AFI Top 100: Sullivan’s Travels

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Sullivan’s Travels (1941), #61 on the list.

The runtime of Sullivan’s Travels may be one of the swiftest 90 minutes ever put to film. The fast-paced energy is perfectly sustained throughout, even in the dialogue-heavy opening sequence where lines overlap so much, the scene gives any in His Girl Friday a run for its money in terms of words per minute. This kinetic pacing is both its biggest strength and its major drawback, though. There’s so much ground to cover narratively, especially in the final thirty minutes where the plotting becomes a whirlwind, that the characters and thematic content aren’t explored nearly enough. On top of that, the film blends so many genres—screwball comedy, romantic drama, satire of Hollywood—which really just highlights the fact that it doesn’t successfully function as any one particular type of film, and works even less as a well-balanced amalgam. 

Had Sturges given more time to develop the characters, even at the expense of the brisk runtime, the film would be much more powerful, especially the relationship between John Sullivan and “The Girl”—though intentional, the fact that she isn’t even given a first name is indicative of how little development her character has, though Lake’s performance here is one of the film’s main strengths. Even worse is how the film fails its weighty thematic content. This may sound harsh, but the opening sequence sets up a film that intends to thoughtfully explore the concept of a man attempting to shed his privileged life in search of a greater understanding of impoverished people, and the film gets too focused on its hasty plot to offer any insightful or even superficial message. It’s an undeniably fun ride, and it’s got enough wit and charm to work as a comedy, but it fails in its larger ambitions.

Does It Belong on the List?

Obviously, I’m less enamored than many other people, but there are far better romantic-dramas, Hollywood satires, and screwball comedies of the time with much larger cultural impact that aren’t on the list—*cough* His Girl Friday—so no, it doesn’t belong on the list.

AFI Top 100

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