Saturday, March 6, 2021

A comedy

In "The Muddled Message of 'Hillbilly Elegy'" Hannah Long argues that it would have been a better film if it had more humor. In the course of her argument she uses one of my favorite movies:
The protagonist of the 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels is an earnest comedy director named John L. Sullivan. One day, Sullivan announces that he’s going to make a socially important film. It will be a film that has Something to Say, a meditation on labor and capital and dignity!

“But with a little sex?” his producer urges.

“A little,” Sullivan concedes, adding primly, “but I don’t want to stress it.”

But Sullivan has a problem. He lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills and doesn’t have the remotest idea what “hard luck” is. Guilt-stricken at his lack of victimhood, Sully dons a hokey “hobo” costume and hits the road with nothing but his wits, a small bundle of provisions, and the ability to—at any time—call on his network of friends to prevent him from suffering any real harm. Still wrapped in his invisible privileges, he declares, “I’m not coming back until I know what real trouble is.” ....

Self-awareness is key. Sullivan’s Travels approaches its subject with an awareness of its own limitations as a Hollywood production. Poor Sullivan is Hollywood poking fun at its own pretensions. In a clever piece of casting, writer-director Preston Sturges cast Joel McCrea as Sullivan. McCrea was a lanky everyman who exudes earnest good will, so we laugh with him instead of at him. Every five minutes on his sociological expedition Sully finds himself in another scrape, be it accidentally becoming a “kept man” and having to shimmy down a knotted bedsheet to escape (only to lose his grip and plunge into a conveniently placed water barrel) or asking with perfectly innocent idiocy two hobos’ how they “feel about the labor situation.”

A key lesson that the film teaches is that comedy usually delights ordinary audiences even more than ponderous message pictures—but the film also implicitly makes the case that comedy can sometimes do a better job of delivering a message than Important Social Dramas because it can take itself lightly. The medium was the message—Sullivan’s Travels is as funny as it is insightful. ....
Hannah Long, "The Muddled Message of 'Hillbilly Elegy'," The Dispatch.

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