McCrae decides to become a hobo for a few weeks to get direct knowledge about poverty. His two servants, Robert Greig and Eric Blore, respectively enable and criticize his decision. McCrae cannot be dissuaded, but he is shadowed in his highway walks in bum attire by a large camper filled with studio press agents, publicity writers, cameramen, and black cook Charles R. Moore.
McCrae manages to ditch them, courtesy of teen go-cart driver Payne B. Johnson. Hungry, he stops at a diner, but cannot pay for a meal. Because it is a movie, gorgeous siren Veronica Lake is not only at this obscure diner, but starts up a conversation with him and buys his lunch. Lake, a failed actress, is about to return home back East, but drops those plans to hang out with McCrae, who reveals he is a highly compensated Hollywood film director in order to keep her out of trouble.
McCrae briefly returns to his palatial home and servants, with Lake as his houseguest. But McCrae is set on living the hobo life. Because it's a movie, he can't shake Lake, so the two tramp together until McCrae becomes ill and coincidentally encounters the camper purportedly still on his trail.
McCrae recovers at home, but events take a dark turn after McCrae decides to pass out five dollar bills (worth $100 in 2019 dollars) to bums. Inevitably, one of the bums tails him and assaults him. Because it is a movie, McCrae ends up with amnesia, hits a man with a rock, and is sentenced to six years hard labor at a remote prison camp, where his only friend is kindly trustee Jimmy Conlin. Somehow, a happy ending is contrived, with McCrae and Lake free to marry despite McCrae's freeloading former wife Jane Buckingham.
How others will see it. Sturges' 1940s films developed a posthumous following among classic film lovers. Today, he ranks among the best-known directors from that decade. His relatively early death, and abrupt career decline, make him a sympathetic figure in film lore. It helps that most of his movies are good, particularly those made at Paramount.
Sullivan's Travels is now the most acclaimed of all his efforts as writer-director, just ahead of The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story. The first two films were eventually added to the National Film Registry, but none of three were Oscar-nominated, aside from Monckton Hoffe's original story. Sturges' three Oscar nominations were all for his screenplays, in three movies seen less often today (The Great McGinty, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero.)
But Sullivan's Travels is most loved, if not for its message that poverty exists and life sucks for the poor. At imdb.com, the user vote total of 22K is high for a 1941 movie, and the user rating of 8.0 (out of 10) is very high. It is consistent across demographics, though American viewers grade it more highly than do foreigners (8.2 versus 7.8).
The user reviews are as rapturous as expected, i.e. "Reckless, Tightrope Masterpiece", "The Perfect Film", "Deserves Its Lofty Reputation." Most of the credit goes to Sturges, McCrae, and Lake.
How I felt about it. It is interesting that Sullivan's Travels turned out to be the best known film in the career of Veronica Lake. She was lucky to have made it at all, since she was about six months pregnant during its filming. She doesn't show up in the movie until the second reel, and her character actually has no need to be present, except that, as McCrae points out, "There's always a girl in the picture."
It is almost inconceivable that Lake would volunteer to live as a hobo with McCrae, getting fleas, standing in line at soup kitchens, and sleeping on the floor with stinking bums. Almost no one would voluntarily live such an existence, and events turn out as calamitous as might be expected.
Also, just because you are a celebrated studio director doesn't mean you have a "get out of prison" Monopoly card in your pocket. McCrae would have to be pardoned by the governor of California to escape the chain gang.
The film's unexpected transitions from comedy to serious drama also occur in the Coen brothers movies. Clearly, they adopted O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the fictional novel in the present movie) as a film title as a tribute to Sturges, whose tumultuous career at Hollywood as a writer and director was finished at age 50.
Sturges is at his best here in slapstick and dramatic scenes. When G-forces act on the camper, throwing its occupants to and fro, it is impressive. The motorcycle cop with mud on his face, Lake and McCrae falling into the pool, those scenes also work. Sturges succeeds with tragedy in the labor camp scenes. The hobo thief's demise by locomotive is less effective, but Sturges' hand was forced by the Production Code.