By Scott Ross
Sullivan’s Travels is regarded by critics as Preston Sturges’ masterpiece largely, it seems to me, because of its self-reflexiveness; critics love movies about movies more than any other genre. But this, plus The Palm Beach Story, really represent Sturges’ innate genius for writing, and pacing, a breed of American comedy that is sui generis. The eponymous character, played with an astonishing mix of sophistication and genuine feeling by the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck, sets her cap for the hapless scion of a beer barony (Henry Fonda), is thwarted by his discovery that her jovial father (Charles Coburn) is a con-man, and plots her vengeance. Fonda is made to execute too many pratfalls — slapstick was one of Sturges’ few narrative weaknesses, one I wish he had overcome — but the dialogue and the performances absolutely sparkle, and there’s a sequence early on between the amorous Stanwyck and the perennially virginal Fonda, rigid with terror and sexual discomfort, that is among the greatest (and sexiest) comedy seduction scenes ever filmed.
The supporting cast includes the delicious Eric Blore, too little seen after his brief heyday with Astaire and Rogers, and Sturges stock company regular William Demerest, who just might have had the best tough-guy act in American comedy. If you can see him in a movie again after this one without muttering “Positively the same dame!” you either haven’t been moved, or you’ve got more self-control than I possess.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross