The studio suits want a crowd-pleasing screwball comedy, but director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants his next film to make a serious social statement.
The genius of this classic opening scene is that Sullivan’s Travels, writer-director Preston Sturges’ one-of-a-kind film, is both screwball comedy and socially conscious melodrama — as well as being a satire of socially conscious melodrama, and a serious apologetic for crowd-pleasing comedy. (In keeping with the suits’ insistence that the picture should have a little sex appeal, Veronica Lake later shows up as an aspiring starlet.)
Sullivan wants to address the problem of human suffering, but his producers argue, rightly so, that he doesn’t know enough about suffering to make a movie about it. But their attempts to dissuade him backfire when he decides to go on the road with ten cents in his pocket in an effort to experience poverty first-hand.
The moral dangers of this familiar riches-to-rags quest, however, are memorably highlighted by Sullivan’s own butler: "If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject [of poverty] is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." When Sullivan protests that he’s "doing it for the poor," the butler answers: "I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir."
The movie dignifies the poor, but doesn’t idealize them or their condition, and ultimately pulls the rug out from under Sullivan’s pretensions when things take a serious turn for the worse. And, as Sturges believed in movies leaving "the preaching to the preachers," as he once put it, when he wants to preach himself, he has a preacher do it, in a respectful sequence set in a black Baptist church.
Possibly the screwiest of all screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey is the ultimate Depression-era satire of the idle rich and tribute to the noble poor.
This theme of romantically linking an upper-class society girl and a man beneath her station would become a popular device in screwball comedies, appealing to Depression audiences both as escapist entertainment and as satire of the idle rich and celebration of the hardworking poor.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.