Preston Sturges'
O Brother, where am I?

commentary by Tony McRae

Successful movie director John Lloyd "Sully" Sullivan (Joel McCrea) has a simple desire, to get out of Hollywood and experience the real world.  The creator of "Ants in Your Plants of 1939" and "Hey, Hey in the Hayloft" has suddenly discovered he has a social conscience, and he has the right movie to assuage his guilt.  "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" will be a picture about real people, people who are suffering, road people forced to stand on line to get a job or a hot meal and a place to sleep. 

Sully knows he's been protected from reality; he needs to make contact with the real world, the working--and especially the non-working--populace.  Like any good director, he knows disguises.  He'll dress like them, these men of the road who are looking for work.  He'll become a hobo (1).

The trouble is, Sully can't seem to get to "out there" into the so-called real world.  He tries.  Twice, in fact, he feels that all he has to do is tear away the veil that hides the reality that is poverty.  

Off he goes into the great unknown, but he's not alone.  At the insistence of his producers, he's tailed by his entourage-- agent, cook, secretary, doctor, PR man, et al--who follow him in a land yacht.  He manages to elude them.  Now on his own he gets a handyman's job working for two sex-starved sisters; he escapes their clutches, hitches a ride, meets a girl ("There's always a girl in the picture," says Sully).  And before he knows it  he winds up back in Hollywood.

But Sully is persistent.  On this second trip he's accompanied by the girl--Veronica Lake, her famous peekaboo look (2) now firmly concealed by a manly hat (3).  They hop a train; walk through a shanty-town; shower with the homeless; attend a prayer meeting; eat something faintly resembling food (4); and sleep in a flop house where Sully's shoes are stolen (5).  While looking in a garbage can for their next meal, it hits him--enough is enough.  He and the girl return to Hollywood.  

Where did he go wrong? he asks himself.  Why can't he blend in?  Is there something wrong with him?  He tries explaining his dilemma to the girl: 

It's a funny thing, how everything keeps shoving me back to Hollywood or Beverly Hills...almost like gravity.  As if some force were saying, "Get back to where you belong.  You don't belong out here in real life, you phony, you." John Sully Sullivan on to something?  Something--gulp--profound?

In his book "The Sublime Object of Ideology" the Czech philosopher Slavoj Žižek, writing about the films of Luis Buñuel, says that when someone tries to occupy a space that is not his, a space occupied by "the Other," "a whole series of impassible obstacles will build up around it."  This is the case in many of Buñuel's movies; his characters are often incapable of going where they want because the desired space they seek is not theirs, but rather a "fantasy-object" that doesn't exist at all, at least not for them.

This seems to be Sully's problem also.  His object, this world of impoverished men and women in the grip of a great depression, is somehow beyond his reach, even when he's among the destitute.  When we first see him walking among the homeless, we are aware of his self-consciousness (6):  he wants to tear away the veil, have a real experience so that he can make his moral moving picture, so that he can educate, do good. We sense he's playacting

His predicament is not unique.  We all have our wants and ambitions, the need to blend in, to identify with others.  To be accepted.  The trouble is, once we arrive at the object of our desire we realize this may not be quite what we had in mind.  There's still something missing.  The in-crowd doesn't seem all that chic; the new job we were so sure would fulfill our ambitions isn't all that satisfying.  Instead of becoming one of them, Sully has entered an illusory world; instead of real people he sees nothing but his own image of them.  

The irony of all this is that he had been warned early on--by an employee.

A few minutes into the movie, after putting on his tramp outfit, Sully has an exchange with his disapproving butler (Robert Greig).  Sully feels the need to explain himself:

Sully:  I'm going out on the road to find out what it's like to be poor and needy and then I'm going to make a picture about it.
Butler:  The poor know all about poverty-and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sully:  But I'm doing it for the poor.  Don't you understand?
Butler:  I doubt they would appreciate it, sir...Also such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir.  You see, sir, rich people--and theorists--who are usually rich people--think of poverty in the negative, as a lack of riches--as disease might be called the lack of  health.  But it isn't, sir.  Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms.  It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study.  It is to be shunned.

"He gets a little bit gruesome every once in a while," Sullivan says to his valet. 

It takes Sullivan an entire picture to learn the butler's lesson.  He wonders how his butler, quite a refined man, has come to know all this?  He asks him rather petulantly, "You seem to have made quite a study of it."   The butler's response is capital.  "Quite unwillingly, sir.  Will that be all?"

Okay, so after two tries Sully will abandon his efforts to understand the poor, but not before one final good deed.  He will make one last "quick tour," taking with him $1,000 in $5 bills "to hand them out to these tramps in gratitude for what they done for him," explains his PR man (William Demarest).  No entourage this time--he's on his own.  

While on his outing of charity, Sully is trailed by a desperate hobo who knocks him on the head and takes his money.  He awakens not sure where he is, or even who he is.  He resists arrest and winds up in a hard-labor prison where he's beaten (7), chained, and put in the sweat box (8).  He has wanted to penetrate the world of the downtrodden, and now that he's there he finds himself in a void, an emptiness he cannot relate to.  There is no veil to be torn away, no secret to uncover, no otherness.  He has only one desire now, to escape. 

But not just yet.  He must undergo one more trial.  With his chained fellow inmates he is taken to a church to see a picture show.  It happens to be a Disney cartoon, and before he knows it he's laughing along with the prisoners and the congregation (9).  This experience will turn out to be a lesson that will soon get him thinking straight.

The next day he tells the Trustee (Jimmy Conlin) who's been helping him, "If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does." (10)  Well, of course, he's soon set free, gets back to Hollywood where his producer is all set to turn the book "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" into the picture Sully's been obsessed over.  But Sully has changed his mind.  He explains:

In the first place, I'm too happy to make "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
In the second place, I haven't suffered enough to make "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Sully finally realizes that he could do no good by walking among the poor, by handing out $5 bills.  His "travels" were vanity trips, and he knows it.  

Like his butler Sully has learned his lesson "quite unwillingly," yet it wis a lesson he would not have learned otherwise.

It has been said that Sullivan's Travels is Preston Sturges' exposé of Hollywood in all its  crassness and venality.  Perhaps, but Sturges seems to have a larger agenda.  By implication, Sullivan's Travels paints a picture of a naive well-meaning America whose futile programs to deal with an impoverished populace are mirrored by Sullivan's Quixotic efforts.  

Sully has emerged from his experience not unchanged; he had gone about his business distributing money even though he isn't clear just what good it will do.  The question the film poses is both simple and profound:  How can he use what he's learned?   "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh," he tells his friends.

He will continue to make comedies, that much we know.  Will they be replicas of "Ants in Your Plants of 1939"?  We hope not.  Maybe they'll turn out to be as potent as the comedies of Preston Sturges.  That wouldn't be bad at all.  





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