Bright Lights Film Journal

Two by Sturges: <em>Sullivan’s Travels</em> and <em>The Lady Eve</em> on DVD

Criterion serves up two more deep-dish DVDs from yesteryear

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Hollywood’s self-exams are usually dipped in acid: What Price Hollywood?, A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Knife, Two Weeks in Another Town, The Day of the Locust. Even The Player, for all its pointed humor, has murder on its mind. Preston Sturges’ well-regarded Sullivan’s Travels, freshly restored in a characteristically pristine Criterion package, is something else. Sturges was no misanthrope. Unlike other Hollywood analyzers, he took glee in human misbehavior. Sullivan’s Travels is delighted by eccentricities and is most often sweet-natured and funny. John L. Sullivan, a well-intended big time director played with straightforward honesty by Joel McCrea, wishes to make a movie of poverty in America called O Brother, Where Art Thou? But he has never wanted for anything, so he dons a hobo outfit from the costume department and hits the rails. The suits are outraged, until they see it as a fantastic publicity stunt. Sullivan manages to ditch them, and then doubles his luck by meeting luscious Veronica Lake. From there, Sullivan’s Travels veers in the most unexpected directions, and our poor naive director can’t imagine the horrors awaiting.

Sullivan’s Travels is not Sturges’ best movie. It lacks the commanding high spirits of The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story. But there is plenty to recommend, including the justly famous comic chase scene to end all comic chase scenes. Lake is fetching, and she clearly enjoys piling her platinum tresses in a cap to play a vagabond. McCrea is geologically handsome, but he suggests a vulnerable little boy behind the solid exterior. There is also the trademark sharp dialogue, fast action and those grand supporting players. One of the pleasures of a Sturges movie is the parade of oddballs, cranks, natty butlers, crass opportunists, lonely widows, and assorted miscreants that weave in and out of nearly every scene, threatening to render the romantic leads irrelevant.

Perhaps more than any other Sturges movie, Sullivan’s Travels commits itself to extreme changes in mood and tone. The chase scene, and Lake’s sped-up sprint through a backlot in hoop skirt and bloomers, are pure slapstick. At the other extreme is a chain-gang sequence of shocking realism for 1941 Hollywood. When McCrea and Lake wander through a hobo camp, the tone shifts again into something close to what Sullivan envisioned for O Brother, Where Art Thou? These are bold moves for writer-director Sturges, but not altogether successful. Perhaps on numerous viewings the lurching back and forth would be accepted, but Sullivan’s testimony suggesting that laughter is a higher calling than social realism sticks in the craw. It’s one thing to celebrate laughter, and to ponder the responsibilities of the moviemaker, but Sturges puts us through a fairly hellish middle portion of the movie, with McCrea going so far as to pound a rock into someone’s head. With all that behind us, did Sturges think we could shrug it off and conclude that laughter really is the best medicine? Or is this his absolution from making “serious” pictures? Sturges’ methods and message leave me with a vague unease.

Included in this rich DVD is Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, a 1989 PBS documentary of his life and work. It’s edifying, if only as a lesson in how reputations are distorted. Todd McCarthy, Variety film critic and writer of Preston Sturges, avows that The Great McGinty, Sturges’ first movie as writer-director released in 1940, was a watershed event in Hollywood history. That’s debatable, but not half as suspect as his declaration that Sturges “introduced irony to screen comedy.” To buy that, one would have to believe that everyone pre-Sturges was either pathetically sincere or did not comprehend the fact that irony can be funny. So much for Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933) , and Leo McCarey’s The Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). So much for the careers of Buster Keaton and Marie Dressler.

Misjudgments such as McCarthy’s go applauded or unchallenged all too often, as they fulfill a desire to pin superlatives on dead artists whose work still looks fresh. But the McCarthy’s notes on the DVD further inflate Sturges, asserting that he deserves “eternal veneration as the first screenwriter to decisively break through as a director.” That’s just plain wrong. Edmund Goulding wrote screenplays for Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, George Arliss, Joan Crawford, William Powell, and Edward G. Robinson before directing and/or writing huge successes at United Artists (The Trespasser), MGM (The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel) and Warner Bros. (Dark Victory). All of Goulding’s aforementioned achievements happened before The Great McGinty. This isn’t the first time that Criterion has let slip some real whoppers, and it’s unfortunate that their fact checking doesn’t equal their exquisite attention to digital transfers. Sturges made a handful of great movies, but exaggeration of his name does not well serve his memory.

The Lady Eve (1941)

Watching Criterion’s release of Sturges’ The Lady Eve on the heels of Sullivan’s Travels was a valuable exercise. Let’s not mince words: The Lady Eve is a superior film. With its seeming disinterest in serious themes, and its buoyant pleasure in the charades humans play, the film manages to be more substantive and richer in meaning that the quasi-portentous Sullivan’s Travels.

Cardsharp Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her “crooked but not common” father, the “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Colburn), decide to fleece millionaire-sucker Charles (Henry Fonda) during an ocean liner cruise. The brooding Charles has been up the Amazon for a year on a scientific expedition, which is code in sophisticated Hollywood comedies of the 1940s for horny as hell. In blatant but delightful references to Genesis, Jane/Eve tempts Charles with the judicious use of an apple. From there the glorious war between the sexes begins.

Stanwyck as duplicitous Jean would appear to have everything under control. Fonda as Charles offers a fairly silly depiction of mankind – he’s foggy-headed, dewy-eyed, and forever prone to pratfalls. He’s the classic nerd; his love of snakes is the flipside of his inexperience with life. She needs him, she says, “like an axe needs a turkey.” But it’s not that simple, not when his snake starts slithering around his cabin.

The otherwise cool Jane goes shrieking in terror. When Charles discovers Jane’s identity as a con dame, he inflicts further emotional hurt on her as best he can. Considering that she has fallen in love, the hurt cuts deeply. Back and forth the power play goes, with foxy Jean usually a few steps ahead of sheepish Charles. It seems to me that in today’s climate it would be fairly impossible to make a movie of such facile and fun-spirited sexual politics. Eve the temptress as embodied by Stanwyck is never a castrating bitch. Neither does she lose her femininity or play the game of love (or cards) according to the rules of men. Quite the contrary; men conform to her. Only when she allows love to dictate her actions does she give up her imperious position. But Sturges and Company don’t for one minute suggest that is a defeat for womankind. Jane has simply decided to act as a woman in love. In doing so, she loses control and autonomy. But such things are worth nothing when the heart is under lock and key. Love, the ultimate con game, is what brings us closer to our humanity.

What is it about Barbara Stanwyck? She was not a great beauty, though she was never lovelier than in the Edith Head gowns she wears here. To borrow the words of Alan Jay Lerner, “Where her figure ought to be, it is not.” But as the years go by, we realize what a smashing wonderful star she was. Her line deliveries crackle with a wit and grace all but absent in today’s market. She could deliver cold sexy (Double Indemnity) or warm sexy (The Lady Eve) with absolute persuasion. At her peak in the 1940s, she simply had no rival as an actress who made being an actress look like so much fun.

It is interesting to note that her Lux Radio Theater performance of The Lady Eve, included here among the extras, sounds stagy and forced. Did Stanwyck need a camera to make magic? Certainly the central advantage of The Lady Eve over Sullivan’s Travels is the presence of Stanwyck and Fonda. Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea simply don’t possess the equivalent charm, though McCrea had the skill to take on the Fonda role.

Even the DVD of The Lady Eve is better. Film scholar Marian Keane offers penetrating if sometimes over-studied commentary; she takes such joy from The Lady Eve that one can hear her voice smiling. When the corporeally magnificent Eugene Pallette as Fonda’s father descends the staircase of his palatial home, we share in her tribute to the fine character actor. Likewise, the notes by James Harvey that accompany the DVD don’t hyperventilate or reinvent the achievements of Preston Sturges. Instead, Harvey simply and persuasively builds a case for The Lady Eve as a great movie. No argument here. One extraordinary scene follows another. There are the cruising females agog over moneybags Fonda; the fantastic dance of motives between Colburn, Stanwyck, and Fonda during a card game; the arrival of the “very very” Lady Eve, the precarious dinner roast, that horse!, and Eve’s man-happy past revealed on the train. The Lady Eve possess an obscene number of wonderful moments. And, yes, they add up to one great movie.