I mentioned in last month’s review of The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray
release of The Palm Beach Story,
Preston Sturges was a rare breed in Hollywood in the early 1940s. After
Chaplin, he was the only working screenwriter/director in that he wrote
original scripts alone and then directed them, and he put an auteur stamp on each picture in terms of
style and themes. Naturally, the bigwigs in Hollywood resented the guy, and
Sturges often had a tough time at Paramount, where his most prolific and productive
five-year-reign took place. He was a flame that burned very brightly for a
short time. This brief career arc of a genius filmmaker is aptly presented in one
of the supplements on this new release—Preston
Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, which originally
appeared on television’s American Masters
Sturges’ best work, Sullivan’s Travels was
released as a DVD from The Criterion Collection over a decade ago. The company
has seen fit to upgrade the film to Blu-ray with a new high-definition digital
restoration. Naturally, it looks magnificent, and I think by now we can take
for granted that Criterion will do a bang-up job on any digital restorations
has been written about Sullivan’s Travels
and there is no question that it is a remarkable piece of work. It premiered in
late 1941 but wasn’t released to the public until early 1942; nevertheless, it
received no Oscar nominations and at the time wasn’t as popular as Sturges’
previous pictures. Why? Possibly because it made audiences think. Yes, it’s a comedy, but that’s really only the first half.
After that, the picture becomes pretty serious, with a very sympathetic and
almost-sentimental social commentary on poverty and the Great Depression. It’s
true that the writer/director’s signature fast-and-witty dialogue is present
throughout, but the belly laughs are few in this particular title. Maybe
audiences in 1942 were wondering what happened to the Preston Sturges they
knew. Ironically (and Sturges was very big on irony), the film is now
considered a classic and Sturges’ masterpiece.
McCrea plays Sullivan, a popular Hollywood movie director who specializes in
comedies. What he really wants to do, however, is make a serious and
responsible Capra-esque picture about human suffering, entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (And, yes,
this is where the Coen Brothers got the title for their movie from 2000.) After
much haggling with the studio bosses, Sullivan dresses as a “tramp” and hits
the road in order to undergo first-hand what the American people have been
experiencing during the Depression. Along the way, he meets beautiful Veronica
Lake, and Sully unwittingly allows her to tag along. The movie is then made up
of the couple’s various misadventures, including a hard left turn in which Sullivan
is sent to a hard labor prison with a mistaken identity. One of the most
striking scenes in the picture is when an African-American church opens its
doors to the prisoners for a field trip to watch movies projected on the wall.
It is there that Sullivan has an epiphany about his work and life—and it’s a
very good lesson for us all.
Sturges’ populates Sullivan’s Travels with his usual stock company of character actors, including William Demarest, Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, Arthur Hoyt, Esther Howard, Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn, Robert Warwick, Porter Hall, and Robert Greig, among others. These faces are always a joy to see. And if you look closely, Sturges himself has a cameo late in the film, as a movie director, on the set where Veronica Lake sees Sully’s photo in the newspaper.
Unfortunately, Criterion did not port over all of the supplements from the older DVD release, though they did add one new extra—a video essay by film critic David Cairns and filmmaker Bill Forsythe. Some supplements—the storyboards/blueprints, production stills, publicity materials scrapbook, and original theatrical trailer—were dropped altogether from the Blu-ray release, which means if that stuff is important to you then you may want to hold on to the earlier version. Supplements from the previous release are the aforementioned American Masters documentary; the audio commentary by Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean (this is a pleasure); an interview with Sandy Sturges (the director’s widow); an interview with Sturges by Hedda Hopper; and audio recordings of Sturges singing songs. The booklet’s essay is by critic Stuart Klawans.
So—to upgrade or not? If you’re a Sturges fan and love Sullivan’s Travels as much as I do, then, yes, the Blu-ray’s superior video quality is worth it. Regardless, this is must-see cinema for any film buff.