The film begins with Sullivan's declared intention to stop producing the type of makeweight comedy with which he established his reputation (example: Hey, Hey in the Hayloft) and focus on a more serious type of film which would take in the harsh realities of Depression-era America and treat that liberal creation known as "the common man" rather than his customary middle-class milieu. As Sullivan puts it, he wants to make a film that "would realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is", a film with "social significance" that "teaches a moral lesson"; in other words the sort of overblown feel-good nonsense that routinely wins major awards and which the film continually ridicules. Throughout the film, Sullivan's defense of the "significant" social picture comes off as shopworn and hopelessly naive; Sturges' ironic presentation of his lead character's discourse allows him to critique both a type of picture (the message movie) and the trite assumptions that enable its creation.
When the studio executives argue that he knows nothing about his potential subject matter, Sullivan decides to go undercover as a hobo and learn about the harsh realities of life in order to better prepare himself for his undertaking, a decision which prompts him to journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with only ten cents in his pocket. Lest he become too lonely, he takes with him a beautiful aspiring actress played by Veronica Lake who also goes disguised as a bum. Lake's character, who tellingly prefers Sullivan's light comedic films to any Hollywood message movie, serves as a necessary deflator to his high flown, but ultimately ineffectual rhetoric. As Sullivan speaks enthusiastically of a self-important picture called Hold Back Tomorrow, the Girl snappily replies "you hold it." When Sullivan asks her "don't you think with the world in its present condition... that people are allergic to comedies?" she looks at him disgustedly and offers a definitive "no." Ultimately Sullivan's journey provides him with a superficial glimpse of the down-and-out lifestyle, enough to gather material for a movie, but not enough to suffer more than the occasional discomfort or inconvenience. To his credit, Sullivan eventually acknowledges the superficiality of his travels, concluding "I haven't suffered enough [to make the film]." Only later, after his journey has supposedly reached its end, does he suffer genuine privation, a circumstance which, ironically leads to a reversal in Sullivan's cinematic priorities, causing him to embrace the role of a comedic filmmaker and abandon his plan to make serious films.
The scene in which Sullivan's attitude towards the two types of pictures alters is the key to understanding the film; the viewer's interpretation of the scene dictates his interpretation of the entire work. Following a series of mishaps, a dazed Sullivan attacks a railroad employee and is sentenced to six years at a brutal Southern penal camp. The only respite offered the prisoners from their excruciating labors is the occasional trip to a local church where, after the service, the men are treated to a screening of Disney cartoons, which they find uproarious. Sullivan initially seems baffled by the inmates' exaggerated reactions, but soon joins in with laughter as hearty as any of the others. The ostensible reading of the scene and the one offered by Sullivan at the end of the film, is as a celebration of the Hollywood screen comedy since, as Sullivan notes, laughter is "all some people have." Yet, the scene itself plays more like a parody of a general film audience responding disproportionately to the most debased screen offerings. The faces of the prisoners, which Sturges shows us in a series of close-ups (and repeats in a montage at the film's conclusion) are deliberately scruffy, emphasizing their status as what Sullivan would condescendingly call the "common man". As Sturges intercuts shots of their oversize reactions with footage of a rather ordinary Pluto cartoon, the effect is so incongruous that it seems to make a mockery of Sullivan's simplistic interpretation. Is this the kind of product that Sullivan's Travels is celebrating when it grants its highest valuation to works that provoke laughter?
Fortunately, the film itself represents an eloquent solution to the dialectic by positing a sophisticated synthesis of the two exclusive modes of cinematic possibility. Interestingly enough, the film begins with a false synthesis, stated even before the terms of the dialectic are introduced. After the opening titles, the first sequence depicts a struggle between two men atop a railroad car which seems to establish the film as a typical action picture. Shots are fired, the men try to strangle each other and they eventually push one another off the train and fall into an adjacent river and die. The words "the end" appear on the screen and Sturges' film begins anew, this time in earnest. The first thing we see is Sullivan, who holds the action picture up as a model of the type of movie he wishes to make, offering his own interpretation. "You see the symbolism of it?" he asks. "Capital and labor destroy each other. It teaches a lesson." To which a studio executive aptly replies "who wants to see that kind of stuff?" The mock-film which opens Sturges' picture offers a wholly unsatisfactory synthesis of the two strains of cinema. It takes the crude filmmaking of the mindless genre picture and attempts to grant it a sliver of significance by overlying a crude allegory onto its flimsy framework. The result is a failed attempt to the meld lowbrow entertainment and middlebrow moralizing which exemplifies the worst qualities of each.
Sturges' film, however, is much more successful in its appropriation of multiple cinematic modes and in combining them to produce a film that has plenty to say, but that, unlike the message films Sullivan aspires to make, is anything but simplistic in its discourse. Sturges is equally capable of calling on outright slapstick (as in an early scene in which Sullivan hitches a ride with a lead-footed boy and leads his entourage on a high-speed chase), sophisticated verbal comedy, melodrama and gritty "realism" (the prison scenes) when it suits his purposes, refusing to confine himself, as the Hollywood of the film's diegetic world insists on its directors doing, to one mode of exposition. That these different modes are used in the service of the film's primary concern, an exploration of the possibilities of filmmaking within the Hollywood system, illustrates a remarkable sophistication on Sturges' part. He uses the conventional tools offered the studio filmmaker to question the efficacy of those very tools. Within a single film, Sturges crafts simultaneously a comedy and a message movie, both as effective as the efforts of any other Hollywood filmmaker. The message offered by Sullivan's film, however, is that such generic divisions are ultimately arbitrary conventions and severely inhibit the creative filmmaker. Only a director of Sturges' genius could prove capable of finding his way out of this restrictive dialectic.
At the end of the film, Sullivan decides not to make his epic of the common man and instead return to the light entertainment that had been his trademark, offering a lame argument about the necessity of laughter. Sturges makes sure his hero hasn't learned a thing either about class (in prison, he continually attempts to call on his Hollywood prestige, disdaining to think of himself in the same terms as the other prisoners) or about cinematic priorities (he moves from one term of the dialectic to the other but fails to acknowledge the possibility of a synthesis). What is so unsettling about the film's ending is that Sullivan's final acceptance of the importance of cinematic comedy seems to preclude the necessity of making any other type of film. It is as if to say that the cinema need aim no higher than Hey, Hey in the Hayloft or a Disney one-reeler. Fortunately, the totality of the film we have just watched definitively undermines Sullivan's simplistic understanding of the cinematic project. Where Sullivan failed, Sturges succeeds. He certainly understands the importance of laughter (he is responsible for some of the funniest films ever made), but he is also willing to acknowledge the greater possibilities (as satire, as a tool for interrogating our roles as consumer, as social being, as watcher of cinema) of screen comedy. There is a world of difference between the intelligent, thoughtful comedies Sturges makes and the feeble-minded product that Sullivan turns out. It is this difference and the uses to which Sturges puts it that ultimately account for the film's singular achievement.