Sullivan's Travels (1941) saw comedy stalwart Preston Sturges aim for the social conscience of Frank Capra's more serious pictures, and come away with a film which not only portrayed the times beautifully, but also argued passionately for the value of cinema as a tonic for the downtrodden.
Hollywood director John Lloyd 'Sully' Sullivan (Joel McCrea), sick and tired of making lightweight escapist comedies decides to make O Brother, Where Art Thou, a worthy and serious film capturing the suffering of the poverty-stricken. When his producers point out that he has no concept of hardship living the high life in Los Angeles, Sullivan decides to dress like a homeless man and travel across the country to experience life as a down-and-out.
Sullivan's Travels is one of the only satires made about Hollywood truly devoid of bitterness, and is all the more persuasive for it. Indeed, in the scenes in which Sully's producers attempt to dissuade him from his crazy scheme, they aren't portrayed as greedy or cowardly; they are reasonable men who understand not only the director, but also the business as a whole. Sturges himself was a filmmaker torn between populism and artistry. This scene, whilst hilarious, projected the director's hopes and fears onto the film, and the point is made more forcefully because of it.
McCrea is simply perfect as Sully, pitching his performance at the tipping point between steadfastness and stubbornness while Veronica Lake, who plays the obligatory love interest, is slightly too detached and statuesque to fully convince as the scrappy screwball heroine (she was better suited to film noir, which she later took to with aplomb).
It's telling that Sully's understanding of hardship during the course of Sullivan's Travels doesn't come from his life as a hobo, fraught with interruption and bad luck, but from cinema itself. The picture ends with a demonstration of resolve from Sturges; in a truly brilliant sequence, he shows how nothing can lift the soul like the movies can. It's a stirring finale, steeped in poignancy and executed with real pathos but, crucially for the director, a testament to the eternal magic of celluloid.
The BFI's Screwball! season runs up until 31 January, 2013. For more info and to book tickets, visit whatson.bfi.org.uk.