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Criterion Release: Sullivan’s Travels

April 14, 2015

By John Corrado

Sullivan's Travels Blu-rayToday, the 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels is being released on Blu-ray, through the Criterion Collection.  John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a popular director of escapist studio fare, who finds himself at an existential crossroads, and wants to make a serious film that will accurately depict the harsh realities of life.  Posing as a homeless traveller, he attempts to escape the privileged Hollywood system, to experience poverty and troubles for the first time.

What remains striking about Sullivan’s Travels is the way that writer-director Preston Sturges handles the mix of genres and tones throughout the film, packing layers of subtext into the brilliantly written script.  This is a biting satire of celebrity riches, the likes of which feel just as relevant now, and seem almost prescient for their time.

But the film also serves as a dramatic critique of the social order, and is often outwardly moving in its exploration of these themes, including a striking wordless sequence that takes us through a humbling night spent on the streets and in a homeless shelter.  These themes are explored even further through an ingeniously staged twist of fate at the end, culminating with an unforgettable sequence that powerfully shows the profound affects of cinema upon audiences in dire need of escape.

Both as a tragicomedy with deeper themes beneath the surface, which continue to be dissected nearly 75 years later, and as a celebration of the importance of making people laugh, Sullivan’s Travels still holds up beautifully.  Joel McCrea compellingly portrays his character’s struggle for meaning, shifting perfectly between the comedic scenes and moments of emotional desperation, in a performance that already seems timeless.  The cinematography also feels excitingly ahead of its time for 1941, and the crisp black and white images are particularly striking on Blu-ray.  This new edition is highly recommended.

The Blu-ray includes commentary with filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, the 1990 documentary Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, archival audio recordings of the director and a 1951 interview with him, a 2001 interview with his widow, and a new video essay on his work.  There’s also a written essay by critic Stuart Klawans.

Sullivan’s Travels is 90 minutes and not rated.

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