Summer Under the Stars: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

TCM’s star of the day is Joel McCrea, and my film pick for the actor is Sullivan’s Travels, which airs today at 8:00 P.M. (EST).

The film follows successful movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who wants to take on more serious, dramatic topics after making a series of lighter, escapist films. He sets out to live like a hobo for a period of time to experience the suffering of poorer people, which he believes will help him create his cinematic masterpiece titled O Brother, Where Art Thou? but he soon gets a rude awakening.

Preston Sturges said in his autobiography that he wrote the screenplay for Sullivan’s Travels as a response to the “preaching” he was seeing in other comedies at the time “which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message.” That didn’t mean Sturges didn’t have a message of his own to spread in this comedy film, but it’s one that emphasizes that lighter, escapist fare serves an important purpose for moviegoers, and it’s a message that still rings true today.

By the time production began on the film in May 1941, Sturges was in the midst of a very good year; in February he both won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Great McGinty and released one of his most successful films, The Lady Eve. For the lead female role, he had originally wanted his The Lady Eve star Barbara Stanwyck for the part, but ultimately Veronica Lake was cast instead. While Sturges didn’t get his first choice to play “The Girl” in his film, he did get the actor he wanted for the title role: Joel McCrea.

The director had Joel McCrea in mind when he wrote Sullivan’s Travels, and he was the only actor considered for the role of John L. Sullivan. Though McCrea ended up not getting along very well with his co-star Veronica Lake, he got along famously with Sturges. After filming wrapped, McCrea gave him a watch with an engraving that read: “for the finest direction I’ve ever had.” McCrea credited Sturges with giving him the confidence he needed as an actor and treating him like the biggest star in Hollywood. He also said he had a great time on set with Sturges, and the following year, he starred in another one of his comedies, The Palm Beach Story. While McCrea had a long career that spanned almost five decades and included such notable films as The Most Dangerous Game, Foreign Correspondent, The More the Merrier, and Ride the High Country, I think it’s fitting that Sullivan’s Travels has become the movie he is most famous for. It’s a film that well encompasses the qualities that made McCrea such an appealing screen star to audiences, with his easy charisma shining through as usual.

I wrote this as a part of the 2019 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

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