“The poor know all about poverty”

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is probably one of the best movies ever made about movies. It tells the story of privileged, successful comedy director John Sullivan and his Homeric effort to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou (a title that the Coen brothers would use sixty years later, in a sly reference-homage to Sturges’ masterpiece).

It is immediately evident that this is not your standard movie. Sullivan’s grandiloquent speech to his producers in the beginning of the film makes this abundantly clear. While Sullivan is trying to persuade them to finance a film that would document human misery (“I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!”), the producers keep throwing back at him the phrase “But with a little sex in it”. The producers cannot get the point, just as 1940 Hollywood could not get the point. The only way they can understand is by referencing another famous director of the era who also made movies with social commentary. “Like Capra?”, one of them asks. “What’s wrong with Capra?”, Sullivan replies, but you feel a jab of irony in the tone. Sturges also targets Lubitsch – a running gag is that the Veronica Lake character wants to audition for one of his films, completely ignoring the identity of the main character, an alter ego for Sturges himself.

The movie is brilliantly written (by Sturges) and manages to not fall apart despite the several changes of tone, which alone is a remarkable feat. There’s comedy (verbal as well as slapstick reminiscent of silent films), romance, drama, social critique. Somehow, it all makes sense.

What struck me most though is that neither Capra nor Lubitsch could have made this film, which is much more daring in its depiction of social injustice (some parts even reminded me of George Orwell’s 1933 memoir Down and Out in London and Paris). The scenes concerning the amnesiac Sullivan, in the last thirty minutes of the movie or so, are all shocking, even by today’s standards: the cruelty with which he is treated when no one knows his true identity, the corrupt and sadistic power enjoyed by the gaoler against the condemned men to forced labour, and so forth. The movie also raises questions about the right to representation, who wields it and for whose benefit. When one of Sullivan’s butlers is informed of his master’s intention to “find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then make a picture about it”, he replies: “The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous”.

Perhaps the most memorable sequence was the one in the church – the convicts are transferred there, to watch a movie on a projection screen. The scene immediately preceding their arrival was one of the most stunning I have ever seen. A black priest, preaching to an exclusively black flock, entreats them to receive kindly and without prejudice those less fortunate than they are. This is 1940 America and a black man is preaching about what is essentially civic rights. The convicts arrive and the movie starts – it’s a cartoon. They all start laughing, almost abandoned in their happiness for this rare escape from the harsh realities of their world. Sullivan looks perplexed in the beginning but soon the euphoric feeling catches up with him (the almost grotesque close-ups of the faces of the prisoners laughing provide a stark contrast to the scene’s general mood).

The film ends with Sullivan refusing to direct O Brother, Where Art Thou, to the chagrin of his producers who are eager to capitalize on the publicity following his disappearance and presumed death. Sullivan delivers a speech about the impact of comedy in people’s lives and how making people laugh may not seem much, but it’s all some people have and “it’s better than nothing”. Now, this is a deeply conservative view of society and the function of entertainment in it: we cannot change anything or make poor people’s lives essentially better, so let’s try and make them laugh instead. But Sturges’ images of poverty, misery and destitution speak louder than his intentions to celebrate comedy (as the dedication of the film implies). And anyone who is not profoundly moved by the humanity of this movie, must be very cynical indeed.

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