John L. Sullivan is a Hollywood director who makes $4000 per week. (The average yearly wage in 1941 was around $1500.) He makes comedies, like Ants in Your Pants of 1939, but he yearns to make a serious movie. He wants to film a book about hard times and poverty and other important things, called O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Sinclair Beckstein. (Which wouldn’t actually be made until those crazy Coen Brothers borrowed the title in 2000!) But he knows he is ignorant about such things, and proposes to go on the road as a tramp, with only a dime in his pocket. His English butler, Burrows, who apparently has seen hard times at first hand, thinks this is a bad idea, and tells him so in this wonderful exchange:
Sullivan: I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.
Burrows: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?
Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.
… You see, sir, rich people and theorists – who are usually rich people – think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches – as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.
I would amend that last to “even for purposes of study, except by professionals.” Other than that, I agree with everything Burrows said.
I think this is Preston Sturges’s most important movie. It is serious social commentary masquerading as comedy. The DVD includes the trailer, and it gives absolutely no hint of the horrors lying ahead for the viewer. And for the first 45 minutes, it is a comedy, nothing more. Which is Sturges’s way of leading us down a path we might have avoided if we had known.
It takes no leap at all to think that Sullivan is Sturges. I don’t think the movie was written out of any feeling of guilt as a purveyor of light-hearted comedy, though it’s possible to see it that way. Sturges takes Sullivan (Joel McCrea, in a wonderfully understated performance) through a lot of slapstick and funny situations at first, when it seems he can’t even manage to get out of Hollywood. Then he (improbably) teams up with a down-on-her-luck girl (Veronica Lake) and they finally manage to get to experience some real poverty. It isn’t pretty, and we see it in a seven- or eight-minute sequence that is absolutely brilliant, and silent except for music. Soup kitchens, flophouses, shantytowns … they spend what might be a week at all this, and in the end we see them opening a garbage can, looking for something to eat … and they flinch at what they see, look at each other, and run to the nearest phone to get the studio to pick them up.
But Sullivan has learned nothing. He’s seen the suffering, but even though his shoes were stolen while he slept one night, he doesn’t seem to realize that along with need, there is also greed. In a gesture that shows his total cluelessness, he goes out into the city at night handing out 5-dollar bills to all the poor people he sees. Naturally, somebody cold-cocks him, throws him into a boxcar … and then is hit by a train, mangled beyond recognition. Everyone assumes Sullivan is dead, but he’s actually alive, put in prison for assault on a railroad yard bull. Six years! Now he begins to understand what real poverty and suffering is all about.
The climax of the film is when the chain-gang prisoners are marched into a nearby Negro church—I use the word that would have been current then—for a night at the movies. (The president of the NAACP wrote to thank Preston Sturges for his sensitive and positive portrayal of the black congregation, who welcome the prisoners as “ones less fortunate than us.”) The show begins with a Walt Disney Pluto cartoon (Sturges wanted Charlie Chaplin, but Chaplin wouldn’t allow it). And Sullivan can’t understand why everybody is laughing … until it hits him, too. Sometimes laughter is all you’ve got.
At the end of all this, he stuns the studio execs by saying he no longer wants to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he wants to make a comedy. Why? Because even after all he’s been through, he realizes he hasn’t suffered enough to make that picture. The last lines of the movie:
Sullivan: There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.
And I say, bravo for the clowns of the world. They can make things better, if only briefly, and their work is often undervalued. And after this movie (his fourth as a director) Sturges went back to what he did better than anyone: sophisticated comedy.
Footnote: Preston Sturges’s childhood sounds a little like Auntie Mame. His mother was an eccentric bohemian who dragged him all over Europe and America, married four times including once to a millionaire, and was tight with people like Aleister Crowley and Isadora Duncan. In fact, she was the one who gave Isadora the scarf that ended up strangling her!