Sunday night Sarah and I watched another of AFI's 100 Greatest Movies: #61 Sullivan's Travels. Sullivan is a famous director. His specialty is making comedies, but he longs to make serious movies about the struggles of people in the working classes. In an attempt to return him to making commercially (if a bit shallow) successful comedies, his producers tell him that he doesn't know anything about being poor and suffering. This tactic backfires as Sullivan sets off to experience the world as a hobo.
On the last night of his ventures into poverty (which have been superficial to this point), Sullivan is hit on the head and mugged. He wakes up dizzy and disoriented on a train car in an unknown place. When a railroad worker harasses him about trespassing and hits him with a stick, Sullivan beats the man with a rock. Sullivan is tried while still disoriented and delusional, unable to remember his name. He is convicted to six years of hard labor.
This turn of events gives Sullivan a real taste of poverty and injustice. The prison boss is stereotypically cruel. Even though Sullivan remembers his real identity, he is unable to seek help.
Next is one of the best church scenes I've ever seen in a movie. The prisoners are invited to attend a movie showing in an all black church. Before the prisoners arrive, the pastor asks the people to give the prisoners the front three rows. Then he poignantly encourages the congregation "neither by word, nor by action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor to draw away from or act high-toned. For we's all equal in the sight of God." This scene is doubly touching. First, because it is an all black church, and showing African-Americans in a good light was extremely rare in 1941. Second, simply depicting the church in a positive light is also pretty rare. This small group of struggling Christians (Their church is fairly poor.) is living with the grace and hospitality toward which the gospel propels us all.
While at the church, Sullivan is amazed at the simple joy and exuberance the people take (and he himself takes) at the silly slap-stick of the cartoon movie. This returns him to his true joy and calling - making comedies. After he earns his freedom, he explains his change of heart. "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh! Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan!"
In my opinion, that last line (also the last line of the movie) is one of the best movie lines of all time. Life really is a cockeyed caravan. It's a beautiful caravan, but it's cockeyed nonetheless.
I see two basic points to this story.
(1) It really is hard for rich folks to understand what it's like to be poor. We have to go way, way, way out of our normal way of life to even start to understand.
(2) There is fundamental value in joy and hilarity. Of course, there is also value in making our world better in very serious ways like reducing poverty, increasing education, and bettering health care. However, joy (however ephemeral) is a value of its own.
I give this movie: JJJ. Although it is a good movie overall, it loses one J because of the ridiculous slapstick and attempts at humor. (Though they were very common in the 40s, they sat poorly with both Sarah and me.) It also loses a J because of a few plot weaknesses. However, it's a good movie that deals with a few serious topics in a fun way. It's worth the rental fee.