This review was an inadvertent entry in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club, and was reviewed by "Squish" for the site which started this club.
There's an intriguing irony to the story with which Sullivan's Travels delivers its anti-message message. First, that story: Sullivan's Travels follows John L. Sullivan (no, not that one - this one's a director played by Joel McCrea), who wants to shoot O Brother, Where Art Thou (no not that o- never mind), a serious drama focused on war, fascism, and the Great Depression. He wants to capture the times, speak to the masses, deliver a message - but yes, he placates the worried moguls who try to deter him, "with a little sex."
The larger film's sex appeal arrives courtesy Veronica Lake, who's never been better - like the movie itself, she gets to both glam it up by a Hollywood poolside and slum with the Forgotten Men, while accompanying our hero in his hobo-impersonating research. Preston Sturges, one of the most inventive writer-directors of the World War II years, overtly mocks Sullivan's earnest entreaties; it's amusing to see the privileged, pretentious Hollywood hack flee an industry that thousands (including Lake's nameless Girl) are trying to break into. Ironically, due to hitchhiking, carjacking, and hay fever, Sullivan always winds up back in the lap of luxury he desperately decries, with the luscious Lake along to lick his wounds.
The film's wisest words are delivered by Sullivan's butler (Robert Grieg) who intones: "You see, sir, rich people and theorists - who are usually rich people - think of poverty in the negative, as the 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."
Sturges' gut, apparently endorsing this sentiment, doesn't prevent him from following in Sullivan's footsteps, eventually depicting the impoverished with solemn photography, moody musical cues, and a montage which mostly breaks from the preceding zany tone. When Sullivan is robbed, injured, and imprisoned the film ceases to be very comedic at all, instead embracing the grim pallor of I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, albeit with occasional comic relief.
And then it's on to the film's famed conclusion, in which the grimy prisoners gather in a sympathetic black church (a welcome reprieve from the wince-inducing "colored chef" routine earlier in the film). There the beleaguered convicts savor a Mickey Mouse cartoon and roar with laughter. Immensely relieved and incredulously disbelieving, Sullivan asks one of his captors, "Am I laughing?" Following an ingenious ploy to engineer his release (as his own murderer), Sullivan declares he's through with seriousness, that what the huddled masses really need is laughter and entertainment.
It's a very clever conclusion, but also something of a cop-out, especially considering what came before. In a sense, Sturges gets to have his cake and eat it too - both ridiculing and implicitly endorsing the idea of an entertaining Hollywood picture focused on the social depths and desperation. With, of course, a little sex.