Sullivan's Travels

Movie review by
Charles Cassady Jr., Common Sense Media
Sullivan's Travels Movie Poster Image
Brainy Hollywood classic about importance of comedy.
  • NR
  • 1941
  • 94 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The whole film builds to a morality lesson in the vital importance of laughter and levity (and its cinematic expression, movie comedy) in stressed-out, non-funny times. A secondary message about the disconnect between the privileged and the underprivileged, and how this can cause misunderstandings, however well meaning people are.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A mix of qualities in characters, with hardly anybody entirely good or bad. Sullivan, though he means to do well, is a coddled intellectual who needs to feel real hardship and loss to understand being poor. A few iffy racial images contrast with a moving black-church climax.


Fake-out opener of a violent fight and murder, which turns out to be just an overwrought film's conclusion. Sullivan is robbed, beaten, and brutalized and attacks another man with a rock, but nothing explicit is shown. Another character is killed, non-explicitly (but we're given to understand there isn't much left), by a train. A slapsticky car chase.


Very mild verbal innuendo about hanky-panky behind the scenes of the movie industry, girls being "taken advantage of." Discreet scenes of the heroine in the shower. Verbal joke about studio executive agreeing to produce a movie as long as there's "a little sex."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Much casual smoking by main characters. Hint of drunkenness.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this comedy classic opens with a bloody murder scene that's just a prank on the viewer, and isn't indicative of the rest of the film. Later, a character gets robbed and beaten, though not much is shown, and another character dies when he's run over by a train offscreen. Non-explicit references to sex. Several main characters smoke cigarettes and refer to drinking. Some African-American characters border on comic stereotypes, though these depictions are paired with a dignified all-black church sequence near the end. A child leads a crazy, reckless vehicle chase in his souped-up go-kart.

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What's the story?

This beloved 1941 American screen classic follows John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a hotshot Hollywood director with two butlers and a string of comedy hits, but, with the Great Depression, Communism, and war clouds on the horizon, he now demands freedom to do a thunderously tragic sociopolitical drama. Moreover, to get it just right Sullivan demands to experience poverty and desperation personally, masquerading as a homeless vagrant. Studio execs grudgingly cooperate, some of sensing the PR bonanza and sending photographers, secretaries, and minders to monitor Sullivan. Temporarily escaping their scrutiny, Sullivan gains a touring partner in the form of a struggling wannabe actress (Veronica Lake) on the verge of giving up her Hollywood dreams. Together they experience hunger, deprivation, and charity in hobo camps and church kitchens. Finally, when Sullivan seems ready to begin his masterwork, a dangerous twist throws him into real jeopardy and misery, and he realizes what the masses really need -- laughter.

Is it any good?

Sullivan's Travels was an instant hit when it opened, despite (or maybe because of) the infamous Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor dominating headlines. Even though grounded in 1930s Depression-era anxieties, hobo camps and issues, the film still charms today -- maybe even more so, considering how much range of emotion writer-director Preston Sturges evokes, from hilarity to horror, while staying PG-restrained under the old-school Hollywood censorship system.

Mature tweens and up with an interest in classic film will be captivated from the first frame (an over-the-top fake death scene) to the stirring Negro-spiritual performance at the end that heralds Sullivan's epiphany about the basic need to laugh, no matter how bad things get. Rapid-fire dialogue and zinger observations still hit the target. Sturges, himself a director of brainy comedies, thought his fellow filmmakers were going a bit overboard with seriousness and preaching, and here he masterfully defends the universal human condition that responds to comedy. It's a must-see for movie lovers yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the film's message about humor. How important is humor during difficult times? Can you see similarities between the time depicted in the film and now?

  • Are comedies valued less than drama by serious movie critics? Why do dramas get more awards than comedies?

  • How do you feel about the characters of color in this movie? How are women depicted? Can movies with old-fashioned stereotypes still be enjoyable today?

Movie details

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