At one point in history, the name Preston Sturges was as well known among lovers of movie comedy as Billy Wilder. Criminally little-known and underappreciated today, Sturges was the master of the snappy, crackling, fast-paced dialogue of the screwball comedy that in the hands of good actors could seem as though it was tumbling out of their mouths straight from their brains. His remarkable ability to make actors appear as if they were improvising on the spot rather than shooting take number seven or ten or twelve was an ironic contributor to the lack of proper critical respect shown toward the comedy genre in which he excelled. The widespread misapprehension that a creative work which makes you double over in laughter cannot possibly also be a serious artistic expression is the underlying fundamental thematic foundation of Sullivan’s Travels.
That theme is succinctly summed in the film’s final bit of dialogue, spoken by the titular filmmaker in this story of a successful maker of comedies who briefly convinces himself that he should be making more serious movies: “There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
In the film, John L. Sullivan has decided to turn his back on the airy, light comedies which have made him rich and famous and turn his attentions toward adapting a very serious and dramatic and socially conscious novel for the screen. In real life, writer/director Preston Sturges had grown weary of the tendency of some very successful fellow creators of film comedy to introduce socially conscious messages into their latest films. Not serious films, but comedies with a greater conscience. Sturges responded to what he viewed as the destructive subjugation of comedy to the infiltration of needless serious-minded intentions not by making a serious film nor by making a sillier film, but by making a comedy with a serious message! Only in the case of Sullivan’s Travels, the comedy is never subjugated by its social consciousness.
Before John L. Sullivan feels comfortable enough to get behind the camera and utilize he talents to make that serious movie, however, he comes to realization that his insulated and comfortable life in Hollywood in no way allows him to know the struggle of the common man which he plans to dramatize in his movie. And so, in order to arrive at a proper understanding of what it means to be a common man in America during the Great Depression, he sets out upon a journey of discovery disguised as a common hobo. The episodic nature of Sullivan’s journey along the lower strata of American society in the 1930s provides ample opportunity for self-discovery as well and this dual nature of discovery is what links the film to the Great Book that which inspired the film’s title: Gulliver’s Travels.
One good turn deserves another, as they say, and just as Jonathan Swift’s classic tale of learning about the nature of his own society by becoming a tourist in foreign societies, so did Sullivan’s Travels eventually wind up inspiring the title of a future work. That serious, socially conscious film that Sullivan hopes to produce as a way of finally being taken seriously himself is titled “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Many years later the Coen Brothers would get around to doing what John Sullivan never does. In fact, the brothers have suggested that the film they made about Depression-era escaped convicts might just look something along the lines of the film that Sullivan might have made when he returned from his travels had those travels not convinced him that there is no shame in possessing the ability to make people laugh, especially when the ability to laugh may be the only possession someone has left that is worth anything at all.