Pioneering writer-director Preston Sturges once said “too much security is bad for art,” and this became the motto not only of his full life and dazzlingly abrupt Hollywood career, but of his fourth film, the daringly eccentric yet pitch-perfect comedy “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Recipient of the very first original screenplay Oscar for his initial directing effort, 1940’s “The Great McGinty,” Sturges arguably rose faster and fell harder than any helmer then or since, churning out seven more features by 1944, when he and Paramount had a falling out. But along the way, Hollywood’s “melancholy wise guy” created a precious handful of frenetic comic masterpieces peopled with his unofficial character actor stock company, and forged a template for future hyphenates, who, if they’re smart (or just desperate), have wooed the suits with variations on what Sturges once told Paramount production executive Jesse L. Lasky: “Good dialogue is the cheapest insurance a producer can buy.”
Tired of cranking out such popular entertainments as “Hey, Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants in Your Plants of 1939,” naive yet successful 32-year-old Hollywood director John L. “Sully” Sullivan (Joel McCrea, cast triumphantly against type) decides his next picture will be an adaptation of Sinclair Beckstein’s weighty tome “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (a title so deliciously pompous and cumbersome the Coens swiped it for their recent pic and even made George Clooney up to look like Sturges — who may be glimpsed clearly in the background of “Sullivan’s Travels” at the 01:25:56 mark).
To that end, and against the advice of his butler, handlers and the studio brass, Sullivan cloaks himself in some wardrobe rags and sets off to find out “what trouble is” in post-Depression, pre-World War II America.
A series of comic misadventures ensue, both solo and with his new muse, a diffidently sexy and effortlessly ironic number known only as the Girl (Veronica Lake, six months pregnant and on the verge of peek-a-boo stardom). Eventually deciding he’s done enough research, Sully makes one last sojourn to distribute $5 bills to hobos — only to be thrown into a remote prison camp, where he learns the true value of laughter before an ingenious escape and an impassioned vow to continue making people laugh as a tonic for the times.
The first of the 11 American comedies Sturges directed to receive the DVD treatment, “Sullivan’s Travels” shines on this Criterion pressing, created from a nearly pristine 35mm duplicate negative in the original 1:33:1 fullframe aspect ratio and crisp optical monaural soundtrack.
The package is generous with extras, including an interview with Sturges’ widow Sandy; a dupey but clever original trailer; brief audio recordings of Sturges himself; and galleries of storyboards, blueprints, production stills (including five photos from cut sequences) and publicity material.
But the real keeper of the set is the belated ancillary market debut of producer-director Kenneth Bowser’s splendid 1990 American Masters docu “Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer,” which enthusiastically delves into the eccentric helmer’s storied life — and won an Emmy for writer (and Variety chief film critic) Todd McCarthy, who also authored the essay in the set’s accompanying booklet.
The package’s chief drawback is the commentary track, which was apparently cobbled together from separate sessions with Bowser, “Kicking & Screaming” director Noah Baumbach, “Best in Show” director Christopher Guest and actor-writer Michael McKean. Any combination of the analytical Bowser and/or sincere McKean would’ve sufficed, as Baumbach is too underutilized to register and Guest’s deadpan absurdities are just plain inappropriate. Worse, the men only sporadically identify themselves or each other, leading to more confusion than enlightenment.
Criterion promises Sturges’ third pic, “The Lady Eve” (which many consider his crowning achievement) in mid-October. All his films deserve to be seen and cherished by a new generation of audiences — and filmmakers: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh, didja know that’s all some people have?,” Sully preaches passionately at the conclusion of his travels. “It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy.”