Were people smarter in 1941? What I learned re-watching Sullivan’s Travels

Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is a must for classic movie buffs like me. I was re-watching it the other day to see Veronica Lake, an early inspiration for my soon-to-be-published mystery heroine, Eva Thorne. I realized they’re not the same at all, but that’s fine. Veronica and this movie were fantastic to see again, and from the start I began to wonder if people weren’t smarter in 1941? A few items of note:

  • People were more patient, of course, as there was the long intro credits to sit through and I found myself fidgeting there
  • There was dialog! I’ve written a few screenplays and have read all the advice on paring down dialog to the bare minimum and letting pictures tell the story. Sullivan’s Travels had a whole silent montage scene that did just that, but from the beginning they weren’t afraid to pummel you with over-lapping dialog from three characters at once talking at cross purposes. It was great! It seems they assumed you weren’t stupid and could take it all in. Which was a nice compliment for the viewer.
  • The dialog was sharp, witting and fast-spoken. Seems few people these days understand when someone speaks fast. Drives me crazy as I’m forced to forever slooooow doownnn… I think I learned my speed from my great grandmother who was a nurse during WWII. It was refreshing to see that once everyone could talk fast!
  • They said the word ‘sex’ several times. 1941 wasn’t as stodgy as most people think. They knew how the world worked. They were still in the Depression! They talked about poor people and rich people, not just an idealized dream of everyone being like Lady Gaga or the Brady Bunch even.
  • Women were people. The first scene with the leads together has a down-and-out-actress on her way out of Hollywood buying breakfast for who she thinks is a bum. She forced him to accept  too and pretty much got her way throughout the film.
  • Racial equality had a way to go, but one scene impressed me. While I winced at the stereotypical comedy with the black chef, they happily surprised me with a later scene showing a black church congregation that was totally real. The whole congregation wasn’t stereotypical at all–they were just men, women and children. The preacher was well spoken and asked them to give up the front pews to share their movie night with those less fortunate. This speech was followed by a chain-gang of white criminals coming in to share the pleasure of a Disney cartoon movie with the congregation.
  • There was a surprising plot and good moral: The lead is a privileged movie director who sets out to overturn Hollywood fluff and depict the real suffering of people, so he tries to live as a tramp (i.e. homeless person in our politically correct day and age) and has a hard time leaving his own world behind. When he finally does, it’s because he was mugged while giving away money to the poor. The mugger is killed while wearing the lead’s stolen shoes and ID card, and everyone assumes the lead is dead. What’s worse, he has a concussion and, in confusion, assaults a railroad worker trying to evict him from the train yard. He’s sentenced to 6 years hard labor. It’s there he get’s to experience real suffering. And what he learns, of course, is that people suffering don’t want to see more suffering. They want comedy!


Watch this movie if you haven’t already!

A clip

A Serious Review


Next on my list to re-watch is the Maltese Falcon….

Thanks for reading! More posts on books, film, and writing can be found on my website at Lorel Clayton Author.

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