Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges; Cinematographer John Seitz; Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998).

Criterion Sunday 46: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

It’s an underwhelming cover this one, but though the film is short, it’s not without its pleasures. It’s from the directors and some of the stars of King Kong (1933), and even uses some of its jungle sets, to create a sort of proto-Hunger Games story in which the game of the title has a double meaning of both a sport and a hunted animal. Our heroes are the clean-cut Bob (Joel McCrea) and Eve (Fay Wray), the former a famous big game hunter on a luxury cruise who in the opening scenes gets into a (very clearly foreshadowing) conversation about what it must be like to be the animal being hunted, leading him to make a statement about how he’d never have to worry about being in this position. Hmm. However, the most interesting character is the creepy Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who owns a tropical island and lures people to it by causing ships to run aground on his shoals. Eve has already done so and is living in Zaroff’s mansion when Bob arrives, the only survivor from his ship. As you can tell from the hour-long running time, there’s not a lot of slack in the storytelling, but there’s still plenty of stylishness to the black-and-white lensing, and though the setting doesn’t have the verisimilitude of Lord of the Flies (1963), also in the Criterion Collection and reviewed a few weeks back, it’s still got plenty of good setpieces. But it’s Banks who steals the show, which is probably why it was retitled the Hounds of Zaroff on its initial UK release.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Writer James Ashmore Creelman (based on the short story by Richard Connell); Cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard; Starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks; Length 63 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 August 2015.