Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is a madcap romp and not-so-incidental grim social commentary—a most striking combination. Writer/director Preston Sturges deftly constructs a screwball comedy around the framework of a sensitive and serious examination of poverty—while lambasting Joel McCrea’s naïve character for even seeking a social message. As he begins his exploration of what it is to be poverty stricken so that he may produce a deep and profound message film instead of his usual comedies, Joel McCrea’s first and perhaps best admonition against such a quest comes from his butler.
“I have never been sympathetic of caricature of the poor and needy, sir.”
This is our entry in the Butlers and Maids Blogathon hosted by Rich at Wide Screen World and Paddy at Caftan Woman. For more on butlers and maids, please see these posts by some terrific bloggers.
Robert Grieg plays film director Joel McCrea’s butler in this movie, and Eric Blore his valet. So intentionally anonymous are they that they are not given names, only referred to in credits as Sullivan’s Butler and Valet. Both men spent much of their film careers playing butlers. Mr. Grieg, born in Australia in the 1870s, and Blore born in London in the 1880s, were perhaps destined for a life of genteel servitude on film in the caste system of Hollywood character actors. Their accents, their ages, their physical types certainly recommended them for the job, and that indefatigable knack of being silly and supremely dignified at the same time, their very dignity being the springboard of their comedy. They died a year apart from each other in the late 1950s, an era when the British butler was becoming scarcer in Hollywood.
The movie begins ridiculously enough with Joel McCrea, a director fed up with producing comedies and seeking a serious subject worthy of a work of art, announces to the aghast studio heads played by Robert Warwick and Porter Hall his intention not to direct any more comedies. Mr. McCrea is starving for satisfaction in his work, takes himself and his art very seriously, and having been raised with all the financial and social advantages of the monied class, is completely innocent about the harsh world of poverty.
Quite unexpectedly, the silliness is deflated like a balloon pricked with a pin early on in the movie when the fast-talking McCrea is brought short by the sonorous tones of his suddenly serious butler, Robert Grieg. Grieg, unlike most Hollywood butlers, gets the honor of a closeup and a thoughtful soliloquy.
“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.”
Mr. McCrea defends his intentions, “But I’m doing it for the poor….”
To which Mr. Grieg adamantly responds, “I don’t think they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy—I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such an excursion can be extremely dangerous, sir.”
This is not the “walk this way” nose-in-air schtick of the Hollywood butler.
“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 a lack of health, but it isn’t. Poverty is not the lack of anything but is a positive plague, virulent in and of itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice, 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.”
Baffled and rebuffed, McCrea responds, “Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it.”
Mr. Grieg answers, “Quite unwillingly, sir. Will that be all, sir?”
Eric Blore, his valet, cleverly conceals identification in the soles of McCrea’s shoes like a mother protecting her boy at camp with nametags in his clothes, and in a phone call pretending to be a gentleman rather than a gentleman’s gentleman, he manages to trick a railroad clerk to tell him how and where a hobo might hop a freight. He knows he cannot dissuade McCrea from his mission, but he does his best to pave the way for him.
We might like to know more about the butler’s past that would make him so articulate on the subject of poverty, but the story is McCrea’s, a well-meaning but essentially innocent and perhaps even pompous man who discovers the grim world of Depression-era poverty in a very personal way and learns to find his way back to the safety and blessed relief of comedy.
Veronica Lake is his companion on the trip, and as funny as the slapstick gets on their journey, it is astoundingly interspersed with almost documentary-like scenes without dialogue or narration of breadlines, crowded filthy flophouses, desperate Hoovervilles, and soul-crushing chain gangs. Some scenes are reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath, and of I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Comedy and tragedy, after dancing around each other for a bit, finally intersect at the end of the film in a sweet, sad, and gentle scene in a crude wooden southern Black church, led by minister Jess Lee Brooks, a figure of dignity and nobleness of spirit. After services, they are to have the special treat of showing a film and have invited the inmates of the local prison to join them. The preacher reminds his flock, “Neither by word, action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor draw away from them, nor act high with them, for we’s all equal in the sight of God.” The prisoners, shackled, file in – McCrea among them, who has been mistakenly arrested for murder—as preacher Brooks sings in his majestic bass voice, “Let My People Go.”
The oil lamps on the wall sconces are turned down, and the projector is started up, and a Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring Pluto, who struggles with flypaper stuck to him, entertains the congregation and their guests. McCrea observes the pleased reaction of everyone around him, how they laugh, and finds himself laughing. He has discovered the magic of comedy in the war against poverty. Real-life director Sturges is far more successful than fictional director McCrea, for he has managed to combine tragedy and comedy in a way that validates both and trivializes neither.
The butler and valet are not present at Joel McCrea’s moment of epiphany. We could not imagine them guffawing at Pluto with flypaper on his tail. Perhaps they might have smirked only slightly with disciplined propriety and uttered to their master in clipped speech, “Very good, sir.”
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.