Rupert Pupkin Speaks: The Criterion Collection - SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS on Blu-ray ""

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Criterion Collection - SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS on Blu-ray

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1942; Preston Sturges)
Preston Sturges was one of the rare early writer/directors that worked inside the studio system of the 1940s. When you see a Sturges film, you are really seeing a full-on Sturges film in that the movies truly have his stamp on them via the script and direction (and casting). He is a director to which the term "auteur" seems a pretty great fit. Sturges truly is one of the greatest writers of dialogue in all of cinema. When people think of screwball comedies with clever rapid-fire exchanges between characters, they should be thinking of Sturges as he was the king in my opinion (though I certainly love other screwball comedies as well). The word "sparkling" comes to mind when I think of the charming chatter in Sturges' movies. Howard Hawks was no slouch either in terms of the writers he used and the way he directed his actors to deliver banter (see HIS GIRL FRIDAY of course), but the crown goes to Sturges as far as I'm concerned.
SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS was the first of Sturges' films I ever saw back when I was in college. Yet another film that I was turned onto by a book from my hero Danny Peary (he featured it in Cult Movies 2). I loved it instantly and quickly moved on to others, including THE LADY EVE which may still be my favorite. I was immediately taken in by the Sturges universe which consisted of fantastic dialogue, humorous and intelligent stories and an outstanding stable of actors. Like Scorsese uses camera moves and editing to help create his stylized world, Sturges immerses us with his repartee and the wonderful group of character actors that he stocked his films with. Sturges had a brilliant ability of casting actors for their faces. So many glorious faces among these actors. Names like William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, Jimmy Conlin and Porter Hall may not immediately ring a bell for you, but trust me they are integral part of the Preston Sturges-verse and he worked with them often for a reason. Sturges also had the ability through his writing and casting to create these stupendously off-kilter comedic microcosms as the backdrop for his features. That sense of comical askewness really gives a delightful continuity between each of his movies and makes them feel like they all exist on the same loony dimension together.
Watching the film this time I was only slightly distracted by my more recent discovery that Veronica Lake (who is remarkably stunning in the film and very funny) was apparently not at all east to work with and not very well liked by almost anyone who ever worked with her.  Apparently Joel McCrea was quoted as saying something along the lines of life being too short to work with Lake again (even though he would make another film with her). Watching this movie, it still shocks me that they didn't get along as the chemistry between McCrea and Lake is among the best in any comedy I've seen. I guess it really says something about just how great the two of them were as actors (and Sturges being sharp as a tack as a director). The only other thing I feel like I should mention as far as slight detriment to SULLIVAN'S (and a few other Sturges films) is the portrayal of African American characters. In the case of this film, they are often used as the sadly stereotypical buffoons that often cropped up in movies at this time. There is one scene in with a black chef that is particularly cringe-worthy, but I try to chalk it up to something that was considered humorous at the time I suppose. Still a bit unfortunate in what is otherwise a comic masterpiece though.
For anyone that didn't already know, the Coen Brothers are obviously gigantic fans of Sturges - not only in modeling a lot of their dialogue-based humor off of his model , but even to go so far as to lift the title "O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU" right out of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. It has been a little while since Criterion put the movie out on DVD, so perhaps some folks have either never heard of it or forgotten about it. It's simply one of the greatest american comedies of all time and must be see by all. I do hope that with the recent release of THE PALM BEACH STORY to Blu-ray and now this disc, that the Blu-ray upgrade of THE LADY EVE is just around the corner!

Special Features:
Though this disc has all of the extras ported over from the 2001 Criterion Collection DVD, it has a few new features as well.
  -First up is An Audio Commentary from 2001 with Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest and Michael Mckean. It's a solid track though it may not quite live up to the expectations one might have for it based on all the talented gentlemen involved.
  -'Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer', a 76-minute documentary made by Kenneth Bowser for PBS’s American Masters series in 1990 (this doc was also included on original 2001 disc). It was written by Todd McCarthy and is narrated by actor Fritz Weaver. It is an outstanding chronicle of Sturges' life and career and the doc itself won an Emmy at the the time of it's release.
  -An Interview with Sturges' widow Sandy Sturges (also from 2001). This interview runs 13 minutes and includes her telling many neat stories about how Preston Sturges got started in Hollywood, how one thing led to another in terms of his career and what he had sad about working with specific actors. Very charming and informative.
  -An old radio interview with Sturges himself conducted by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.(from 2001 DVD). Runs 4 minutes and was originally broadcast on the program Hedda Hopper's Hollywood on January 28th, 1951. This is a very interesting (if perhaps pre-scripted) discussion between Sturges and Hopper about the state of film at the time. It's remarkably prophetic in that they are discussing ways that Hollywood and movie theaters themselves can keep people showing up as opposed to staying home. It's also just cool to hear Preston Sturges voice after having seen so many pictures of him on sets.
  -Archival audio recordings of Sturges singing his original composition "My Love" and reciting the poem "If I Were King".
  -NEW! "Ants In Your Plants of 1941" - An 18-minute video essay by film critic David Cairns, which features both he and director Bill Forsyth. This is a congenial mix of background bits about Sturges and SULLIVAN'S specifically via an excellent audio essay by Cairns interspersed with interview clips of Forsyth discussing how he was influenced by Sturges in his own filmmaking. Cool supplement.

Additionally, the booklet that comes inside the disc has a nice essay by critic Stuart Klawans.


Bonus Interview I found online - Greg Laemmle Interviews Preston Sturges Jr. and Tom Sturges:

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