Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Thoughts on "Sullivan's Travels"

Some cheery thoughts for your day:
According to the website of Bread for the Hungry, more than 854 million people in the world go hungry. In developing countries nearly 16 million children die every year from preventable and treatable causes. Sixty percent of these deaths are from hunger and malnutrition.
According to World Vision’s website, more than a billion children subsist on less than a dollar a day. Also according to World Vision, fifteen million children around the world have lost one or both parents to AIDS and 6,000 more are added each day.
According to Christians in Crisis International, in the last 2,000 years, 43,000,000 Christians have been martyred for their faith; over half of those were in the last century. Over two hundred million Christians face persecution today, and on average 300 Christian believers die each day for their faith.
I sometimes think about statistics like these when I go through my day-to-day activities. When I’m trying to decide whether to buy Mission Brand or Doritos Brand corn chips at the grocery store. Or when I’m on the phone with a potential customer at the hotel and helping to decide whether to get a standard room or spend a few hundred dollars more for a suite. Or when I’m writing a movie column.
So many of the things we do in our life seem so inconsequential when compared with the trials and struggles so many people face in the world. Sometimes it seems that all of our pursuits, vocationally, personally and even spiritually are trivial if one considers them in the light of the “big picture”.
Well, there is a “little picture” that can help put this existential dilemma into perspective. The picture, titled Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is considered by many to be the masterpiece of writer and director Preston Sturges, even compared some of his other wonderful films such as The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story.
In the film, Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a movie director known for his zany comedies (such as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1938), but when he considers the continuing economic straits in the country and the war in Europe he wonders if he shouldn’t be doing something more serious. He decides to make a film that explores the human condition, O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Sullivan’s staff questions whether he can really understand suffering, since he grew up in pampered private schools and now lives in the luxury of a Beverly Hills mansion.
So Sullivan dresses as a hobo and tries to live on the road looking for “trouble”. But Sullivan is a very valuable man, and the studio tries hard to protect him from any real “trouble”. But when Sullivan runs into real trouble, he learns the value of the laughter his films provide.
He gains this knowledge in a wonderful scene in the film that takes place in a Black church in the Deep South. The congregation looks to care for people less fortunate than themselves. So they invite members of a chain gang to visit their church for the picture show. For a moment, the congregation and the prisoners forget their sorrows as they laugh at the travails of Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. (Off the subject, but as they ask in Stand By Me, why can Goofy talk but not Pluto?)
It is tempting to think that the little things we do in life are meaningless. But it is not meaningless to make others laugh. Or to provide small acts of kindness. According to I Corinthians 10:31 we can even give glory to God when we eat and drink.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the bigger problems in the world. We should seek God’s wisdom to find ways to feed the hungry, cure the sick and protect the oppressed. But God has put us all in our particular place in the world, and we are to do the work God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10).
Not that our hearts shouldn’t ache for the suffering in the world – Jesus was certainly concerned. But He also spent years in the carpenter’s trade and took time to laugh with children. As Sullivan learns in the film, the world has enough trouble. We don’t have to look for it.
Oh, and I should mention again, Sullivan’s Travels is very funny, full of slapstick and dry wit. And Veronica Lake of the hair covering the face plays The Girl (she’s called that in the credits) and she was never lovelier. And if you ever wondered where the Coen brothers got their title for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, it was from Sturges.

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