I’d guess that for most film-goers today, generally uninterested in or at best condescendingly tolerant of anything deemed to be “before their time”, O Brother, Where Art Thou? would mean only the recent film of that title by the Coen Brothers. I’m afraid my tastes are rooted somewhere further in the past, and before the Coen Brothers even enter my head, I think of Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, from which the Coen Brothers, presumably as a tribute, picked their title. In Sturges’ film, Joel McCrea (ideal for comedy because he always looks so unremittingly serious) plays film director John Sullivan, who has made a successful career in Hollywood with such light and popular comedies as Hey! Hey! In the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1938, but who now wants to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? – a serious artistic statement about the state of the world. But discouraged by his lack of knowledge or of understanding of the world he so wants to make a statement about, he sets out, much to the studios’ alarm, with only ten cents in his pocket, and dressed like a tramp. This occasions some marvellous dialogue with his extremely articulate butler Burrows (played superbly by Robert Greig), who seems to have stepped out from Wodehouse, and who speaks lines that could easily have come from Shaw:
Burrows: I don’t like it at all, sir. Fancy dress, I take it?
Sullivan: What’s the matter with it?
Burrows: I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir.
Sullivan: Who’s caricaturing? I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.
Burrows: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?
Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutred themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.
Burrows: 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.
As well as being among the finest of Hollywood’s film directors, Sturges was also among the finest of scriptwriters.
On the surface, this film is an apologia for escapism. Which indeed it is: its simple message is that life is hard, and anything that can bring relief, even momentarily, is not to be derided – even if it is Ants in Your Pants of 1938. But if we look beyond this simple message, we find a most extraordinary cinematic balancing act: Preston Sturges somehow juxtaposes a very harsh and gritty social realism with the fluffiest of romantic comedies. Scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place in I Am a Fugitive From the Chain Gang or The Grapes of Wrath rub shoulders with the sparkling comic dialogue that wouldn’t have been out of place in such sophisticated romantic comedies as Sturges’ own The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story. And the two modes, somehow, seem to complement rather than dilute each other. It’s a film in two different keys, but these different keys are not resolved by the end: they are allowed to co-exist.
I watched it again last night after more years than I care to remember, and found myself astonished once again by the sheer sophistication of the execution, by the sheer style of it all. Barely pausing for breath, it moves from one extreme to the other and back again with a sort of seamless perfection.
John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) meets the girl (Veronica Lake) on his travels
The final act of the drama is extraordinary. Believed dead by the studios (who have stopped looking for him), Sullivan has been sentenced to six years’ hard labour. (The scene in which Sullivan, delirious with fever, is sentenced, seems to recall the scene in which the magistrate Mr Fang sentences a similarly feverish Oliver Twist.) Although hardship and suffering had been depicted earlier in the film, nothing, perhaps, had quite prepared us for this. The brutality and the intense suffering in the chain gang are not glossed over: true, they are sketched in rather than depicted in detail – anything more explicit would have disturbed the delicate balance of this film – but they are sketched in with the deftest of brush-strokes: there’s no need to pile it on because each stroke is made to count.
In the climactic scene of this film, the convicts, as a special “treat”, are allowed to attend a film show. And, quite astonishingly, this film show takes place in a black church. Before the convicts enter, the black preacher, with unaffected dignity, tells his congregation to make the “guests” feel welcome, because, after all, “everyone is equal in the sight of God”. There are so many layers of irony in this that one barely knows where to begin unpacking them. To the strains of the black congregation singing Go Down, Moses, the convicts march into the hall, almost as if they were acting out some solemn and sacred ritual. And then the film show begins. It is a Disney cartoon. And soon, one by one, these brutalised men in the audience start to laugh. But this laughter seems not merely the momentary release from pain that it is later claimed to be: rather, it seems an almost despairing laughter, wild and uncontrolled. And, to his own surprise, Sullivan too finds himself laughing – laughing hysterically, with all the others.
The moral drawn at the end – that laughter is necessary because that’s all some people have to relieve their pain – may appear trite; and it doesn’t, to me, seem an adequate summary of what we have witnessed. In the quite extraordinary journey towards this end, extremes have somehow been forced together, and made to co-exist. What moral we may reasonably draw from all this, or whether, indeed, any moral can be drawn at all, I do not know. Sturges himself would, I think, have disclaimed any artistic intention: he would no doubt have claimed to be happy making Ants in Your Pants of 1938 rather than O Brother, Where Art Thou? But perhaps we should take this denial of artistic intentions with a large grain of salt. For, whatever the intentions were, there is far more artistry in a film such as this than in any number of self-conscious efforts so applauded by modern cinéastes.