John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a director with some successful films under his belt, but he is by no means satisfied. He feels (and rightfully so) that his previous efforts have been mere entertainment, so he wants to make a socially substantial picture now, one that has a real message. Sullivan wants to capture true hardship on the screen, but as his producers tell him, he knows nothing about the subject. As he has been pampered since birth, Sullivan has no way to portray hardship, which leads him to a rather unusual idea. He seeks to leave his lush lifestyle behind, hit the road as a hobo, and experience life’s hardships for himself. But the plan ends up thrown off course by outsiders, until Sullivan puts his foot down and demands to be allowed to run his course. As he travels the path of the common man, he finds trouble, romance, triumph, and even more trouble, but when all is said and done, what will Sullivan learn from his time on the road?
A hilarious and very intelligent picture by the gifted Preston Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels seems like a natural choice for The Criterion Collection. Sturges pulls a double whammy with this movie, as the direction is dead on and the writing, this is some truly classic stuff. With Sullivan’s Travels, we’re taken inside Hollywood and shown a man with big ideas, even if he has no idea about his ideas, to be sure. I’ve never passed up a chance to view this movie, especially with first timers, as it produces some fantastic laughs. Never dull and never resorting to the cheap humor tactics, this movie is the real deal and a true classic movie, if you ask me. Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake are splendid in their roles, while as I mentioned, Preston Sturges handles the behind the camera tasks to perfection. I highly recommend this brilliant comedic film and since Criterion has pulled out all the stops with this disc, it’s nothing short of a must see release.
I think one of the most memorable parts of Sullivan’s Travels has to be Veronica Lake, who simply shines within her role. She is so beautiful and charming here, it isn’t hard to understand why she’s so much trouble, to be sure. But even with a lot of trouble around her, Lake is fantastic in Sullivan’s Travels, which I think is her finest work in total. Her career spanned a lot of time, but she didn’t make too many movies, only around thirty before she died. But out of those number, this is the one she truly belongs in, without a doubt. You can also see Lake in such films as Flesh Feast, The Sainted Sisters, Hold That Blonde, Sorority House, and I Married A Witch. The cast also includes Joel McCrea (Border River, Stranger on Horseback), Robert Warwick (Escape to Burma, Lady Godiva), and Margaret Hayes (Blackboard Jungle, One Dangerous Night).
Video: How’s it look?
This has been offered by Criterion in a standard DVD format, however for this Blu-ray release a new HD digital restoration was created. Though there’s a noticeable improvement in picture quality compared to the DVD version, it’s still a bit lacking. Granted, if Criterion can’t make it look the best it can be – no one can. That said, Sullivan’s Travels is presented in a 1.37:1 AVC HD image. The material looks good here, thanks to Criterion’s digital touch-up work, though some age signs still creep in. I do think the grain gets a little thick in spots, but the image is still solid and retains a good level of sharpness. The black levels are spot on accurate and never falter, which ensures the black & white visuals here always look terrific.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This appears to be the same mono mix found on the standard DVD. I heard little in terms of the usual mono flaws however, as hiss and distortion were minimal here. The materials seem to have held up better than most from this era, as the audio is clean and pleasant throughout. This is mono however, so don’t expect too much from this track. This disc also includes English subtitles.
Supplements: What are the extras?
There are a few new additions to the 2001 Criterion DVD, though it appears as if everything on the previous disc has made the leap to this Blu-ray version.
Audio Commentary – An audio commentary with Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest kicks off the release, though it is an unstable start. The track is not the usual Criterion session, as Guest and McKean just sort of ramble at times, with little real information to share. Bowser contributes some goodies here and there, but on the whole, this track proved to be a let down.
Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer – An extensive documentary on the career of Sturges. With a total length of over seventy minutes, this piece is fantastic and goes in depth on the subject, never just a worship session here. A look at Sturges as both a filmmaker and a man, this documentary paints a vast portrait of him, sometimes in a lesser light.
Ants in Your Plants of 1941 – A new feature to this Blu-ray focuses on some of the “world influence” with David Cairns and Director Bill Forsyth who give a good summary of the dialogue, some of the political and social undertones of the film and its lasting influence.
Sandy Sturges – Preston Sturges’ widow dishes some of the dirt on her ex-husband as well as his relations with those in the film industry and some of the actors and actresses that he worked with. It’s an interesting and very candid piece.
Sturges Talks to Hedda Hopper – A radio interview with Preston Sturges originally broadcast on Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood show.
Sturges Recites “If I Were a King” – A very brief (2 minute) segment in which Sturges recites Justin Huntly McCarthy’s poem.
Sturges Sings “My Love” – Sturges sings the song that he wrote and that appeared in several other films.
Essay by Critic Stuart Klawans – Critic Stuart Klawans contributes to this Blu-ray edition with a piece on the film.
The Bottom Line
I personally prefer The Lady Eve over Sullivan’s Travels, but this one is the one that gets most of the attention and the accolades (hence its inclusion on the 2007 AFI Top 100 films list). Still, it’s hard to deny that Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea were in top form and the theme of the movie is one that’s actually still relatable. Criterion has once again done a bang up job with the disc, even adding a few new features from their previously-released 2001 DVD. As such, it’s an easy recommendation.