Sullivan's Travels Quotes


"I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!"

John L. Sullivan, Hollywood director of light and breezy comedies

Sullivan really, really does not want to his legacy to be as the maker of films with titles like “Ants in Your Plants of 1939.” Get the picture? This guy wants to start being taken seriously in Hollywood. And, as anyone who has ever watched more than a few Academy Awards telecasts can tell you, to be taken seriously in Hollywood means making serious movies. The serious-er, the better. And so it is with the idea that a movie that really, really reveals human suffering is what gets you taken seriously in Hollywood that Sullivan commences his idea of traveling incognito among the poorest and neediest along the highways and byways of America. Clearly, John Sullivan is setting himself up for some kind of lesson. And what a lesson his travels ultimately teaches!

"You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned."

Burrows, butler to John Sullivan

Sullivan’s butler, looking at his employer dressed in the stereotypical outfit that a rich Hollywood guy might suspect a bum or hobo in the 1930s might wear, is trying to convince his employer not to go through his plan to travel incognito among the nation’s poor at the height of the Great Depression.

"Film's the greatest educational medium the world has ever known."

John Sullivan

A struggling young actress who joins him on his undercover journey across America—still not aware that Sullivan is, in fact, a famous director—disagrees with him about the value of serious messages in movies. She even goes so far as to argue that there is nothing guaranteed to empty a movie theater faster than some director trying to get across a deep message in a movie. Sullivan’s reply reveals that he still has a long way to go to learn the real message of his travels.

"You don't know anything about anything. You don't know how to get a meal. You don't know how to keep a secret. And you can't even stay out of town...I know fifty times as much about trouble as you ever will. And besides, you owe it to me. You sort of belong to me. When you're a hobo, I found you...Please!"

The Girl

It does not take long at all for Sullivan’s incognito travels to come to an end. He barely gets out of town before he gets into such trouble he requires Burrows, his butler, to identify him so he doesn’t wind up being charged with stealing a car. Naturally, the Girl who is traveling with him also quickly discovers his true identity. Much to his surprise, she actually wants to go back out into the world of scraping by once the truth about his plans are revealed. After all, as she makes clear, he probably won’t get very far on his own.

"It's all finished. The greatest expedition of modern times. Almost the greatest sacrifice ever made by human man. He's the past-master of poverty. He knows everything. Now don't you worry. He's all washed up except tonight, he's just going through for a quick tour. He's taking a thousand dollars in five dollar bills and he's going to hand them out to these tramps in gratitude for what they done for him. Now is that a story? Does that give you a lump in your throat or does that give you a lump in your throat?"

Mr. Jones, Sullivan's publicist

Sullivan’s close friend and publicist Mr. Jones is speaking by phone to Mr. Leland, one of the studio heads who truly fears for his company’s profits if Sullivan turns out to be serious about making this serious movie he’s got planned. Among the suggestions that Leland had for making Sullivan’s next movie something worthwhile were to add some sex and maybe a dog to give it heart. Jones is acting as sort of the middle man between the show end and the business end of show business (as publicists do) and is trying to walk a very shaky tightrope tied at both ends to structures not particularly solidly grounded to begin with.

"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

John Sullivan

Here we have the most famous quote from Sullivan’s Travels as well as the message the movie is trying to convey. The entire point of the film is to reveal that vital necessity of being able to laugh even when things are at their worst. And things have never gotten much worse in American than the Great Depression. Sullivan’s Travels is a movie about a maker of Hollywood comedies who looks around him and thinks that maybe he is wasting his time and living a pointless life making funny movies when he could be reflecting the utter gravity of the situation that exists out there in the cockeyed caravan that is the real world.

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