Sullivan's Travels (1941). Written and directed by Preston Sturges. Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick and William Demarest.
Preston Sturge’s 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels is one of those rare films that combine serious social commentary, slapstick comedy and unflattering Hollywood self-reflection into a remarkably great movie. Joel McCrea stars as the director John “Sully” Sullivan who, despite his success in light-hearted comedies like Ants in Your Plants, wants to make serious films about the plight of the downtrodden in 1940s America. Since he’s always lived the privileged life, he decided to head out into the underbelly of America disguised as a hobo to get a taste for the poverty he has admired from afar. Along the way, he bumps heads with the studio system, meets Veronica Lake, learns that being poor isn’t as glamorous as he imagined and decides that laughter ain’t so bad after all. The dialogue is sharp and witty, but much of the message in this film resides in the unspoken. Like the best satire, Sullivan’s Travels is cynical, sweet, hilarious and humane in equal measures.
Fans of the Coen brothers take note. This film is the source of the title "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?". That was to be the name of the hobo epic that Sully Sullivan wanted to make based on his experiences on the road. Hmm, it may also be the source for Barton Fink's obsession with the Theatre for the Common Man.