Joel McCrea Sees America

This post is part of the Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. It runs February 17-23, 2013.

Clever Caption
Free-spirited Veronica Lake hitches a ride with serious-minded Joel McCrea.

Don’t you love a movie that makes you feel like a better person, even though you’ve done nothing to be a better person?

We’ve been mulling the notion of being a good person ever since we screened Sullivan’s Travels, a 1941 comedy written and directed by the screwball comedy maestro, Preston Sturges.

Sullivan’s Travels is the tale of idealistic Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who wants to make a Meaningful film about Suffering. He’s bought the rights to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and is determined to make an opus on anguish. Problem is, with his privileged background, an Ivy League education and stacks of money in the bank, he doesn’t really know what suffering is.

McCrea decides the only way to experience affliction is to don roughed-up clothes and hitchhike through Depression-hardened America. He wants to see the disadvantaged and get a taste of life on the other side.

But he runs into another problem when every mode of transportation he chooses unfailingly brings him back to Hollywood.

During his travels, McCrea meets a broke and disillusioned actress (Veronica Lake), who can’t get out of Hollywood fast enough. She’s finished with show business, she tells him, and she’s headed home. But she smells adventure in the wind and persuades McCrea to take her with him.

Even though Sullivan’s Travels is comedy with laugh-out-loud lines, it also has thought-provoking messages. In one scene, McCrea and Lake spend a night in a homeless shelter, where McCrea’s shoes are stolen. You then realize how much of life depends on a single pair of shoes.

In another scene, McCrea is knocked unconscious and his money stolen. This is after he has given donations to various homeless folks so they can have a warm meal or find a warm place to sleep. This is where you are reminded of how quickly the value of human life plummets in desperate circumstances.

These are the scenes that make us want to be better people and to try, in our own way, to make the world a better place. Through laughter, Sturges packs a social-activist punch that we never see coming.

The role of movie director Sullivan was written specifically for McCrea. Sullivan’s vaguely cynical worldview and his desire to help his fellow man fits McCrea like a well-worn sweater. McCrea, whom we always find extremely likable, is appealing as an everyman trapped in a rich man’s circumstances – if such statement even makes sense.

McCrea’s co-star, Veronica Lake, had a reputation in Hollywood for becoming increasingly disliked by her colleagues as filming progressed on just about any movie, but as a fan we couldn’t care less. Lake is charming and funny in this film, and has terrific chemistry with McCrea.

If you haven’t seen Sullivan’s Travels, we urge you to do so. It’s a wonderfully uplifting film that will try, as much as it is able, to make good citizens of us all.

Sullivan’s Travels – starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick. Written & Directed by Preston Sturges. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 1942 B&W, 90 mins.

1940s Blogathon Mrs Minver



  1. Perfect description of a movie that really does make you feel like a better person just for watching it. I love this one, and since it’s on my DVR, I watch it when I need a lift….or a laugh. Well done R.A.! I have such a thing for Joel McCrea too. He’s one of the few actors I’d pay to watch read the paper.


  2. Excellent post, R.A. (I really have to start coming up with some different accolades for your stuff.) It’s been years since I saw Sullivan’s Travels — I will definitely have to dust off my tapes and give it a re-watch soon. I am inspired.


  3. I love Presten Sturges for many reasons but Sullivan’s Travels is the one film of his that has the most thought provoking message. I too have aspirations of one day becoming a “good” person. Perhaps I just need a Sturges marathon first. Great post (as usual). Thanks again.


  4. Believe it or not, my favorite Preston Sturges film is “The Lady Eve,” but I like all of his films up to and including “Unfaithfully Yours” (underrated!). I don’t know that I feel like a better person watching “Sullivan’s Travels,” but I do appreciate what Sturges was trying to do in combining his trademark lunatic humor with a social/moral lesson. As a fan of both Sturges and Joel McCrea, I’m happy the two of them got together on this and “The Palm Beach Story.” And much as I love Henry Fonda in “The Lady Eve,” I’m sure McCrea could also have handled that part nicely, too.


    • “Unfaithfully Yours” is not one I’ve had the chance to see, but it’s on my radar. I adore “The Lady Eve” – Stanwyck is brilliant! And I agree that McCrea would have been a good choice for the hapless Charles Pike.


  5. Not my favorite Sturges’ film, but it is entertaining. I’m not a fan of Lake, either, so I think that effects my overall feel for it, too. Nice post.


  6. This is one of my favorite films – more for its heart than its execution. Any film that sneaks the filmmaker’s love of film in it always gets me. Veronica Lake’s star shone for such a short time, but she is just delightful here. And Joel – a great chance for him to shine. Great post about a great film.


  7. All the amusing and the melancholy moments in “Sullivan’s Travels” add up to a satisfying movie experience. The world seems determined to control John L. Sullivan from his bosses and servants right down to Miz Zeffie!

    No 40s tribute would be complete without a Preston Sturges flick and you have done him proud.


  8. I love this film. I agree with you about Lake too… who care, she’s so delicious to watch and the chemistry with McCrea is perfect. So many incredible little moments…Love your spot on description of a very memorable film…


  9. A good description of a great movie and its effect on the viewer. For a few years, Sturges was one of the best directors in Hollywood, and among writer-directors, only Billy Wilder came close, and unlike Sturges he always collaborated on his screenplays. For me this is Sturges’s masterpiece (although for Sturges films I love, it’s a toss-up between this and “The Palm Beach Story”). It’s also for me the wonderful McCrea’s best performance. Only Buster Keaton could make humorlessness so funny! It’s also for me Veronica Lake’s best performance. They do seem to have such tremendous rapport onscreen that it’s surprising that McCrea loathed her and refused to work with her again. What a kick it is to see in the rescue mission scene the barely 5-foot tall Lake with the 6’3″ McCrea standing next to her and towering over her!


    • So true, R.D.! It’s almost shocking to learn that McCrea despised her – he seems so tender with her onscreen.

      I loved your comment: “Only Buster Keaton could make humorlessness so funny!” Well said.


  10. I agree with R.D., this is Sturges masterpiece! It’s brilliantly written with two wonderful performances from McCrea and Lake, two actors I don’t generally think of as great actors. While I like all of Sturges work this film and THE LADY EVE are my top two. Excellent post!


  11. I do believe that this is Veronica’s second film for the Blogathon and good for her! I have to admit that I’m not her biggest fan but I really enjoyed Sullivan’s Travels for all of the reasons you’ve mentioned her. She was cast perfectly alongside McCrea. (A striking couple and one everybody wanted to root for!)

    You’ve given us a very interesting and thought provoking review of the film. A nice addition to the Blogathon.


  12. Everything about this movie is sublime. Of course, Sturges is my favourite filmmaker, Joel McCrea is always a gem, and Veronica is, well, Veronica (which is a very good thing). The very reason I love her is because of her personal prickliness, which I passionately think shows up on screen in all of her roles. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes overt, but that prickliness forms the basis of her appeal.


  13. Ruth, I’ve only recently gotten into Preston Sturges in particular (I always wanted to check him out, and I finally got his work under my skin in THE PALM BEACH STORY with my beloved Mary Astor in fine funny form) by way of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, but it’s definitely grown on me, even if Veronica Lake was by all accounts a pain in the rear to work with. 🙂 This is one of my favorite Joel Mcstories of finding laughter and happiness in your own backyard, or as Barrymore and others have said, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard”! 🙂 Wonderful post, Ruth, as always!


  14. Silverscreenings – a great choice for the blogathon, and how appropriate that you highlight how it makes us feel better as a person after seeing it. It does exactly that and it’s so witty and touching – a great example of the best in movie making from that classic era. Thanks for highlighting this Preston Sturges wonder.


  15. Your affection for SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS comes through strongly in your post! Any film that has that kind of impact on someone is a special one. Sturges was a unique Hollywood talent in that he wrote and directed (there weren’t a lot of writer-directors back then…the aforementioned Wilder and Hitchcock, who collaborated without credit). My favorite Sturges is probably the slightly warped MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. Well done post.


    • “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” is another great Sturges film. I start to laugh just thinking about it.

      I had forgotten that there weren’t many writer-directors back in the day – thanks for pointing that out. And thanks for stopping by! 🙂


  16. A great movie and I’m always by the switch in moods and tones this film generates. Sturges makes it seem the easiest thing in the world. Of course it isn’t, and there are few films that do it as successfully as “Sullivan’s Travels” does.


  17. This is a great film to receive the Silver Screenings treatment. I’ve always enjoyed both Joel and Veronica — just glad that I didn’t have to work with the latter! The poor thing certainly had her demons to wrestle


  18. I’ve seen this film often and really enjoy it. Joel McCrea was an underrated actor; people should watch his work with Preston Sturges to understand how good he was. And I love Veronica Lake in this film, which may be her best. Sturges is a favorite of mine because he found humor in the smallest of details as well as in broad strokes, plus he knew when to be serious to make his point. Great film and great choice.


  19. This is definitely my favourite out of the Sturges films that I’ve seen so far, though I love ‘The Palm Beach Story’ too – the script is amazingly clever and I love the way that, just when it seems as if the journey is safely over, Sullivan lurches into his real journey. In the end Sturges makes both the entertaining film that the studios want Sullivan to make and the serious one he wants to make himself. I must also agree with you that both McCrea and Lake are perfectly cast!


  20. I’ve always liked the message of this movie, where Sullivan comes to realize that his gift for making films that uplift and entertain the masses shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s fun watching WHERE BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (by the Coen Bros.) and catching all the references to SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. This, along with THE LADY EVE, is my favorite Preston Sturges movie, and you’re right to point out that it’s dang funny but doesn’t shy away from showing the real suffering going on during the Depression.

    Great job as always, Ruth!


  21. This is a very lovable film that’s hard to pin down…with all the strange twists and turns it takes. Definitely one of my favorite Sturges films. Not as polished as The Lady Eve but its messiness is a very endearing quality. Plus McCrea and Lake are so much fun to be around, with his little-boy grumpiness and her sunny smile.


  22. I recently watched Sullivan’s Travels for the first time, and it was so good to see your excellent post on it. I kept nodding in agreement as I was reading this. Sullivan’s Travels is such an uplifting film with a lot to say about the power of art.


  23. Wonderful post, as usual, that gets to the heart of the matter. Sullivan’s Travel has all the things you mention and, without a doubt, I do feel a better person after each viewing. I’ve seen it a handful of times through the years. There is only one thing I can barely abide and that is Ms. Lake.

    R.A., I have tried and tried and tried to like her – well, maybe not that much as I’ve still many of her films to watch. But still, even all that’s wonderful about Sullivan’s Travels doesn’t do it. I usually don’t say anything because of the “good person” feeling after the film concludes. Although she’s better in this than in anything else I’ve seen her in. I confess I don’t get it – she was not a good actress at all. Now I’ll await the barrage…

    In any case, I do not allow Ms. Lake to dampen Sullivan’s Travels for me. Visually a stunning film as well, aside from all you mention in the post.

    That is all,



  24. Your style is really unique compared to other folks I
    have read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when
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  25. This is a very lovable film that’s hard to pin down with all the stgnare twists and turns it takes. Definitely one of my favorite Sturges films. Not as polished as The Lady Eve but its messiness is a very endearing quality. Plus McCrea and Lake are so much fun to be around, with his little-boy grumpiness and her sunny smile.


    • I agree – this isn’t as polished as “The Lady Eve”, but in some ways it’s more fun. McCrea and Lake are perfectly cast, aren’t they? It’s a film I never tire of.

      Thanks for dropping by. 🙂


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