Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Robert Greig, Eric Blore
SUMMARY: John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a director in Hollywood during the Great Depression, when many people are still living as tramps. Sullivan has made his name by making light-hearted comedies, but wants to make a more serious movie that explores how many Americans have been affected by the Depression. He has a picture in mind – O Brother, Where Art Thou? – a successful novel, but has trouble convincing the head of his studio that the movie is a good idea. However, Sullivan is determined to make the movie, and decides that in order to do justice to the story, he needs to experience life as a tramp. His butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore) do not approve of the idea, but Sullivan does manage to convince the studio head. However, he is dismayed to find that LeBrand, the studio boss, has assigned a team of reporters and health personnel to follow him in a large bus. Almost immediately, Sullivan persuades the team to head to Las Vegas and wait for him, instead of following him around. However, Sullivan proves unable to make it out of Los Angeles, as various attempts only take him back where he started. Finally, he stops in at a small diner, where he meets a young girl (Veronica Lake) who buys him breakfast, believing his tramp disguise. During the meal, Sullivan learns that the Girl (she’s never named) had come to Hollywood to be an actress, but had failed; she now wishes to go home to the East Coast, but has no way of getting there. In return for the breakfast she bought him, Sullivan offers to drive her out of town in a car he borrows from a friend – director John L. Sullivan. However, when he returned to his house to get the car, Sullivan did not tell the butler and valet of his plans, and they reported the car stolen. Sullivan and the Girl are quickly stopped and arrested, but are released when the servants recognize him. They return to Sullivan’s huge house, where Sullivan reveals his true identity to the Girl – who pushes him into the swimming pool for lying to her. However, when Sullivan announces his intentions to return to his experiment, the Girl decides to go with him.
After a rough start, Sullivan and the Girl succeed in living as tramps do, sleeping in homeless shelters, eating in soup kitchens, and hopping trains to get places. When they find themselves rummaging through trash for food one night, they decide they have had enough, and stop the experiment. Sullivan returns to Hollywood to much acclaim, but the Girl is less happy: she and Sullivan have fallen for each other, but cannot be together because Sullivan is officially married – his wife, whom he married for the tax deduction, refuses to give him a divorce. As an official end to the experiment, Sullivan decides to act as a tramp one more time and hand out $1000 in $5 bills to the various people he meets. Most of the people he gives money to are extremely grateful, but one of them gets greedy and ambushes Sullivan in an alley. This man takes the rest of the money and drags Sullivan’s unconscious body into a train car. However, as he flees across the train yard, the thief drops the money. As he tries to gather it up, he is struck by an oncoming train. Unfortunately, this man had stolen from Sullivan before: in one of the homeless shelters, he had stolen Sullivan’s boots, which had ID cards sewn between the soles. Because of these boots, the otherwise unidentifiable man is thought to be Sullivan. As his friends (particularly the Girl) grieve, Sullivan wakes up to find himself confronted by an officer of the rail station. Still in a fog from the hit to his head, Sullivan uses a rock to strike back at the man; he is then arrested and charged with assault, and sentenced to six years in a labor camp (all while unsure of who he is). At the camp, Sullivan remembers who he is, but cannot make contact with his friends. For some time, he lives as a member of the chain gang, and one evening, the entire group visits a church to watch a Disney cartoon. To Sullivan’s surprise, he finds that the other men in the gang are spectacularly entertained, and have a wonderful time. He starts to realize that rather than watch a social commentary on how bad things are, the ordinary person wants to laugh. Unfortunately, Sullivan is still unable to convince anybody of his true identity. When he sees a newspaper announcing the death of John L. Sullivan one day, inspiration strikes: he confesses as the murderer, and manages to get his picture in the paper. His friends and business acquaintances recognize him, and quickly get him released. The Girl is thrilled that he’s alive, and is even more pleased to announce that Sullivan’s wife, believing him to be dead, has remarried: she must now divorce Sullivan, or be sued for bigamy. Thus, Sullivan and the Girl are finally able to be together.
MY TAKE: This is an interesting premise, because nobody in their right mind would want to live as a tramp in the Great Depression. Of course, since Sullivan has apparently always lived in the lap of luxury, and is not experiencing the effects of the Depression, he has no idea what he’s got himself into. While some parts of this movie are amusing (the scene where the bus is driving so fast that everybody inside, particularly the cook, are thrown around like rag dolls), there’s also a more serious undertone. When Sullivan and the Girl finally do manage to pass for tramps, they are faced with a lot of uncomfortable situations. On the night his boots get stolen, they are forced to sleep on the floor of a homeless shelter, literally shoulder-to-shoulder with other people. Their eating habits don’t seem to be too dire, although they do visit soup kitchens: when they’re finally faced with a really hard decision (eating out of trash cans), the two chicken out. I was kind of disappointed. However, after Sullivan is robbed, he’s mistaken for an actual tramp, and is punished by a judge who seems to have little sympathy or understanding of that way of life. In a way, Sullivan may have learned more from this experience than from his voluntary one, because he didn’t have the luxury of quitting when he felt like it. He succeeds in his experiment – probably a little more than he would have liked to. I did think it was nice that he was walking around handing out money, although I’m not sure why he needed to dress like a tramp to do so. The look on people’s faces was incredible. Although probably not enough to get them really back on their feet, the money would provide a lot of good meals and possibly clothing for the destitute people he handed it to. I was angry that the thief stole it, but then I considered things: the man’s background is not revealed, and faced with a dire situation (particularly if it involved taking care of children or starving), people are capable of doing a lot of things that they would otherwise regard as shameful. Yes, it’s wrong, but on some level, it’s understandable. The big revelation is that even when everything else is in the toilet bowl, people still want to laugh. This wasn’t nearly as big a revelation for me as it was for Sullivan: why would somebody who’s miserable want to watch a movie about other people being miserable? Laughing and being amused let you escape to a happy place, which those people could really use.
RATING: Amusing but also serious.