for an entire nation of downtrodden people. Not to say that The Grapes of Wrath didn’t deserve its 1940 Oscar, but it was not the type of film that might inspire a feeling of happiness or hope in the hearts of the weary. In reality, laughter was the best medicine at the time.

Comedy may have reached its finest hour during the Great Depression. The brief moments of escapism that comedy offered to Americans was food for the mind and spirit that helped audiences to forget the cries of their stomachs. The warmth gained from five cents of chuckles took the chill off the cold night air when thin clothes and worn shoes couldn’t.

This is the message that is brilliantly and entertainingly delivered by Preston Sturge’s masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels, a depression-era comedy and social satire. To lay it on the line, this is a great movie. It’s completely entertaining on all fronts, offering a great story line, superb performances, witty dialogue, intelligent insights, and supreme artistry. Rarely does one find such a well rounded film, in any era of cinema.

If you are accustomed to the witty and perky films that starred the likes of Hepburn, Grant, or Stewart, Sullivan’s Travels may come as a slight shock. Usually, comedic films from this period are subtly laced with sexual innuendoes and although they generally portray endearing, relatable characters, they always seem a bit plasticized.

But Sullivan’s Travels departs from these stereotypical attributes. A few blatant, yet comedic references to sex, scandal, and deceit in addition to a blonde bombshell with the disposition of Tyler Durden from Fight Club earn the film a place on the shelf of “Before Its Time.”

Veronica Lake, a sizzling 1940s screen goddess, plays a Hollywood hopeful full of cynicism and disillusionment (the pessimists always get the best dialogue) who has decided to throw in the towel, but finds what she’s been looking for when she least expects it. This ‘something’ turns out to be big-time movie director John L. Sullivan who has decided to roam America dressed as a bum in order to find “trouble.”

Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, has historically directed hit comedies, but becomes passionately dedicated to directing a movie about the plight of the average American who is riddled by tragedy and poverty. The problem is, Sullivan was raised in the midst of country clubs, boarding schools, European vacations, and swimming pools, a far cry from the Shanty Town. He finally realizes that he doesn’t have the insight necessary to make a film that relates to the lives and hardship of ordinary Americans.

So, the rich and powerful director takes a bum costume from Wardrobe and hits the road to explore the American landscape that lies beyond the pearly gates of Los Angeles. With his thumb raised high in the air, Sullivan begins his search for trouble. And boy, does he find it. In a delightful twist of plot, Sullivan learns what it’s like to be a the bottom of the barrel. But, then, like any heartwarming, soul tickling movie, he learns his lesson and gets the girl.

The film is an innovative melding of social insight and comedy resulting in humorous realism. This is ultimately a melding of Sullivan’s notions, to understand the plight of the Depression-era American, but also to give the audience the gift of escapism through laughter.

So when you find yourself with zero cash flow, wondering if the check you just wrote out to NYSEG is about to bounce or not, pop in a movie that makes you battle for bladder control each time you watch it. Lose yourself in laughter.

Archived article by Laura Thomas