Today we come to a couple of comedies, one a comedy about a filmmaker, and the other a comedy mystery. Today’s films are:
Preston Sturges – Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Stanley Donen – Charade (1963)
I had never seen Sullivan’s Travels, but it’s been on my shelf for a bit. I’ve seen a few Sturges films, namely The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours, and I’ve always enjoyed them, but I’ve never gotten into him as I have with some other directors.
Charade however, is one of my favorite movies. I first saw it a decade ago or so, and immediately fell in love with it. It’s got snappy dialogue, a lot of satisfying twists and turns, and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. You pretty much can’t go wrong.
So let’s get into it.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Sullivan’s Travels tells the story of a director of light comedies who wants to adapt a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou, about the poor and destitute of America. The studio objects, telling him he knows nothing about that world, and he resolves to travel the country as a hobo to get a better understanding of hard times. What follows is part comedy of errors, and part serious exploration of the continuing poverty problem in America post-depression.
That probably sounds like an odd mix, but I’m glad it went that way. When I first started watching, I was a bit uncomfortable with watching a rich man going into a slum and trying to get the experience of a poor person, knowing all the while that he can go back to his comfortable life whenever he wants. But Sturges is able to craft a hilarious comedy, and a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of America’s underclasses. Not an easy feat.
The first hint of this comes in an early scene when the director Sullivan is trying to put together his shabby wardrobe. One of his servants talks to him about poverty:
Burrows: 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.
John L. Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?
Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.
Burrows the servant here basically slams the entire concept of the movie, and shames both the fictional director and the actual director for even thinking that the concept would make good entertainment. That Sturges is willing to put this in his own movie shows us that he understands the problem, and signals to us that he isn’t going to ignore it and take the easy way out.
Sullivan’s journey begins with the studio demanding to follow him in a bus to keep him safe and comfortable and furthermore to publicize his journey. He objects, but the studio bus dutifully follows him slowly out of town as he walks. The first leg of his solo journey doesn’t work out as he planned, as the widow he works for decides he’d make a good replacement for her husband. He has to flee in the night, and ends up hitching a ride from someone who takes him right back to Hollywood.
In the first diner he walks into, he meets The Girl, played by Veronica Lake. She is never referred to by name and is only credited as The Girl, so yeah, the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, and doesn’t even get close to be honest, but I doubt many films from 1941 did. Sullivan hasn’t carried any money with him to the diner and The Girl buys him ham and eggs, explaining that she’s been trying to become an actress, but has given up, and is on her way back home. While trying to help her while not revealing his identity, Sullivan ‘borrows’ his own car to give her a ride, and ends up in prison. His servants come to rescue him and The Girl finds out who he is. She decides to go with him on his journey, ignoring his objections.
They eventually start to see people really experiencing poverty. In a montage without dialogue, Sullivan and The Girl explore soup kitchens, shanty towns, churches, and a homeless shelter where people sleep on the floor, completely covering it. The two are pushed together, sandwiched between other men. They get to the point where they find a garbage can, taking the lid off and considering eating from it, before fleeing back to the safety of the studio bus.
These scenes are effective at giving us a glimpse of the struggle the poor faced in America at that time, while reminding us that these two are just spectators. Sturges thankfully resists the temptation of making our main characters seem like they belong in this world. By keeping them apart from it, he reminds us that we are just spectators to this world as well, that we will be going back to our comfortable lives just like the characters.
Sullivan goes back to Hollywood and decides that he will hand out $1000 in 5 dollar bills out to the homeless of the city. It goes well for awhile, until he hands a bill to someone who realizes how much money he has, and follows him. Our suspicions are confirmed when the man jumps out of the shadows and attacks Sullivan, knocking him out, and stealing his shoes and the money before dragging him onto a train car, which promptly pulls out of the station. The man gets his comeuppance immediately, dropping the money and getting hit by another train.
So we’ve got several things happening here. No one can find Sullivan, but they can find a ruined body at the train yard with lots of money, and shoes that contain his studio ID, helpfully stored by one of his servants. When Sullivan awakes in a train station the next morning, he is groggy and disoriented, and he’s accosted by a yard worker who knocks him down. He fights back, hitting the man with a rock, and ends up in court. He’s quickly convicted to 6 years hard labor, even when he can’t remember his own name.
Sturges here is subtly showing us how there are different court systems for the rich and poor. Later on in the film, Sullivan makes the statement that famous directors don’t go to jail for 6 years for their crimes. He’s right of course. And Sturges uses the line to make the point clear to anyone who didn’t get it earlier.
By putting Sullivan in a real prison with real (though possibly harsh and unfair) consequences for his actions, Sturges is finally able to earn his character’s place in this world, and leave behind the ‘poverty tourism’ his characters have engaged in up to this point. Sullivan is stuck there, no one believes him, and any attempt to state his identity is met with punishment.
But this leads to the best scene in the film. The prisoners are offered the chance to go to a film at a local church. We see the church first, and it is an all-black church. The preacher gives a long speech about how his congregation should treat the prisoners with respect, and not shy away from them because ‘they are all equal in the eyes of the lord.’ He even asks the parishioners to clear the first three pews to make room for the prisoners. Keep in mind, this is a film made in 1941. Sturges is able to fill a scene with black characters, in an era when black people were rarely seen on film, puts them in a position of power over others, and then portrays them as kind, sympathetic, and generous. I loved this scene, and it was totally unexpected.
The prisoners enter and shuffle in, Sullivan among them, and he has a revelation. He’s spent the whole movie on a quest to understand poverty to make his first serious movie. But in this small church, he’s able to watch a Disney short and hear the laughter of the crowd. We can see him realize that there is real nobility in making people laugh. The prisoners and the black congregation share the laughter, and Sullivan understands that for many of them, the laughter is all they have, it’s their only escape. Also, by mixing the prisoners and black congregation, Sturges subtly makes a political statement by putting them on the same level. He poked at the court system earlier, pointing out the unfairness, and while he never gives voice to racial issues, he’s able to make us think about our assumptions about race in this scene without ever bringing up the discussion.
Sullivan finally finds a way out of his predicament, which I won’t spoil here, but it leads us to the happy ending we probably expected, save for the detail that Sullivan wants to continue making comedies, having realized how important they are to people.
My process while watching these films is to watch the film and write notes of anything I find interesting. I find that if I write down plot details, it’s easier to find interesting things to talk about while I’m writing and make connections.
But in this film, I found the most interesting things to write about while I was in the process of writing. I had missed the subtext of the black congregation while watching. It wasn’t until I started really thinking about the film that that emerged. It was an interesting experience. On the surface, this is just a silly comedy about a director who’s full of himself. But Sturges is able to use the film to craft a much deeper message about the class divide and how the world is very different for the rich versus the poor.
Filmmakers of the era learned quickly that the Hays code wouldn’t allow them to talk about controversial concepts openly. But they were able to work around it by using the language of film to code messages. I think Sturges has done a great job of that in this film, and it makes me wonder if it’s only my modern eyes that are seeing things that Sturges did, or if audiences of the time saw those messages as well, and what they thought of it. Were they nodding along in agreement? Were they angry? Did it change anyone’s mind? Or did it just wash over them?
I loved this film, and it surprised me with how deep it is. I did laugh a lot while watching, but now that I’m a bit further away from it, all I can think about is the broader messages it laid down during it’s runtime. Exceptional.
Charade is a film about Regina, played by Audrey Hepburn, whose husband dies under mysterious circumstances. She suddenly finds herself interviewed by the police, the CIA, and accosted by a series of threatening men who seem to have known her husband. All of them are convinced that she has 250,000 dollars that her husband Charles stole. She confides in a new friend, Peter, played by Cary Grant to help her find the money or get rid of the men, but can she really trust him?
This is a film that has so many twists and turns it’s almost impossible to write about the plot. Several characters have more than one name they go by at different points in the film, and loyalty of various characters is questioned, then restored over and over. It’s a vicious cycle. But the movie never lets the audience fall behind, and it always reveals a crucial piece of information just before the characters have it.
The mystery revolves around the money. Where did Charles hide it? Does Regina have it? Did one of the other men steal it and are hiding it from the others? Is it hiding in plain sight? Donen does such a great job playing out the mystery that many people think this is a Hitchcock film. It’s understandable. Hitchcock wrote the book on these types of movies, and once he revealed the formula, everyone wanted to play with it and experiment with it. Hitchcock-inspired shots and scenes are all over cinema(see the featured image for this post).
The big tip-off though is that Hitchcock was never this funny. There is definitely humor in Hitchcock films, but Charade is a screwball comedy that doesn’t stop joking until the mystery has to take precedence. Then it goes right back to the jokes as soon as the mystery is solved.
The cast is amazing, headlined by Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, and supported by James Coburn, George Kennedy and Walter Matthau. This was also one of Cary Grant’s final films, and the last where he played the romantic lead. He was hesistant to do it initally, because of the age difference between himself and Hepburn, and the reviews pointing it out convinced him that he couldn’t do it again. Mature female actresses are rare in Hollywood today, and they were even rarer in the 60s.
The film follows Regina as she tries to figure out what has become of the money, and who she can trust. A police inspector gives her the items her husband was carrying with her, which seem like normal traveling items. Toothbrush, tooth powder, appointment book, a letter to Regina with a stamped envelope, etc. It all seems perfectly ordinary.
She learns that her husband and the 3 men accosting her were involved in a heist of their own during World War II. They were delivering a shipment of gold, but instead, they buried it, then reported it stolen, planning to return after the war and split it amongst themselves. However, Charles got there first and had been on the run ever since. His co-conspirators finally caught up to him, and killed him, but without finding the money.
The movie takes an interesting turn as Peter Joshua is revealed to be in league with the conspirators. This is the first of many moments of characters seeming to turn coats, then being redeemed. This goes around and around and I won’t give details here, but it works in the context of the film, and is ultimately satisfying. It works to isolate Regina in the plot, and gives Cary Grant the ability to play the hero and the villain at different points in the film. Grant was known as a leading man, but he had his share of villain roles (see Notorious), so it works.
Eventually, Regina, Peter, and the co-conspirators join forces to try to find the money, but then they start dying one by one. They all suspect each other, and the film spins off into it’s final climax.
This is an ‘in plain sight’ mystery, and I expect a lot of viewers figure out the big twist before the film is over, but each character figures it out at a different moment, leading to yet another series of twists. I won’t reveal them here, but the film is great at paying these out slowly, giving the audience enough information to solve it, but not enough to make it obvious.
Charade is one of my favorite films. I’m a huge fan of both Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and putting them together is a perfect combination. Cary Grant retired from acting a couple of years later, and it’s amazing to see how good he is, even at the end of his career. Most actors work until no one will hire them anymore. Grant is the rare actor who walked away while he was still viable, and that’s impressive.
The mystery is played out expertly by Donen, and the comedy he adds to it is what really makes this film pop. It takes itself seriously exactly one time, at the end of the film, when it should be taking itself seriously. By spending the rest of the time on comedy, when Donen switched to a thriller, it really makes us feel the danger and increase the tension.
The only criticism I have of the film is that it could be just a bit shorter. There’s a section in the second half when the thieves are being picked off one by one that could be shortened by 5 minutes or so. Otherwise, this film is essentially perfect.
The Double Feature
These were a lot of fun to watch together. I also liked that Charade was in the second slot. It is the funnier film, and it doesn’t have the social message that I found in Sullivan’s Travels. Had I watched Sullivan’s Travels, I think I might have been completely overtaken by the depth of that film, and had a harder time writing about Charade.
Having two comedies together, but with different focuses really works as a pairing. Had I watched another comedy about filmmaking, or a second comedy/mystery/thriller, I don’t know if it would have worked as well. The contrast is a good combination.
It’s something that might guide me in future pairings, but I’d also eventually like to try two films that are incredibly similar and see how it goes.
As far as themes and similarities between the films, I don’t find a ton. They’re both really funny, but the settings, characters and messages are very different. Sullivan’s Travels is a comedy with a social message, while Charade is much more straightforward entertainment.
This was a fun post to write. Probably the most fun so far. I’ve been dealing with a glitchy air conditioner at home this week, so that’s a little stressful, but I think that’s covered, so I can focus on writing now. One of my biggest fears since starting grad school and taking a huge paycut is that something huge in my house will break and it will be really hard to pay to fix it. I’ve toyed with the idea of selling my place and going back to renting for the rest of my degree, but that would require me to keep the place incredibly clean, and I don’t know if I can really manage that. Ideally I would just move, and then sell the place, but if it didn’t sell, I’d be kind of screwed. So unless someone knocks on my door with a bag of money, I’m probably in the same place for the next couple of years.
I’ve been thinking about how I select films a lot. I wanted to stay away from pre-made pairings, or suggestions from scholars or experts or even other blogs, but this time I think I’m going to bend that rule a bit. I subscribe to a film streaming service called FilmStruck, who don’t pay me, but they are a good source of films that I’m interested in, and if they wanted to pay me, I’d be happy to accept. I’m no fool.
But they do some curation of their films, including grouping films into small categories. They’re always more than 2, so I can’t use them exactly, but I could use a subset of them. So that’s what I’m going to try today. I haven’t done any classic adventure movies, and I found a couple that I think are worth looking at. So the next pairing will be:
Harold Young – The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Luis Buñuel – Robinson Crusoe (1954)
These are two of a 6-film series that FilmStruck curated called Daredevils and Castaways. I picked The Scarlet Pimpernel because it stars Leslie Howard, who was a huge star at the time, but isn’t really remembered that way. And Robinson Crusoe because I’m a big fan of Luis Buñuel, and this is not the film of his I thought I’d start with, but I haven’t seen it before, so let’s give it a shot.
Also, for the first time in awhile, I will be watching two films I’ve never seen before. Should be an interesting ride.
See you then.