Tired of churning out lightweight comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?—a serious, socially responsible film about human suffering. After his producers point out that he knows nothing of hardship, Sullivan hits the road disguised as a hobo. En route to enlightenment, he encounters a lovely but no-nonsense young woman (Veronica Lake)—and more trouble than he ever dreamed of. This comic masterpiece by Preston Sturges is among the finest Hollywood satires and a high-water mark in the career of one of the industry’s most revered funnymen.
Criterion upgrades their DVD edition of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels on Blu-ray, yet again presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.37:1. The transfer, taken from a high-def scan of a 35mm nitrate fine-grain, is presented in 1080p/24hz on a dual-layer disc.
This looks to be the same transfer used for Arrow’s own Blu-ray edition released last year, and in all honesty on screen I couldn’t find much of a difference. The transfer itself is very strong, delivering sharp details and rendering the grain nicely. Fine details look great, providing some nice looking textures on clothing (tweed jackets, robes, the “bum” outfits) and in various settings, rundown buildings, and in the faces of the down-and-out we run across throughout the film. The digital transfer is overall clean, free of any perceptible irregularities.
Like the Arrow release I still find the digital transfer itself very strong, but there are still some obvious issues in the source. It appears Criterion has done some more clean up and print damage isn’t all that frequent, but it’s still there: tram lines still appear, along with small scratches and minor blotches (the car chase early on is probably where the source materials are worse, with a lot of visible scratches, though admittedly a lot of this could be related to the rear projection used for some shots). There is some pulsating and fluctuations in the area of the screen but they’re minor. A few quick shots are also a little soft, sometimes just on the edges of the frame, but I blame this more on the materials and nothing to do with the transfer. Despite these problems with the source, which are really quite minimal as a good chunk of the film is very clean and free of any blemishes, I still found it a very pleasing, and very strong high-def presentation.
The linear PCM 1.0 mono track doesn’t sound any different from Arrow’s. The music is still a bit flat and an obvious product of its age, but I still found dialogue to show some decent depth and fidelity and it sounds very clear.
Criterion carries most—not all—of the material found on their 2001 DVD edition, starting with an audio commentary featuring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, director Noah Baumbach, and Kenneth Bowser. Though there are times where the participants acknowledge another’s existence, usually stating “take it away so-and-so” when passing off, it sounds like everyone was actually recorded separately. Bowser, who directed the documentary Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, which is included as a supplement on this disc, takes the more scholarly/historian task, giving more details on the production and Sturges’ career, while also covering how the film differs from other films of the same genre and period, and how it broke new ground. He also covers the Hollywood system of the time and how it’s presented in the film. The other three talk more about how the film has influenced them and what they admire about the film and Sturges’ work. It’s a nice track, fairly humourous primarily thanks to Guest and McKean, and has a few interesting trivia bits (like Sturges apparently wanted to use a Chaplin film in place of the Mickey Mouse short screened at the conclusion, though there is no mention why this didn’t happen). Worth a listen.
We then of course—yet again—get Bowser’s 75-minute documentary, Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer. It’s a very thorough documentary using a mix of archival interviews, home movies, and newer interviews to lay out Sturges’ career and work, from his success to his rather sudden and steep fall within Hollywood (sped up during his brief partnership with Howard Hughes) and his late-in-life run in with the unforgiving IRS. It’s a nicely put together reflection on his career, moving at a nice beat and keeping it interesting.
Sort of adding on to that is then a 13-minute interview with widow Sandy Sturges, who expands on some details found in the documentary. She talks about his working his way into Paramount as a filmmaker, how he would act out the parts when writing his scripts, and then explains why Sturges made Sullivan’s Travels, which was his response to all of the “message movies” being made by other comedy directors like Leo McCarey and Ernst Lubitsch. Recorded in 2001 by Criterion for their original DVD (though it’s been slightly tweaked here with a few high-def stills added) it proves to be invaluable as she adds a far more personal slant to the supplements in comparison to the (still) rather thorough documentary.
Ants in Your Plants of 1941 is a new feature, a 17-minute video essay put together by filmmaker David Cairns and featuring director Bill Forsyth. The essay features Cairns talking about Sturges’ style and humour, inspired a lot by silent comedy, and the film’s “message”, which is that “messages are for Western Union.” He also talks about certain production issues that popped up, specifically Lake’s pregnancy that needed to be hidden and how the film was received when released. Forsyth pops in once in a while through audio about his thoughts on the film, from first discovering it on television to how it has influenced him with his work. The two also explore the possible contradictions to the film’s “message”. I don’t think the essay had a real heavy focus on any particular topic, and it honestly felt more like a shortened commentary at times (though with clips and various production material edited in), but I enjoyed it, particularly Forsyth’s input.
The remaining on-disc material has been ported over from the DVD edition and is all audio-only. Criterion has managed to round up a few recordings taken of Sturges, first of him reciting the poem “If I Were a King” where he ends up having to start over a few times after good heartedly being interrupted, and then of another where he sings one of the songs he composed, ”My Love.” Both are over a minute in length.
The most fascinating of this audio material, though, is a 4-minute interview between him and Hedda Hopper, taken in 1951. Here Sturges talks about the current state of Hollywood, which was seeing a drop in box office thanks to television. Sturges was (rightfully as it turns out) optimistic as he argues that television will actually force Hollywood to change and produce better pictures. While Hopper may slightly hint that television is an inferior medium, Sturges sees it, along with film and stage plays, as all being the same thing, a way of delivering theater, and all equally important. It’s short but I found it a particularly fascinating (even if it at least feels somewhat scripted) discussion and I’m disappointed Criterion couldn’t round up more material featuring Sturges.
The included insert features a new essay by Stuart Klawans, replacing Todd McCarthy’s from the original DVD edition, going over Sturges’ purpose for the movie (his response to the message movies being made by his fellow comedy directors) and how his argument that one should leave “preaching for the preachers” is delivered. The insert also includes some illustrations by Maurice Vellekoop representing some of Sullivan’s work, including Ants in Your Plants of 1939, So Long, Sarong, and Hey-Hey in the Hayloft.
Unfortunately Criterion has not ported over any of the galleries they had on the DVD, which featured a number of production photos, advertising, storyboards, blue prints, newspaper clippings, correspondence, and more (there were even shots of scenes deleted from the film). Some—not all—of this stuff is scattered about, particularly in the video essay, though I would have preferred an actual gallery.
Arrow’s edition featured a few different supplements (including a rather good commentary by Terry Jones) that disappointingly don’t make it here (they only share the documentary as a feature) but Criterion’s new Blu-ray, despite missing the easy access to production galleries, still delivers a nice collection of material that I enjoyed going through.
A great upgrade overall, delivering a much stronger image and a nice array of features, even if all of them didn’t make it over from the previous DVD edition.