Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Discovering Who You Really Are
If asked to name the most profound movie ever made in Hollywood, my choice wouldn’t be any of the socially important message movies. It wouldn’t be one of the undisputed dramatic classics, like Citizen Kane or Bonnie and Clyde. It would be a modest comedy from 1941, Sullivan’s Travels, directed by Preston Sturges.
Sturges is little known to the general public, but he’s an iconic figure to people who know and appreciate the history of the American movie. This is largely owing to his comic genius coupled with an off-center view of life that demolishes all convention. Four of his movies, including Sullivan’s Travels, are on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American comedies.
The hero of his first film, The Great McGinty, played by Brian Donlevy, is an unemployed and homeless man who finds out that the local political machine is paying people $2 to vote for the mayor. He catches the eye of the local ward boss by voting 33 times, and is brought into politics where he rapidly becomes alderman, mayor and governor. He’s utterly crooked throughout, but even as he takes bribes, he gets things done and provides jobs for working people.
When he’s elected governor, his wife, a woman he married for political convenience, talks him into going straight. Instead of emerging triumphant, his life is ruined. His former cronies get him arrested for the crimes he committed, and with no hope of beating the rap, he flees the country. At the end of the movie he’s tending bar in a banana republic. The moral, or perhaps immoral, of the story is that he and the people he served were better off when he was dishonest.
In Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrea stars in the title role as a successful Hollywood musical comedy director. Fresh from the success of his most recent picture, Ants in Your Pants of 1939, he yearns to make a serious message movie about real people who have been ground under the heel of the economic system.
Toward this end, he slips away from his entourage and hits the road as a hobo to see how the other half lives. It doesn’t go well. Knocked unconscious and robbed, he awakens to find himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Unable to prove who he is and get help, he’s sentenced to work on a chain gang.
That’s where he has his epiphany. One night the prisoners are taken to a nearby church to see a movie. There’s a Disney cartoon beforehand, and as it plays out, the church is filled with the laughter of men in a desperate situation with no hope. Sullivan realizes the ability to give that gift of laughter is something special. Eventually he is freed and decides to go back to making musical comedies.
In six decades of observing this world, I’ve concluded that much of its unhappiness — at least in places where the basic necessities are provided — is caused by people yearning to be something they’re not and failing to appreciate the good they do by being themselves and simply doing what they do well. The happiest people, by contrast, find what they do well and are able to take enough satisfaction from it to become at peace with life. We are all Sullivan, but not all of us are lucky enough to get the revelation he did.