Filmsite Movie Review
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Third Voyage or 'Movie' of Sullivan's Travels:

In his third voyage, without dialogue and presented with the pathos of a silent film with emotionally-tinged music, Sullivan and The Girl (looking like Chaplin-esque tramps) stroll through a hobo jungle - it is a shanty-town camp filled with the pathetic, hungry, desperate and dirty faces of America's downtrodden. They stand in a long line leading to a Salvation Army mission soup kitchen. The two are photographed by a studio publicist dangling from a telephone pole above them. In a homeless shelter specializing in fumigation ("his" and "hers"), they both lather themselves with soap and take hot showers to clean the dirt and unwelcome bugs off their bodies. The camera pans along rows of snoozing, uninterested bums seated in a mission revival lecture as an orator addresses them. After a Bowery-style mission talk from the preacher (Arthur Hoyt), they eat wretched mission food served at long tables. At night, they sleep on the packed floor of the mission flophouse that is decorated with a stark sign: "HAVE YOU WRITTEN HOME TO MOTHER." Sullivan gives his arm to the girl as a pillow as they stretch out together next to dozens of other unfortunates.

When they are awakened the next morning by one of the mission cooks beating a big metal pan, Sullivan realizes that one of the hobos has stolen his shoes (the ones with his identification card sewed into the sole). The camera shoots down the length of Sullivan's body through his two exposed bare feet. The space where a bum slept next to him is now empty - except for the revolting sight of a replacement pair - a beat-up, worn-out pair of shoes. On a sunny sidewalk, a scruffy-looking Sullivan has taken a job wearing a sandwich board on either side and the Girl carries a message on a picket sign. [Both signs oppose each other - they represent the Capital and Labor characters within 'the film in a film' in the opening scene.] The front of Sullivan's sign advertises: "Why look like a tramp? MOE'S - Slightly Damaged Misfits - AT YOUR OWN TERMS." Behind him following close behind is the Girl - her sign reads: "MOE UNFAIR TO UNION PANTS MAKERS".

The scene dissolves to the two romantically walking hand-in-hand along a lake's edge with the moonlight reflecting on the water behind them. They pause and face out toward the lake - and then put their arms around each other. In a dark alley, they grimly pick through garbage cans, looking to scrape together some garbage to eat. Suddenly, Sullivan is revolted by the thought of the Girl eating stinky food scraps. He takes her arm and they hurry out of the alley to end their third voyage.

From a telephone in a Kansas City Hotel Suite, publicist Mr. Jones tells Lebrand that Sullivan's travels are almost at an end:

It's all finished. The greatest expedition of modern times. Almost the greatest sacrifice ever made by human man. He's the past-master of poverty. He knows everything. Now don't you worry. He's all washed up except tonight, he's just going through for a quick tour. He's taking a thousand dollars in five dollar bills and he's going to hand them out to these tramps in gratitude for what they done for him. Now is that a story? Does that give you a lump in your throat or does that give you a lump in your throat?

In the comfort of his hotel suite bedroom, Sullivan speaks with the Girl about how his adventure to experience and sample poverty is over - but only after he fulfills one final parting gesture. He plans to patronize the dregs of society that he couldn't join by generously handing out five-dollar bills on his last evening: "Well, here we are at the end of the adventure. I'll go down tonight and give them a little money and that winds it up." The Girl looks away, now in love with him:

"I'd sorta like to go where you go. I mean, I'd sorta hoped that you'd, well, I mean, you'd want us to go on together a little longer now that we kinda got used to each other."

He offers her a few choices: she can either go home, or be introduced to director Ernst Lubitsch ( "take another crack at Hollywood...with a nice fat letter to Lubitsch"). Nothing is romantically possible with Sullivan, however, because he is experiencing an unloving, messy separation with his avaricious wife who won't grant him a divorce. With a sentimental quavering in her voice, the Girl tearfully decides that she ought to go home.

Fourth Voyage or 'Movie' of Sullivan's Travels:

[The fourth voyage is the one in which Sullivan is unexpectedly transformed and illuminated when he completely loses his identity and freedom.]

The camera tracks alongside Sullivan's feet - he has again assumed his tramp costume to pass out bills to dejected alter-egos. Along the way, a middle-aged woman examines with thankfulness a new five-dollar bill in her hands, looking in the direction that the feet have just traveled. A young girl and a dejected bum look at their bills in astonishment. A sinister-looking bum (George Renavent), one of the beneficiaries [and the one who stole Sullivan's shoes overnight], follows behind as Sullivan performs more acts of condescension by distributing more bills. The tramp follows Sullivan through a dark shadowy area of the loading platform of a train yard warehouse - he slugs his benefactor over the head to knock him out and then robs him of his shoes and money. Sullivan's limp body is dragged into an open freight car on a train that is heading south.

As the bum flees the scene while clutching a fistful of five-dollar bills, he crosses multiple train tracks. He stumbles and falls - cash flies into the air. As he is preoccupied while hysterically stuffing his pockets with bills, a streamliner approaches on curved tracks. He is caught in the bright headlights of the train, not knowing which set of tracks to choose and escape to. After darting back and forth like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights, he begins racing away from the train lights, looks over his shoulder, falls backwards, and is run down and killed by the fast-moving locomotive. Drifting bills and a shoe fall by the wayside.

The Kansas City hotel clock reads a few minutes past 5 A.M., and Jones and the Girl in particular are worried about Sullivan's whereabouts: "I should have gone with him. I knew he'd get into trouble without me..." The chauffeur from the land-yacht calls from the morgue, presuming that the unidentifiable old bum mangled and killed by the oncoming train is the missing Sullivan. In between the soles of the bum's shoes (stolen from Sullivan), the director's identification card is found. The next day's Kansas City Tribune headlines erroneously report Sullivan's death:

STRANGE DEATH OF HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR - John L. Sullivan Found Dead in Freight Yards - Under circumstances cloaked in mystery, the remains of John L. Sullivan, ace director, were found today on the right-of-way of the local freight yard.

Sullivan's estranged wife (Jan Buckingham) calls Lebrand after hearing the news, and loudly accuses him of sending Sullivan away on reckless jobs - with a hollow threat of legal action. The members of the studio's land-yacht and the studio chiefs are appropriately upset and distraught, and although threatened by Lebrand, they are not fired. The Girl mourns silently in her own room and is so distant that she doesn't hear Lebrand's comforting reassurance: "You were his last discovery, his last gift to the world. We'll take care of you always."

Groggy, immobile and dazed from the blow to his head, Sullivan lies face down on the floor of a moving freight car that is entering a rail yard. Bewildered, he staggers to his feet but falls down again. When the train stops, he lowers himself down to the ground. He is watched by a mean-looking Yard Bull (Perc Launders) with a thick club, who confronts him, insults him, pushes him along, and then slaps him on the back of the head. Furious and angry, Sullivan clenches his right fist around a rock and punches the yard man in the face in retaliation. Realizing what he has done, Sullivan looks down at his fist - it's now dripping with blood.

For striking the yard boss, Sullivan is arrested and quickly brought to a small Southern courthouse where he is hustled through a trial. The voices, people and events in the courtroom are blurred and swimming before his eyes due to temporary amnesia and confusion - he can't even remember his own name or explain his circumstances. He is accused of "trespass and atrocious assault with a rock upon the person of the employee of the railroad" and sentenced to a prison work camp in the swamps for a lenient penalty of six years of hard labor.

At the rural convict barracks where he is taken, the Chief Guard nicknamed "Mister" (Alan Bridge) proves to be a brutal, sadistic warden. Under the hopeless, miserable, degrading, and cruel circumstances, Sullivan is trapped and powerless - unable to escape, contact his friends, call a lawyer, or have anyone believe in him. Leg chains fasten him to his bunk bed, and his privileges (writing a letter, smoking) are immediately suspended: "No privilege - fresh guy." Stripped to the waist, the convicts on the chain gang fill sandbags in the day near the banks of a river. A fellow prisoner who functions as the warden's assistant Trusty (Jimmy Conlin) offers drinks from a dipper of water to the men. As he moves down the line, he whispers excitedly: "Goin' to a pitcher show Sunday. Good news. You wanna see a pitcher show Sunday?...They asked us over again." Trusty has a folded newspaper sticking out of his back pocket. Sullivan notices the bold headlines and he curiously takes the paper out of Trusty's pocket and reads the headlines of his own death. For breaking the rules by reading the paper without permission, Sullivan is handcuffed and punished by time in the sweatbox in the woods, a tiny structure with barely enough room to sit down or stand up.

While Sullivan languishes in the hell-hole sweatbox, the little, frail Trusty periodically supplies him with water from an oil-squirt can. That evening, Sullivan is released, pants weakly, falls into Trusty's arms, and is advised to behave while being consoled:

"You'll be all right. You got to learn, that's all. It ain't so easy at first, but after while you don't mind. We ain't so bad off. He ain't bad accordin' to his lights. Has to deal with some pretty tough hombres. Got us chicken last Thanksgivin'. And some turkey once for Christmas. And there ain't another Mister takes his gang to the pitcher show. Maybe, maybe if I ask him, he'll let you go to the pitcher show Sunday. Now wouldn't that be somethin'? Huh? Huh?"

Through the foggy mist rising off a swampy bayou and with low organ music playing Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, a rural Negro church comes into view. A black preacher (Jess Lee Brooks) instructs a helper named Charlie to pull down a white sheet tacked to a piece of wood - a makeshift projection screen. The black parishioners are told that there's going to be "a little entertainment" - a pleasure that they will share "with some neighbors less fortunate than ourselves." The first three pews are cleared for the convicts, and the black worshippers are also instructed with a Biblical lesson that "neither by word, nor by action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor to draw away from or act high-toned. For we's all equal in the sight of God." During a community chorus of the old Negro spiritual Go Down Moses, an unconventional musical number with an appropriate, empathic refrain of "Let my people go," the downtrodden, weary convicts shuffle (with the clanking of chains) toward and into the church in pairs. At a low angle from the front of the center aisle of the church, the camera focuses on the men's chained legs - an unusual chorus line - as they march in.

After they are seated, the lights are dimmed and a creaky old projector begins showing a 1934 Walt Disney cartoon - Playful Pluto - starring Mickey Mouse and Pluto [one of the last B/W cartoons Disney made]. The organ player accompanies the silent cartoon with a musical score. The convicts and churchgoers immediately begin laughing, guffawing, and smiling at the crazy antics of the mouse and dog - especially when Pluto gets stuck on flypaper and attempts to extricate himself but becomes even more entangled - a relevant image for Sullivan's situation. Sullivan sits glumly at first, but then looks around with amazement at the uproarious laughter from the audience. Soon, he irresistibly joins them in the infectious laughter, rhetorically asking himself: "Hey, am I laughing?" Sullivan suddenly realizes that humorous movies, like religion, are the therapeutic solution to the pain of poverty or to the enmity between races - comedies help people temporarily forget their troubles, release their suffering and escape from the hardships of the world. Even the warden's face is lit up with laughter.

The next scene fades in with a shot of a large gravestone marked "JOHN LLOYD SULLIVAN." The silhouette of the Oscar symbol of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences is drawn in light intaglio behind his name. In mourning and wearing black, Mrs. Sullivan places flowers on her husband's gravesite and speaks to her business manager about Sullivan's notorious ability to magically get out of difficult circumstances. Back at the prison work camp during a lunch break, Sullivan tells Trusty: "Look, they don't sentence picture directors to a place like this for a little disagreement with a Yard Bull." Sullivan's foreshadowing of the end of the film doesn't convince Trusty that he is a "pitcher (sic) director" who doesn't have time to spend six years there."

A plot twist literally and figuratively helps Sullivan find a way to escape ("if ever a plot needed a twist, this one does"). Realizing that he has to attract attention to himself by getting his picture in the paper, he pretends to be a "murderer." Sullivan forcefully grabs Trusty and decides to confess to his own murder: "That's it! You tell the "Mr." I'm ready to make a full confession...I want to confess to the murder of John L. Sullivan." He wades across the river with arms raised - repentant of his sins. He runs through the camp confessing: "I killed John L. Sullivan...I'm a murderer." One newspaper displays Sullivan's picture with the Mr. and the caption: "Object of a nationwide search, the slayer of John. L Sullivan today made a complete confession of his guilt to Kansas City police."

Other newspaper headlines:

  • "RAIL YARD MYSTERY CLEARED! - KILLER CONFESSES - Re-enact Strange Death of John L. Sullivan"
  • "SULLIVAN'S SLAYING SOLVED! Confession in Mystery Murder of Film Director."

The Girl, in costume on the set of a picture, holds the newspaper in her hands, identifies him, and jubilantly realizes that Sullivan is still alive.

The Girl rushes through the streets of the picture studio, knocks people down (and falls down herself) and bursts into Lebrand's studio office. She shows him the newspaper picture and then throws her arms around his neck. In a frantic montage of images, they phone through the switchboard (even Mrs. Sullivan hears the good-bad news and breaks a lamp over her business manager's/husband's head), and board an airplane to Kansas City. In a sea of photographers and flashing lightbulbs, Sullivan is greeted in a Kansas City hotel. Over the loud din of the crowd (many of whom are carrying his next project's source, the book: O Brother Where Art Thou? by Sinclair Beckstein - a play on two author's names - John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis), the Girl tells him how happy she is and grateful that he is no longer married or obligated to his alimony-demanding ex-wife. On the commercial airliner returning to Los Angeles, Sullivan assures the Girl that his ex-wife will have to give him a divorce - and he will be set free:

Sullivan: ...Otherwise, it's bigamy, unfaithfulness, alienation of affections, corpus delecti.
The Girl: And then you'll be free.
Sullivan: And then I'll be free. But not for long, I hope.

The studio chiefs trumpet the tremendous publicity and interest they now have in Sullivan's new film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? because of Sullivan's new-found experience. Sullivan shocks them with an about-face - a determination to make a comedy and no more socially-relevant, message films:

Lebrand: ...O Brother, Where Art Thou? is going to be the greatest tragedy ever made! The world will weep! Humanity will sob!
Jones: It'll put Shakespeare back with the shipping news.
Lebrand: Quiet! (To Sullivan) Your personal courage, your sacrifice, the lengths to which you went to sample the bitter dregs of vicissitude will make 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' positively and beyond dispute...
Sullivan: I'm sorry to disappoint you....but I don't want to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?

He explains three reasons for his decision - for one thing, he's too happy in his personal life, due to his plans to marry the Girl. Secondly, he asserts: "I haven't suffered enough to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The film's last line is the clincher - the lesson he ultimately learned. He and the Girl look far off into the future as he reminisces about his experiences:

There's a lot to be said for making people laugh! Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan! Boy!

As he repeats his last word, the sounds of distant laughter and images of the laughing faces of the convicts and other children (and patients in a hospital ward) are superimposed over his image. [Note: The country was in the midst of the grim period of World War II.]

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