I have to confess that I rather think that Preston Sturges is overrated. So far I’ve seen The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Great McGinty, and The Lady Eve, which Irving Singer of MIT likes, and discusses in a class available on iTunes.
The plot centers around a director, played by Joel McCrea, who has made such classic film comedies as Ants in Your Pants, and who wants to make more socially conscious pictures, the first of which is to be titled O Brother Where Art Thou. (The title was later used by the Coen brothers for the film with George Clooney.) In order to do this he wants to see life as the poor people do. He does this despite advice from his butler and his valet that poverty is not all it’s cracked up to be. Despite all this he proceeds to go on the road. In the process he meets up with The Girl, played by the glorious Veronica Lake. There are a few chuckles in the film, nothing belly shaking. When he reaches Chicago, he decides to give some money to all the poor people in the area. He gets mugged, and his shoes, which contain his ID, are stolen. The thief is killed, and Sullivan winds up doing hard time. He gets out of prison by confessing to his murder. (He’s recognized, and this saves him.)
Sullivan’s ambition is to do the kind of socially relevant drama that was represented a few years earlier by the Warner Brother pictures such as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Dead End, and Angels With Dirty Faces. These films, and others like them, portray poverty, crime, and prison in a gritty, uncompromising way. This is all well and good, and people went to see these movies, but they also went to see nonsense like Dames or Gold Diggers of 1933.
Sullivan makes the same mistake that Lenny Bruce made 20 years later, and that student radicals made at the same time. Lenny had a routine about Christ and Moses paying a visit to St. Patrick’s cathedral. They’d passed through Spanish Harlem on their way to the cathedral, and the ornate cathedral contrasted with the poverty of the poor. Lenny, before he died, realized that if you’re poor, you don’t want to go from one dump to another. You need that beauty and that wonder. The student radicals of the ‘60s, of whom sadly I was one, thought education should be relevant to the poor and disadvantaged in the schools. That proved to be a disaster. Urban schools are largely failures, and the suburban ones aren’t much better. The neglect of DWMs or DWEMs (Dead White Males, or Dead White European Males), has cut the younger generation off from its cultural moorings. What C. S. Lewis warned against in The Abolition of Man has come to pass, and the ruling classes are in flight from the tradition that made the West. The quest for relevance failed to realize that people do not necessarily want to have the fact of their poverty, ill health, and misery ground in their faces. They frequently want to escape, but if they are not allowed decent outlets for fantasy, they will choose indecent outlets.
Sullivan comes to this realization when he sees his fellow inmates laughing at a cartoon. He realizes that they have no need for realism; they confront the harsh reality of imprisonment and brutality every day; they want, at the very least, psychological escape. So Sullivan renounces social justice commentary in favor of comedy, and O Brother Where Art Thou, went unmade for almost 60 years.