Friday, June 17, 2011

Sullivan's Travels

There is a wonderful scene in Preston Sturges’s comedy classic Sullivan’s Travels in which a group of inmates in a draconian prison are freed of their shackles, literally and metaphorically, and allowed to watch some Disney cartoons. Sullivan’s Travels is about a big-time Hollywood director who dresses up as a hobo in order to gather material for a script based on a depression-era novel called O Brother Where Art Thou by one Sinclair Beckstein. (The Coen brothers would recycle this title for a film based loosely on Homer’s The Odyssey.) In his hobo garb, Sullivan is mistakenly arrested and convicted of assault, and no one believes him when he claims he’s a famous Hollywood director and naturally innocent. When he’s finally freed through a series of tiny miracles (really directorial sleights of hand on Sturges’s part, the improbability of which only highlights the intractability of real despair), Sullivan is chastened. Having known true misery, he realizes that neither prisoners nor the public at large want to see it portrayed on the big screen. It’s sobering to recognize that despite the great achievements of history’s Caravaggios and Genets, who found beauty in squalor, it’s neither surprising nor even reprehensible that the mass of men, personified by Sturges’s inmates, consume art for escape and release. But Sturges has his cake and eats it too. Yes, The Great McGinty and The Palm Beach Story are delightful treats, but the director is wily. There is a message and a dark side to his classics, which gives us pause for thought as we serve our time.

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