Film Studies: Dying is hard. But comedy is harder. One man knew that better than most...

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Don't be alarmed if you find yourself laughing at the many jokes and ironic situations in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.

Don't be alarmed if you find yourself laughing at the many jokes and ironic situations in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. Not to mention the superb and daft high-mindedness of Joel McCrea as the early Sullivan. The film is famous for being a comedy. Equally, don't be too perturbed if you suddenly see how close the title is to Gulliver's Travels. Just remember that that famous book for children regularly omits many parts and passages in its illustrated editions, and was written by Jonathan Swift, a man in whom William Butler Yeats detected "savage indignation". No one ever reported anything that severe or misanthropic in Preston Sturges. They said he was just a genius, a hoot and a charmer. Yet, think of it from Sturges's point of view - for about seven years he was the toast of the town, and after that he was the man who used to be Preston Sturges. All of which should be borne in mind as you laugh along with Sullivan's Travels: like all great comedies, it is a very serious film. Just not solemn.

His name is John L Sullivan (once a fatuous boxing champion's name) and he is a successful movie director at a studio... well, let's call it Paramount, meaning the best: it has a snow-capped mountain for its logo, if that's not too far-fetched. Sullivan makes silly comedies - one is called So Long, Sarong - but a demon of serious ambition gnaws at him. Maybe he has been reading; maybe he knows there is a war on at Europe - something that the film's sunny Los Angeles is blithely unaware of. So Sullivan gets the shocking idea to make films about "human suffering". I should add at this point that Sturges lays the blame for this on none of the likely suspects - there is no communist girlfriend, no old teacher who wants Sully to be worthy of his American heritage. Respectability is like getting a cold.

The studio is baffled. Why disturb the serene manufacture of syrup? There are two brilliantly portrayed yes men (Robert Warwick and Porter Hall) who begin to say "no". But Sullivan is tall, heroic, headstrong and stupid. He is going to set off on the road, just like a bum, and find hardship and suffering. His butler and his valet (Robert Greig and Eric Blore) are far more impatient: they know their boy and his irritating boyishness. The butler even reads him the riot act about his tasteless mockery of the poor - it is a dazzling, incendiary moment - when Sullivan dresses up as a tramp.

Well, Sullivan is not to be deterred, not even by a girl he encounters (Veronica Lake), a would-be actress who keeps talking about meeting Lubitsch. But then this radiant picture of the open road turns into a film noir - and film noir is always more telling when you don't expect it. Sully goes too far. Over a silly bit of business with stolen shoes he is reported dead, whereas in fact he's part of a Southern chain gang where conditions are every bit as hard as heat, bigotry, cruelty and Southern discomfort can make them. Sully has one consolation: the weekly movie show in a black church. The congregation makes room for the prisoners (mostly white at that happy stage of American social development) and the wretched can laugh for a few minutes at Mickey Mouse.

The script takes a twist and a turn (Sturges could do that kind of thing in his sleep), and Sullivan is restored to his glory. His unhappy marriage is over. He gets the girl. She may get to meet Lubitsch, and Sully is set on a long line of silly comedies - or movies as thoughtful as those made by Sturges.

Born in Chicago in 1898, his real name was Edmond Biden. As the son of wealthy, social parents, he was educated in Europe, and at 16 he went to work for his mother's cosmetics company - he excelled in that field and invented a smear-free lipstick, perfect for movie kissing (and the other kind). He was in the Air Corps during the war and in the 1920s he launched himself as a playwright and then a screenwriter. From 1940 to 1944, he directed eight films that make an unrivalled body of comic joy. And the two best - Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve - were both made in 1941, which was not a great year for a lot of people in most places on earth. More or less, Sturges ignores the war, not out of escapism so much as the certainty that there are, and have to be, more important things - notably the foolishness of men and the cunning of women. The great demonstration of that diagram is The Lady Eve (it's Henry Fonda bamboozled but loved by Barbara Stanwyck) and that film will get a re-release later this year.

Then in the years after peace, somehow Sturges lost his touch. In part, it was because his happy ties to Paramount were ended. He got more money and bigger budgets and he still wrote his own scripts. But the wonderful absurdity he pursued was no longer a mood the public delighted in. And in a couple of years Sturges was struggling. He died in 1959, at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, a failure by the standards of the industry he had graced. Along the way he was a restaurateur in LA, a womaniser, a fond husband and father, and a man liked by everyone he met. I think his is the Hollywood life story I'd soonest see as a movie - alas, anyone doing it today would feel bound to be serious and paint it as a moral lesson. Whereas, I think the truth is that Sturges thrived when the world needed to be entertained.

And that's why Sullivan's Travels is his most thoughtful film, the one in which laughter is regularly stilled by a glimpse of inner meaning. There is no answer in the film, no recipe for what Hollywood should do. I'm sure Sturges reckoned you did what you could - so if you couldn't make The Lady Eve in 1941, well, try Citizen Kane (same year). But, most of all, notice how far that alleged tragedy Citizen Kane, not to mention that scathing enquiry into success in America and the futility of money, is also a very funny picture.

Not everyone is actually serving a life sentence on a chain-gang in Georgia - it just feels like that. If you are in that extreme predicament, then Mickey Mouse may be all you're up for. But if you're reasonably well off and living in an advanced modern democracy - I have heard of such people - and if you have the kind of mind that can laugh one minute and get the chills the next as real craziness looms, then Preston Sturges is for you. He won one Oscar for screenwriting (The Great McGinty), but nothing else. The reason for that is that he made films the world regarded as comedies. That's the bug that got in Sullivan's pants, and reason for us all to remember the talk of two elderly comics. Dying is hard, said one, as he approached that show. But comedy is harder, growled the other.

'Sullivan's Travels' is out now on DVD (Universal)

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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