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2012 film series opens with a Sturges classic

Michael Phillips

December 30, 2011

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In "Sullivan's Travels," an ambitious, conscience-stricken member of Hollywood's leisure class decides he has had it with fluff. He can't stomach making another movie of zero social significance, a movie with a title like "Ants in Your Pants of 1939" and "Hey-Hey in the Hayloft." In one of the most quoted passages from any Preston Sturges screenplay, Joel McCrea — as John L. Sullivan, the director who goes undercover as a hobo in order to gain the hardscrabble experience he thinks will prepare him for his magnum opus, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" — argues with his studio boss about what's what.

Sullivan: "I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism! The problems that confront the average man!"

LeBrand: "But with a little sex in it."

Sullivan: "A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!"

LeBrand: "But with a little sex in it."

What's remarkable in the opening scene, the one that sets the brilliant whirligig "Sullivan's Travels" into motion, is how quickly the verbal jabs and back flips and retorts are traded without tiring out the audience. The pace is calmly insane, and, because writer-director Sturges knew what he was doing behind the camera, the takes are long, relaxed and just right. The movie is a series of narrative hairpin curves, matching those found in the vicinity of McCrea's co-star, Veronica Lake, but "Sullivan's Travels" remains a serene fable, even when things turn grim — it's a satire of show business pretensions that ends up revealing a heart of gold, as well as its creator's supreme belief in frivolity.

Sturges wrote dialogue and made frivolous masterworks with the compression, panache and comic effrontery of Restoration comedy. His peak years of unusual studio freedom, at Paramount, began with "The Great McGinty" (1940) and ended with the boisterous doubleheader "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944). These films are widely available, and revered for their irreverence. Yet they only come to life, to completion, with a crowd.

Operating out of the Portage Theater in Portage Park, the 2012 season of the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society opens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with "Sullivan's Travels." For a complete season roster, go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org. For more information, call 773-850-0141. It's a fine, rangy season on offer — a cinematic reflection, as Sully would say, of this "cockeyed caravan" called life in America, in hard times or better ones.

mjphillips@tribune.com