I would be remiss if I didn’t follow a post on Sullivan’s Travels with one on the movie that has the same name as the movie the title character in that film starts out wanting to make. It’s not just the name. Director and (with his brother Ethan) cowriter Joel Coen said of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “In our mind, it’s the movie he would have made if he had the chance.”
Well, not really. Sullivan wanted to produce a stirring social document and O Brother, though it’s serious at heart, is a comedy. But the Coens’ movie is chock full of allusions and references to all sorts of texts, primarily to The Odyssey, secondarily to Sullivan’s Travels.
In the Sturges film, Sully ends up a prisoner on a chain gang. In O Brother, the three protagonists–Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmer (Tim Blake Nelson)–start out that way but escape before the movie is five minutes old. Eventually, Pete, recaptured, gets taken with his fellow prisoners to a picture show, as in Sullivan’s Travels. Also watching the movie are his still-on-the-lam buddies.
The Coen brothers being the Coen brothers, the movie they chose as the feature attraction is about as obscure as it is possible to be: Myrt and Marge (1933), a pre-code backstage musical based on a popular radio serial. (The director, Al Boasberg, had writing credits on the Buster Keaton films The General, Dough Boys, and Battling Butler.) The Three Stooges had featured roles–another self-reflexive commentary, as Delmer, Pete, and Everett engage in some pretty prime slapstick themselves. (And are none too bright).
The Stooges don’t appear in the scene the boys watch—or, rather, that serves as backdrop for Everett’s musings on the perfidy of women and his and Delmer’s stage-whispered communication with Pete, who it turns out has not turned into a toad. In fact, they don’t appear to even notice what’s on the screen. In contrast to Sullivan’s Travels, here the movie-watching experience is less than transformative.
If we care to, we can see and hear the scene–an audition in which Marge (Donna Dameral) strips off her skirt and displays the bizarre calisthenics of which she is capable. It’s implicitly another reference back to Sullivan’s Travels: Myrt and Marge is precisely the sort of lightweight entertainment Sullivan has made a fortune producing and, as the film begins, has turned his back on.