Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan's Travels is a 1941 American comedy film written and directed by Preston Sturges. It is a satire about Hollywood's top director of comedies, played by Joel McCrea, who longs to make a socially relevant drama, but eventually learns that creating laughter is his greatest contribution to society. The film features one of Veronica Lake's first leading roles. The title is a reference to Gulliver's Travels, the famous 1726 novel by satirist Jonathan Swift about another journey of self-discovery.

Sullivan's Travels
Theatrical Poster
Directed byPreston Sturges
Produced byPaul Jones
Buddy DeSylva (uncredited)
Preston Sturges (uncredited)
Written byPreston Sturges
StarringJoel McCrea
Veronica Lake
Music byCharles Bradshaw
Leo Shuken
CinematographyJohn Seitz
Edited byStuart Gilmore
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • December 5, 1941 (1941-12-05) (Portugal)
Running time
90 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,150,000 (US rentals)[2]

Sullivan's Travels received mixed critical reception: the New York Times described it as "the most brilliant picture yet this year", praising Sturges's mix of escapist fun with underlying significance, and ranked it as one of the ten best films of 1941. But The Hollywood Reporter said that it lacked the "down to earth quality and sincerity which made [Sturges's] other three pictures of 1941 – The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, and Christmas in July – "a joy to behold".

Over time, the film's reputation has improved tremendously. Media historian Hal Erickson classified it as a "classic", "one of the finest movies about movies ever made" and a "masterpiece".[3] In 1990, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


John L. Sullivan is a popular young Hollywood director of profitable but shallow comedies. Sullivan is dissatisfied despite his success and tells his studio boss, Mr. Lebrand, that he wants his next project to be a serious exploration of the plight of the downtrodden. He asks to make his next film an adaptation of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a socially conscious novel. Lebrand wants him to direct another lucrative comedy instead, but the idealistic Sullivan refuses to give in. He wants to "know trouble" first hand, and plans to travel as a tramp so he can return and make a film that truly depicts the sorrows of humanity. His butler and valet openly question the wisdom of his plan.

Sullivan dresses as a hobo and takes to the road, followed by a fully staffed double-decker coach bus at Lebrand's request. Neither party is happy with the arrangement, and Sullivan, after a fast-paced car chase, eventually persuades his guardians to leave him alone and arranges to rendezvous with them later in Las Vegas. However, when he hitchhikes alone, he soon finds himself back in Los Angeles where he started.

There he meets a young failed actress, who is just about to quit the business and go home. She believes he is a tramp, and buys him a breakfast of eggs and ham. In return for her kindness, Sullivan retrieves his car from his estate and gives her a lift. He neglects to tell his servants that he has returned, so they report the "theft" of the car. Sullivan and the Girl are apprehended by the police. Upon their release, the Girl pushes him into his enormous swimming pool for deceiving her about his true identity. However, after considering her options, she becomes his traveling companion -- disguised as a boy.

This time Sullivan succeeds in living like a hobo. After eating in soup kitchens and sleeping in homeless shelters with the Girl, Sullivan finally decides he has had enough. His experiment is publicized by the studio as a huge success. The Girl wants to stay with him, but is stymied by his complicated living situation. On the advice of his business manager, Sullivan had gotten married to reduce his income tax. But he discovers that his wife cost him double what he saved in taxes.

Sullivan decides to thank the homeless by handing out $5 bills, but one man, who had previously stolen his shoes, ambushes Sullivan and steals the money. Sullivan is knocked unconscious and dragged into a boxcar leaving the city. The thief drops the loose cash on the rails and gets run over and killed by another train while picking it up. When the thief's body is found, they discover a special identification card sewn into his shoes identifying him as Sullivan.

Meanwhile, Sullivan wakes up in the rail yard of another city, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A railway worker finds him and berates him for illegally entering the rail yard, shoving him. In his confused state, Sullivan hits the man in the head with a rock, for which he is sentenced to six years in a labor camp. He gradually regains his memory. In the camp, he attends a showing of Walt Disney's 1934 Playful Pluto cartoon. Looking at the joy in the other inmates' faces, Sullivan realizes that comedy can do more good for the poor than O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Still unable to convince anybody that he is Sullivan, or communicate with the outside world, he comes up with a solution: after seeing his unsolved "killing" on the front page of a newspaper he confesses to being his own killer. When his picture as the confessed murderer makes the front page, the Girl recognizes him and he is released. His "widow" had already married his crooked business manager, so he divorces her and is reunited with the Girl. A montage of the happy, laughing faces of the chain gang watching the Disney cartoon ends the film.


Cast notes:


Paramount purchased Sturges's script for Sullivan's Travels for $6,000. He wrote the film as a response to the "preaching" he found in other comedies "which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message."[5] Sturges may have been influenced by the stories of John Garfield,[6] who lived the life of a hobo, riding freight trains and hitchhiking his way cross country for a short period in the 1930s. Sturges wrote the film with Joel McCrea in mind, but found the female lead through the casting process. Barbara Stanwyck was considered, as well as Frances Farmer.[5]

The film as released opens with a dedication:

To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.

This was originally intended to be spoken by Sullivan. Sturges wanted the film to begin with the prologue: "This is the story of a man who wanted to wash an elephant. The elephant darn near ruined him."[5] Paramount contracted with the Schlesinger Corp., who made the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, to make an animated main title sequence, but this was not used in the film, if it were ever actually produced.[5]

The censors at the Hays Office had objections to the script that the studio had submitted. They felt that the word "bum" would be rejected by British censors, and warned that there should be no "suggestion of sexual intimacy" between Sullivan and The Girl in the scenes in which they are sleeping together at the mission.[5]

Sullivan's Travels went into production on May 12, 1941 and wrapped on July 22.[7] Location shooting took place in Canoga Park, San Marino, Castaic and at Lockheed Air Terminal.[5]

Veronica Lake was six months pregnant at the beginning of production, a fact she did not disclose to Sturges until filming began. Sturges was so furious that, according to Lake, he had to be physically restrained.[8] Sturges consulted with Lake's doctor to see if she could perform the part, and hired former Tournament of Roses queen Cheryl Walker as Lake's double.[5] Edith Head, Hollywood's most renowned costume designer, was tasked to find ways of concealing Lake's condition. Reportedly, Lake was disliked by some of her co-stars. McCrea refused to work with her again, and subsequently turned down a lead role with her in I Married a Witch. Fredric March, who took the latter part, didn't much enjoy Lake either.[9] However, McCrea got along famously with Sturges, and afterward presented him with a watch engraved "for the finest direction I've ever had." Sturges' assistant director, Anthony Mann, also was influenced heavily by his experience on the production.[10]

There were some minor problems during filming. Sturges had wanted to use a clip from a Charlie Chaplin film for the church scene, but was turned down by Chaplin. Lake does parody Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character earlier in the film.[5] Also, the poverty montage was scheduled to take three hours to film, but instead took seven hours. Incidents such as this may account for the film, which cost more than $689,000 to produce, going more than $86,000 over budget.[5]

The film was first screened for critics on December 4, 1941,[11] and for the public on January 15, 1942 in Detroit.[12] Its Hollywood premiere occurred two weeks later on February 12, 1942, at the Los Angeles Paramount Theatre.[13]

When the film was released, the U.S. Office of Censorship declined to approve it for export overseas during wartime, because of the "long sequence showing life in a prison chain gang which is most objectionable because of the brutality and inhumanity with which the prisoners are treated." This conformed with the office's standing policy of not exporting films that could be used for propaganda purposes by the enemy. The producers of the film declined to make suggested changes that could have altered the film's status.[5]

Sullivan's Travels was released on video in the U.S. on March 16, 1989, and re-released on June 30, 1993. The film was re-released in the UK with a restored print on May 12, 2000.[14] Criterion produced a Blu-ray version, which was released in the U.S. on April 14, 2015.[15]


Sullivan's Travels was not as immediately successful at the box office as earlier Sturges films such as The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve, and received mixed critical reception. Although the review in The New York Times called the film "the most brilliant picture yet this year" and praised Sturges' mix of escapist fun with underlying significance, The Hollywood Reporter said that it lacked the "down to earth quality and sincerity which made [Sturges's] other three pictures a joy to behold" and that "Sturges...fails to heed the message that writer Sturges proves in his script. Laughter is the thing people want—not social studies." The New Yorker's review said that "anyone can make a mistake, Preston Sturges, even. The mistake in question is a pretentious number called Sullivan's Travels."[5] Nevertheless, the Times named it as one of the ten best films of 1941, and the National Board of Review nominated it as best picture of the year.

Over time, the reputation of the film has improved tremendously, and it is now considered a classic; at least one reviewer called it Sturges's "masterpiece" and "one of the finest movies about movies ever made."[3] It has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 8.66/10.[16]

Awards and honors

In 1990, Sullivan's Travels was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it as the No. 61 Greatest American Movie of All Time. In addition, the movie's poster was ranked as No. 19 of "The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever" by Premiere. A 2010 special issue of Trains magazine ranked Sullivan's Travels 25th among the 100 greatest train movies.[17]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

The two Writers Guilds of America voted the screenplay for Sullivan's Travels as the 29th greatest ever written,[21] as well as the 35th funniest.[22]


The film's primary theme is best summed up in the last line of dialogue as spoken by Sullivan: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

The scene in which the prisoners are taken to watch the 1934 Disney cartoon Playful Pluto takes place in a Southern black church; the film treats the African-American characters there with a level of respect unusual in films of the period. The Secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, wrote to Sturges:

I want to congratulate and thank you for the church sequence in Sullivan's Travels. This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a moving picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene. I was in Hollywood recently and am to return there soon for conferences with production heads, writers, directors, and actors and actresses in an effort to induce broader and more decent picturization of the Negro instead of limiting him to menial or comic roles. The sequence in Sullivan's Travels is a step in that direction and I want you to know how grateful we are.[5]


On November 9, 1942, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a radio adaptation of Sullivan's Travels with Ralph Bellamy in the lead role and Veronica Lake reprising her role.[5]

  • In the movie's airplane scene the author of the book O Brother, Where Art Thou? is shown to be "Sinclair Beckstein", which is an amalgamation of the names of authors Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck, all of whom wrote socially conscious fiction.[23] The title of Sullivan's unrealized dream project has resurfaced in several other works.
  • In Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon (1991), an action-movie producer experiences a revelation after being mugged, and temporarily decides to make high-quality "life drama" movies, but soon returns to the action genre when he decides that violence is life and should be welcomed and watched. He recommends that his friend check out Sullivan's Travels, as "movies are where we get our answers to life".
  • A 1991 episode of The Simpsons, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", got its title from the film[24] and features Homer's half-brother Herb, who goes from CEO of a major car manufacturer to a hobo.
  • The Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) borrows the title and has many plot similarities to Sullivan's Travels; on the special-edition DVD the Coens say the film is almost what Sullivan would have ended up making after Sullivan's Travels ends.

See also


  1. Curtis, James. Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges, Limelight, 1984 p157
  2. "101 Pix Gross in Millions" Variety 6 Jan 1943 p 58
  3. Erickson, Hal "Sullivan's Travels" (Allmovie)
  4. Demarest appeared in Diamond Jim (1935), Easy Living (1937), The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Great Moment (1944)
  5. TCM Notes
  6. Vials, Chris (12 Mar 2009), Realism for the masses: aesthetics, popular front pluralism, and U.S. culture, 1935–1947, Univ. Press of Mississippi, p. xiii
  7. IMDb Business data
  8. Steffen, James "Sullivan's Travels" (TCM article)
  9. Stafford, Jeff "I Married a Witch" (TCM article)
  10. Spoto, Donald. Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges. p. 171. ISBN 0-316-80726-5
  11. "Tradeshows". Variety: 22. December 3, 1941.
  12. IMDB entry
  13. "Sullivan Travels Today". Los Angeles Times: 10. February 12, 1942.
  14. TCM Misc. notes
  15. Sullivan's Travels Blu-ray, retrieved 2017-11-03
  16. "Sullivan's Travels (1942)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
  17. Trains Magazine Special Edition No. 5-2010, p. 81
  18. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  19. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  20. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  21. "101 Greatest Screenplays". Writers Guild of America, West. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
  22. "101 Funniest Screenplays". Writers Guild of America, West. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
  23. TCM Trivia
  24. Martin, Jeff. (2002). Commentary for "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", in The Simpsons: The Complete Second Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
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