Hollywood’s gifted writer and director Preston Sturges (“The Lady Eve,” 1941) defends the emotional and artistic value of comedy and escapism amid the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II with “Sullivan’s Travels,” a 1941 film starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.
McCrea is cast as John “Sully” Sullivan, an earnest and temperamental director whom the studio heads will only allow to make low-brow comedies but who harbors a desire to make a socially conscious film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (Borrowed some 60 years later by the Coen Brothers for their film of the same name starring George Clooney.)
In the film, a pair of skeptical producers argue that serious fare doesn’t sell. Realizing that he can’t make or sell the idea of the film “O Brother” without knowing hardship himself, Sully resolves to leave his comfortable life behind. Dressed in “hobo” garb borrowed from costuming, Sully hits the road with a caravan of studio employees watching over him.
Veronica Lake (“The Blue Dahlia,” 1946) becomes his companion in a series of attempts to experience hardship before things go horribly wrong and Sully finds himself in the middle of his proposed film but in real life and with no escape.
The Secretary of the NAACP at the time, Walter White, wrote to Sturges that the African-American church sequence where prisoners (including Sullivan) are treated to a film screening with the congregation was a rare portrayal of decency and equal treatment of people of all colors.
The film screening at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., on Tuesday, April 4, at 7:30 p.m., will be preceded by a recent Zoom interview conducted by Ralph Hirshorn with Peter McCrea, Joel’s son. Doors open at 7 p.m. Free cookies.