Of all the screwball masters, Preston Sturges was the one who came the closest to identifying himself as an artist. Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey et al were geniuses of the medium, but they invariably saw themselves as journeymen who made pictures for the masses and would have scoffed in the face of the auteur theory. But Sturges wanted something more. After a promising career as a writer, penning works for the likes of William Wyler and Mitchell Leisen, he moved on to direct key works of the early 40s including The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940) and The Lady Eve (1941). His comedies were sharp as a tack, with a social conscience that was anathema to many of his peers.
By the time he came to make Sullivan’s Travels (1941), his nervousness about his position in Hollywood came bubbling to the surface. Laughs weren’t enough, but how could he move on to something more serious? In the film, Joel McCrea’s Sully – a film director tired of making people laugh – served not only as a surrogate for Sturges, but as a creative sounding board. Sully wants to make a dour, serious film called Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, much to the chagrin of his studio paymasters. He leaves the studio to find the real America; the dust-covered land still reeling from The Great Depression. Sully’s fictional pilgrimage was Sturges’ dark night of the soul. Sullivan’s Travels – with its level-headed vision of Hollywood – gave the director the room to pick himself up again during a moment of crisis.