Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Sullivan's Travels, Christmas in July, Hellzapoppin'

Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges)

After my intensely negative experience with The Lady Eve, a comedy that struck me as caring more for its subtext than its delivery, I was glad to return to Sturges' movie-about-movies, which mocks so many of the traits I found insufferable in his other 1941 picture. A film about Hollywood's inability to make true social commentary, Sullivan's Travels mocks the broader impulse of the rich to understand the poor in a condescending, simplistic manner. As with The Lady Eve, Sturges belabors his point—Joel McCrea's Sullivan constantly trying to trek it like a bum, only to wind up back in Hollywood—and for a film about two-dimensional Hollywood social message films, the conclusion Sturges reaches is almost simpering in its ostensible respect for the working class who would rather be entertained than informed. Nevertheless, Sturges' zingers crackle for me like they never did in Eve, and if I remain unconvinced that the writer-director is not secretly the biggest schmuck to con his way into a legacy, at least I chuckled. Bonus points for the subversive singing of "Let My People Go" in a black church that hosts some prisoners for a picture show, easily the deftest, subtlest piece of social critique in the film. Grade: B

Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940)

A film about a dime-a-dozen hack being mistaken for a whiz? Could this be Sturges' filmic autobiography? No, but seriously, I was so glad that I tuned into this supposedly "minor" Sturges movie after TCM ran Sullivan's Travels. After struggling to connect with his films, Christmas in July finally did the trick. If in the aforementioned film I chiefly chuckled and smiled knowingly, Christmas made me honest-to-God laugh, loud and long. And contrary to the message of Sullivan's, this satire beautifully incorporates its critique of a corporate America (both timely and ahead of its time) into a well-paced and wildly funny piece of entertainment. Sturges uses Dick Powell's stiff unfamiliarity with comedy to great effect, emphasizing what an awkward, overeager git he is but also making him impossible not to love. The best part, though? Raymond Walburn as the business head who hates his own contest so much he just arbitrarily gives away the prize, then explodes when he learns a man won unfairly. His blank-faced response to Powell's earnest explanation of one of his proposed ad slogans—"It's a pun." "It certainly is."—makes this an instant favorite supporting performance. Hallelujah, it would seem I'm not immune to Sturges' charms after all. Grade: A

Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941)

Much as I enjoy Sullivan's Travels, it's this 1941 self-reflexive movie that I will return to most often. I cannot say with any certainty what differs from the original Broadway musical, but Olsen and Johnson's adaptation of their own work adds sight gags and metacinematic touches that could only work on the screen. Hellzapoppin' moves with such blistering speed that that the already loose narrative structure collapses entirely, an anarchic spirit prevailing even the wayward spot of straightforward moments; see the lilting song number interrupted by intertitles urging a member of the audience to go home (eventually, a shadow rises at the bottom of the frame and awkwardly slides out) and the couple painting on the "lens" as the sing. The funniest jokes of all may be when the film belatedly attempts to follow some kind of story, an exercise in futility soon corrected by a total deconstruction. The best, and most thrilling, sequence, though belongs not to Olsen and Johnson but a cast of black performers who appear to tacitly realize that they're in a film so ridiculous and unorthodox they can take center stage, at which point they launch into a dynamic dance number so incredible it belongs with the great movie dance scenes. Grade: A


  1. Heh. Apparently we have opposite tastes on Preston Sturges. :) The Lady Eve is one I can return to over and over and I love it every time. A lot of that is how much I love Barbara Stanwyck, though (she's my favorite studio-era actress, probably). Meanwhile, Christmas in July only mildly amused me, and I haven't bothered to rewatch it since I saw it some fifteen years ago.

    I think I'd rank his filmography (that I've seen) like this.

    1. The Lady Eve
    2. Sullivan's Travels (basically tied for first)
    3. Unfaithfully Yours
    4. Hail the Conquering Hero

    5. Miracle of Morgan's Creek
    6. The Palm Beach Story

    7. Christmas in July

    8. The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend

  2. Oh, Barbara Stanwyck might be, after Juliette Binoche, my favorite actress full stop, and she is indeed a delight in THE LADY EVE. I just found so much of the rest of it overreaching at the expense of any visceral comic pleasure. Christimas in July or, even better, The Palm Beach Story, make me roar with laughter while also engaging me on a bit of a higher level. I just think TLE and to a lesser extent SULLIVAN's sacrifice the lowbrow for the high, to their detriment.