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Is Sullivan’s Travels a Reactionary Film?

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Annex - Lake, Veronica (Sullivan's Travels)_01

I really object to this analysis that calls Sullivan’s Travels “reactionary” toward the poor and poverty. Evidently the writer actually wanted to see “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” or that film Sullivan shows at the movie’s beginning about capital and labor fighting and dying on the train. What Preston Sturges did was make the depiction of poverty and its horrors palatable enough for the public that people would actually watch it. Laughing through poverty for the actual people suffering through the Depression meant Sturges was touching their lives. As the studio executives point in the film, the people who watch hard political intellectual films are politicized intellectuals. And that’s fine–I love Salt of the Earth and I Am Cuba and The Battle of Algiers as much as anyone (in fact, the latter is one of my top 5 all-time favorite films), but there’s no doubt that Sturges represented a truer version of poverty to popular audiences than any of those films. And not just through Sullivan’s Travels either, but in Christmas in July and in Easy Living, which he wrote but did not direct. These are all really sad stories that resonated with people. If they didn’t have the explicit goal of turning people into socialists, that doesn’t mean no viewers thought about their lives in new ways after seeing them. There were several such films in the 1930s. You could say much the same about Gold Diggers of 1933, which might be an absurd fluffy film but which also legitimately portrays poverty and has an entire final scene about the Bonus Army. I guess by these standards because it wasn’t calling for explicit class battle, it’s a reactionary film, but I don’t see it. The author clearly wants a certain kind of political film (he’s writing a book on anarchism and film) but that doesn’t mean a film that doesn’t have an objectively leftist agenda is a reactionary film.

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