Sullivan’s Travels, the Preston Sturges movie from 1941, tells the story of John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), not the boxer, but a Hollywood director of highly successful light comedies. He is determined to change his image by adapting a ponderous social-message novel entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sullivan’s Travels is one of those all-time classic films that critics love and students hate, at least on first bounce. They find it schizophrenic. It starts off with several slapstick scenes worthy of early Chaplin. The plot then twists itself into a sharp 1930’s screwball comedy, like Capra without the sentimentality. Just as the couple begin to realize that they are in love, the film turns desperately dark. Sullivan is robbed and nearly killed. Suffering from amnesia, he is convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to a chain gang. Isolated in a swampland prison and tormented by sadistic guards, Sullivan hits bottom. His friends believe he is dead. One night Sullivan sees an early Disney cartoon, realizes his identity and the value of his life as an entertainer. Miraculously, he regains his freedom and The Girl (Veronica Lake). Presto! The obligatory Hollywood happy ending.
Students don’t quite know how to react. Is this a comedy with a grim interlude that ruins the fun? Or is it a serious reflection on a world poised midway between Depression and war that compromises its message by going for laughs? Or is it in fact an insightful mirror of human life, where comedy and tragedy routinely mingle unpredictably like raucous jokes at an Irish wake? It takes time and multiple viewings to be able to accept the third possible interpretation.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? proclaims in an opening title that it is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Perhaps, but by choosing the title they did, the writers, Joel and Ethan Coen, have in fact given Sullivan’s Travels equal billing. The result of this intermillennial collaboration of Homer, Sturges and the Coens is a highly entertaining mix of comedy and tragedy. Like Homer they bounce the narrative from one episode to another with little to hold them together beyond the presence of the wandering hero and his clownish companions. Like Sturges they move the emotions in opposite directions with startling suddenness, an effect that both confuses and exhilarates.
In this film, the Coens match the delightful tension they created in Fargo (1996), in which the achingly funny characters make us forget that the plot is being propelled by a brutal kidnapping and a series of murders by a couple of psychopathic killers. In Fargo they brilliantly caricature the language and manners of Norwegian-American Minnesota. In the present film, they take careful satiric aim on rural Southern grotesques but place them in a world of racism, corruption, lynch mobs and dispiriting poverty. It’s Faulkner with the giggles.
Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), a Depression-era Odysseus from Mississippi, begins his journey home after escaping from a chain gang with two comic sidekicks, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), neither of whom has ever been invited to join Mensa. Wily Ulysses speaks in paragraphs, like a man who makes Roget’s Thesaurus his bedside reading but has never heard of Elements of Style. With his razor-sharp mustache and hair carefully set and perfumed with Dapper Dan pomade, he could have walked out of a 1920’s Arrow collar ad or silent movie set. He might even be mistaken for a director, like John L. Sullivan himself. Pete and Delmar have the fashion consciousness of a dog’s supper.
Nonetheless, the three are inseparable, initially because of the metallic wonders of prison technology. As their journey continues, however, the bond becomes spiritual. Ulysses has one goal in mind: to return to his pretty wife, Penny (Holly Hunter), and his seven daughters. Penny, however, is not quite the stick-at-home that Homer’s Penelope was. No weaving and unweaving to keep off unwanted suitors for her. After all, she has to do for her girls, and for Penny.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? relies heavily on a haunting musical score woven together from an astonishing variety of traditional country spirituals and ballads. At times the action stops entirely to allow us to savor the wonderful sounds without distraction, much like the song-and-dance numbers in classic M.G.M. musicals. In one lovely scene, worthy of Fellini, the trio happens upon a congregation clad in white gowns, men and women both, singing as they process through the forest toward a river for a mass baptism. For these convicts, this is a vision of heaven.
In another scene they encounter the Sirens, a trio of lovely young women washing clothes in the middle of the same river. As men who have not been near a woman in several years, they find their a-cappella song captivating. Homer, brilliant as always, stressed the siren’s song rather than her appearance, and the Coens wisely follow his lead.
Opposite the angelic strains of the spirituals and ballads is the lowdown sound of Delta blues. The wayfarers meet a young black guitarist, Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who claims to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical skill. The devil certainly kept his side of the bargain. In another of his mad schemes, Ulysses leads this interracial quartet into a country radio studio and introduces them to the blind station manager as the Soggy Bottom Boys, an all-white or all-black group, depending. With the race issue thus settled, they get the job and perform with such gusto that they become the rage of the Yazoo Valley from Greenwood to Redwood and every wood in between.
As fugitives one step ahead of the sheriff’s shotgun and bloodhounds, the Soggy Bottoms cannot cash in on their new-found notoriety. Ever on the lam, they make an unscheduled guest appearance as supporting players in a bank robbery with George Nelson (Michael Badalucco). During the transaction, they discover that it is quite unhealthy to use his more popular name Baby Face, at least while he’s signing his withdrawal slip with a tommy gun.
They also stumble into an adventure with the Cyclops, Big Dan Teague (John Goodman), a beefy, one-eyed Bible salesman who may have taken lessons in theology and business ethics from Elmer Gantry. Like his namesake in The Odyssey, Ulysses provides a feast for Big Dan, but this time the Wily One lets the Wide One win the first round. Not to worry. They will meet again.
Through a series of wild improbabilities, Ulysses and his buddies become central figures in the campaign for the re-election of Gov. Menelaus Pappy O’Neill (Charles Durning), a public servant totally dedicated to the service of Pappy O’Neill. His challenger, Homer Stokes (Wayne Duval), seems to have the election sewn up tighter than a Broward County ballot box. For some strange reason, Homer decides to solidify his standing among members of a certain unnamed secret society by arranging the gratuitous lynching of the black guitarist from the Soggy Bottom Boys. This miscalculation wilts his kudzu in a hurry. The Soggies will not abandon their friend, and when they spot a white hood with only one eye hole, they pursue their mission with a zeal that could have stopped Sherman dead.
In the 1930’s, the ghosts of General Sherman and his boys in blue still haunt the landscape, just as today the dark period of Depression and Jim Crow still haunt the country, North and South alike. Roger Deakins, director of photography, frequently captures this dark atmosphere by bleeding the color from the screen, turning the images into sepia-tones, like those stark photographs of Dorothea Lange. Even these subtle changes in color tone accentuate the tension between the sunny world of comedy and the twilight regions of personal tragedy.
George Clooney, as Ulysses, radiates irrepressible optimism in the direst of circumstances. He protects himself from his world with a shell of words, not particularly witty or wise words, but a relentless chatter to convince himself with a Gablesque wink and smirk that frankly, he doesn’t give a damn about today, because tomorrow will be a better day with a scarlet sunrise. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, as his sidekicks, do a bit too much mugging for the camera, but they are, after all, movie stereotypes of Hollywood hillbillies, intended more as a parody of the movies than of rural Southerners.
In a blatant parody of all those mindless Hollywood movies scorned by the Sullivan of Travels fame, the Coen brothers stretch to bring all the strands of their story together in an outrageously unlikely final sequence. Any self-respecting deus would climb back into his machina and go home in embarrassment. It’s a fact, however, that anybody who wants to sell tickets in this business has to provide a happy ending, not a successful lynching. Who cares if the ending is unconvincing? The whole film is a great wild comic ride, a treat for eye and ear alike. John L. Sullivan would have loved it. And so would Preston Sturges. And so would their studio bosses.