The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Hey, am I laughing?
John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion from Boston, met his match, decades after his demise, in another John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea, wonderful), the successful Hollywood musical-comedy director in Sullivan’s Travels whose masquerade as a hobo, intended to bring authenticity to his planned foray into socially committed cinema (O Brother, Where Are Thou?), reverses the boxer’s ascension from poverty to celebrity. Our John L. ends up in a brutal prison while the nation thinks him dead. (His butler warned him this would happen!) That’s life in socioeconomically topsy-turvy America.
Following his glorious romantic comedy The Lady Eve (1941), this time writer-director Preston Sturges gave romance a back seat, allowing it in at all only because “there is always sex in a picture,” and dedicated Sullivan’s Travels to clowns and buffoons—those who make us laugh. In turn, his Swiftian road comedy makes us laugh aplenty—until, that is, Sullivan’s suffering becomes all too real. Sullivan’s middle initial, we discover, stands for Lloyd, not Lawrence—a witty reference to Lloyds of London: as rich as this man is, his firsthand study of American injustice makes him uninsurable!
After his ordeal and resurrection, Sullivan decides against making a film about the beseiged underclass in favor of another hilarious trifle; the poor need to laugh more than anyone, he reasons. This lame conclusion—in truth, what the poor really need is more systemic justice so that they have less need for antidotal laughter—matters little, because the weight of the film documents Sullivan’s descent into America’s underbelly, where a tramp is mowed down on the tracks after robbing his play-acting surrogate. Critic Andrew Sarris nails the Social Darwinian metaphor: the derelict “is trapped in a metal jungle of switch rails, and is unable to avoid an oncoming train.”
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