Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is one of the most meta movies that came out of Hollywood, at least before post-modernism reared its self-conscious head. It opens with an action scene–a fistfight on top of a train, with both protagonists falling to a watery grave. But then, the words “The End” appear in the water–it was only a movie. Three men get up from their screening-room seats, and one of them, director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), argues to two studio execs that what they and we have just seen is just the sort of socially conscious document Depression American needs.
Sullivan (aka Sully) is ashamed of the escapist fare that has made him rich–trifles like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, Hey Hey in the Hayloft, and So Long Sarong. (Either the last is an amazing coincidence or Sturges knew that Pardon My Sarong, starring Abbott and Costello, was in production and would be released the following year.) He wants to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
Exec: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. 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!
Exec: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Unfortunately, Sullivan, a product of boarding school, has no experience with the suffering of humanity, and therefore resolves to put on hobo clothes, go out on the road, and obtain some. Complications ensue, notably involving Veronica Lake, identified in the credits only as The Girl. “How does the girl fit into the picture?” a cop asks Sully. He says, “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?”
There’s lots of other self-referential lines, including knowing mentions of Sturges’ colleagues Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch. At one point, Sully, in trouble yet again, breaks the fourth wall, remarking, “If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does.”
The movie can be said to be structured around three movie-watching scenes. The first is the fight sequence that opens things up. The second comes when Sully is taken in, and taken to a picture show, by two maiden ladies. Here the camera stays on the audience and all we get from the movie is some lachrymose music–the dialogue is drowned out by the sounds of kids sniffling and people munching on snacks, all combining to give the sense of a pretty miserable cinematic experience. As Sully and his companions leave, we see from a lobby card that a triple bill is playing: Beyond these Tears, The Valley of the Shadow, and The Buzzard of Berlin.
The third movie-within-the-movie is the climactic scene of Sullivan’s Travels, and the only one that’s an actual movie. Through plot machinations, Sullivan has found himself a prisoner on a chain gang, subject to miserable conditions. For a rare respite, the prisoners are brought to a rural African-American church, where a movie is projected on a white sheet that serves as a makeshift screen. The selection of the day is a 1934 slapstick (rather Warner Brothers-y, in fact) Disney short, “Playful Pluto.” As Sully watches, he begins to have a revelation.
Through more plot machinations, he is released. News of his adventures have created a nationwide sensation, and the studio execs are now eager to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? One of them says, “It will put Shakespeare back with the shipping news!”
But Sully will have none of it. He wants to make a comedy. He says, as the picture comes to and end, “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.”