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As a fan of the comic genius known as Preston Sturges, I am glad that his films have finally started to appear on DVD. The Criterion Collection has wisely chosen to release two of Sturges' best works- SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS and THE LADY EVE (coming soon) for release on the optimum home video format. Hopefully, these releases opens the flood gates for other Sturges classics like THE GREAT MCGINTY, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, THE PALM BEACH STORY, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to come to DVD.

The choice of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS as the first Preston Sturges title to come to DVD is a rather timely and obvious one, since the title for the Cohen Brothers' film O BROTHER, ART WHERE THOU? originated within this work. SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS tells the story of Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who made his name by directing a string of highly successful comedies and musicals. Tired of comedy, Sullivan wants to make a "serious" film that speaks to the impoverished masses living through the great depression. Hoping to dissuade the director from making this kind of downbeat (and unprofitable) movie, the studio bosses question his first hand knowledge of poverty and the suffering of the forgotten man. Unfortunately, the plan backfires with Sullivan deciding to assume the role of a hobo and hitting the road with no more than ten cents in his pocket. Sullivan's first attempt at poverty turns out to be a comic misfire, with the director quickly finding himself back at his point of origin. After meeting "The Girl" (Veronica Lake), a young would be actress who takes pity on him in his indigent guise, Sullivan sets out on his great adventure again, only this time with a companion in tow. After a few weeks on the road, Sullivan thinks he has learned all that he needs to know to make his "serious" film about poverty. However, Sullivan’s real lesson doesn't come until he finds himself forced to live the role he was only playing at.

It should be noted that Preston Sturges was the first writer to make the transition to director in Hollywood. Sturges wanted to direct primarily to protect the integrity of the words he had written and to prevent other directors from misinterpreting his perfectly written scripts. Of course, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS benefits from Sturges wearing both hats and his making sure that his brilliant lines of dialogue are brought to life as he envisioned. SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS starts out as a comedy, but then the film successfully switches gears becoming a serious drama with humorous moments interspersed. The transition from one genre to another works in this film is because Sturges recognizes that the only way for "comedy" director Sullivan to learn about the "drama" he wishes to make, is for him to live through it.

Another interesting thing about SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is the fact Sturges achieves the goal that he sets up for his fictional director in the film. In SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, Sturges gets to depict impoverished victims of the depression, yet he does so in such a manner that it is never demeaning to the people that lived through these times. Additionally, Sturges gets his message across without ever beating the audience over the head with the film’s social commentary. In addition to the two leads, the marvelous supporting cast of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS includes Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Robert Greig and Eric Blore.

The Criterion Collection has done a very impressive job of transcribing SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS to DVD. Starting with gorgeous black and white duplicate negative, Criterion has faithfully transferred SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS in its proper 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image on the DVD is sharper, cleaner and better defined than anything I've seen on this movie in the past. Blacks are absolutely pure, as are the whites, which are reproduced without any form of instability. Contrast is truly excellent and the picture produces numerous shades of gray between the two extremes. Additionally, there is a good deal of depth in the image and the darker scenes reproduce with a highly respectable level of shadow detail. Clean dual layer authoring conceals all traces of digital compression artifacts. Overall, this is an absolutely superb looking transfer of a film that is rapidly approaching the sixty-year mark.

The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is free from audible hiss and distortion. This track is surprisingly crisp, with excellent dialogue reproduction and no problems with intelligibility. Although there are the expected frequency limitations in recordings this old, sound effects are reasonably convincing and the mid-fi caliber music isn't harsh or warbly. Subtitles are provided on the DVD in English.

The basic interactive menus provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as some excellent supplements. Topping thing off is Preston Sturges: The Rise And Fall Of An American Dreamer from the PBS American Masters TV series. With Preston Sturges: The Rise And Fall Of An American Dreamer filmmaker Kenneth Bowser traces the life and career of the writer/director and features interviews with friends, colleagues and his widow Sandy. This is a marvelous documentary that every Sturges fan will want to see. Another excellent feature is a running audio commentary featuring Kenneth Bowser, Noah Baumbach, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. The commentary is not only very entertaining, but it great to hear individuals from this generation talk about warmly about the film as well as the talent of Sturges and the impact he had on Hollywood, as well as those that followed in his footsteps. An interview with Sandy Sturges is also included on the DVD, as a vintage Hedda Hopper interview with Sturges, plus an audio recording of Sturges singing one of his original compositions and reciting a poem. Storyboards and blueprints, a scrapbook of publicity materials and a theatrical trailer close out the supplements.

Criterion has done a truly fine job with their DVD edition of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS- the transfer is first rate and the supplements are truly worth spending time with. If you are a film buff or a fan of Preston Sturges, you will want to own this DVD. If you have never heard of the writer/director, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is certainly a good way to get your feet wet. Personally, I am looking forward to the Criterion's release of Sturges' THE LADY EVE, which is one of the out and out funniest movies ever made.


Sullivan's Travels - Criterion Collection


DVD reviews are Copyright 2001 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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