Sullivan’s Travels appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though watchable, the film showed its age through this spotty transfer.
Sharpness usually worked reasonably well, at least. Some minor softness interfered at times, but not with any significant frequency. Most of the movie appeared acceptably accurate and concise. I noticed minor instances of jagged edges and shimmering, and some light edge haloes also cropped up on occasion.
Though not heavy, source flaws created more than a few distractions. Through the flick, I saw specks, marks, grit, lines and other blemishes. These didn’t overwhelm but the film was dirtier than I’d like. Blacks were a little mushy, while shadows tended to be somewhat dense. Contrast seemed passable, but the movie lacked the fine silver tone I’d like to see. In the end, the transfer was average given the film’s age.
I also found issues with the monaural soundtrack of Sullivan’s Travels. The main problems stemmed from distortion. Speech was consistently intelligible but could become a bit edgy at times. Music lacked much range and also seemed somewhat screechy and shrill in terms of high-end. These concerns persisted with effects. In quieter scenes, these sounded fine, but once the volume increased, those elements tended to appear rough. I noticed only a little background noise, though. For such an old movie, the audio wasn’t terrible, but it definitely had some drawbacks.
We get a mix of extras on this Criterion release. First we find an audio commentary with documentarian Kenneth Bowser and filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. Each one sits separately for this edited track. We get a few historical notes about the film and its era but mostly receive thoughts about the flick in terms of its style and methods.
This means we find a pretty spotty commentary. Usually a track like this would give us factual information from a film historian, and Bowser does a little of that, but we don’t hear a ton from him. Instead, we get a lot from the three filmmakers. Of that bunch, McKean proves the most effective. He offers interesting remarks about his experiences with the movie and also sheds light on various aspects of it. McKean comes across as thoughtful and incisive.
Though Guest does a little of that, for the most part he goes for the laughs. He provides some offbeat “facts” and quirky observations about the flick but not much more. That still beats the dull Baumbach. The filmmaker usually just tells us how much he loves various parts of the movie. I can’t recall anything useful that he said during the piece. All of this adds up to a sporadically interesting commentary, but not a very good one.
Next comes a 1989 documentary entitled Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer. Created by Bowser for PBS’s American Masters, this 76-minute program mixes archival elements with interviews. We get notes from family friend Priscilla B. Woolfan, widow Sandy Sturges, actress/friend Frances Ramsden, film historian/friend Thomas Quinn Curtis, secretary Edwin Gillette, filmmaker Paul Schrader, Paramount producer AC Lyles, film critic Andrew Sarris, and actors Cesar Romero, Eddie Bracken, Joel McCrea, Betty Hutton, and Rudy Vallee.
The show tells of Sturges’ childhood and influences from that period. From there we follow his early adulthood and his move into show business as well as his transition into the movies, aspects of his personal life, his career in Hollywood, and notes from the rest of his days as he ran into troubles.
“Dreamer” maintains a balanced perspective, as it favors neither personal dirt nor simple recitations of movie-making details. It gets into both well, and the various folks who knew Sturges add nice insights into the filmmaker as a man. These factors combine to create a rich, informative discussion that gives us a satisfying take on Sturges.
For information from the director’s widow, we find a Sandy Sturges Interview. Shot in 2001, Sturges chats about her former husband’s start as a writer, his work in Hollywood and related topics, some thoughts about Travels, his decline, and his relationship with Howard Hughes.
Some of the information here already shows up elsewhere, but Sturges’ personal viewpoint helps make it valuable. She adds a different perspective that makes her participation useful. The interview packs a lot of nice info into its running time.
Under “Archival Material” we get a bunch of components. Stills Gallery breaks into two areas: “Production Stills” (87) and “Behind-the-Scenes Photos” (61). Most of the former are pretty unexceptional shots from the flick, though a few show some deleted scenes. The others are a little more interesting but not much, and they also include many promotional photos.
Storyboards provides two sections: “Storyboards” (12) and “Blueprints” (17). The latter are the more enjoyable to see, especially since they allow us to compare the plans to the final product for many of the blueprints. Scrapbook offers 20 screens of “behind-the-scenes photos, correspondence and publicity material.” It’s a nice little collection of components.
Three audio elements fill out “Archival Material”. Preston Sturges Interviewed by Hedda Hopper goes for about four minutes. First aired January 28, 1951, Sturges chats about the then-current state of movies and the possible impact of TV. He’s pretty prescient as he notes that he believes the competition will be good for motion pictures. This becomes an intriguing piece of history.
Similar material appears in both Preston Sturges Recites “If I Were King” and Preston Sturges Sings “My Love”. The former inspired Sturges’ script for a 1938 flick of the same name, while the latter is just one of many tunes Sturges wrote over the years. Neither has anything to do with Travels and I can’t say they do much for me, but they’re kind of cool to have for archival reasons.
The package ends with the trailer for Travels and a booklet. At least I presume the set includes a booklet. I got this DVD through a rental so it didn’t come with paper components, but since virtually every Criterion release boasts a booklet, I expect this one does as well.
A clever, involving tale that spans a mix of genres, Sullivan’s Travels stands out as something unusual. With fine performances and an intriguing story, it becomes a winning flick. The DVD comes with pretty mediocre picture and audio as well as a few reasonably good extras highlighted by an excellent documentary. Though this never turns into a great DVD, the movie is strong enough to merit your attention.