In celebration of its 100th Anniversary (my, how time flies!), the iconic Universal Studios has been issuing a number of classics from their vaults under the banner “100 Years of Unforgettable Movies” — several of which, ironically enough — were made by Universal’s one-time-rival, the equally famous Paramount Studios (and which were purchased by Universal in ‘58 for television distribution). Two of the latest installments in this lineup are comedies that focus on those who hail from the lower walks of life — those without a roof over their head. Well, sort of.
And there’s no better place to begin a look at these comedies of the impoverished than during the Great Depression. The highly-treasured 1936 comedy My Man Godfrey — starring the great William Powell, and his ex-wife, Carole Lombard — opens with a homeless man named Godfrey (Powell) being asked to be part of a scavenger hunt by Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick), the daughter of a crazy, rich high-society family. He’s not asked to help, however: the participants — more rich crazy high-society people — are in need of a “forgotten man” to fulfill their lists.
Godfrey is outraged at the notion of being the topic of someone else’s amusement, and refuses — then takes up Cornelia’s more-polite, better-behaved sister, Irene (Lombard), on the offer just so that she may get the upper hand on her older sibling. Irene later takes things a step further: hiring Godfrey as the new butler of the Bullock manor, which introduces our hero to the rest of the outrageous family: father Alexander (Eugene Pallette, and his amazing voice), mother Angelica (Alice Brady), and her Russian “protégé,” Carlo (Mischa Auer).
But Godfrey’s initiation into the lives of the upper crust is not his first: he holds a secret past that he’s not keen to divulge to his new, wacky employers. Jean Dixon and the magnificent Alan Mowbray co-star in this memorable screwball comedy from an era when moviemakers knew how to make screwball comedies (you hear me, Adam Sandler?), and Grady Sutton has a small part as one of Irene’s many suitors. Gregory La Cava directs this classic, multiple Academy Award nominated feature, which has gone down in history as essential ‘30s comedy viewing.
Moving forward five years, we find ourselves out of the Depression and in a state of World War — but still just as in need of a good laugh. And Preston Sturges delivers in the Paramount hit, Sullivan’s Travels. Hotshot Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is tired of making musicals and comedies. He’s sick of making people laugh. He’s ready to get his feet wet and make a truly serious piece of contemporary cinema with an important social commentary. His employers, the big shot studio execs, however, don’t share his enthusiasm — inform him that he has never known what it is like to be down in the dumps.
And so, Sullivan decides to go down in the dumps, by becoming a hobo. Things don’t go according to his improvised plan, though: no matter what method of transportation he takes, he always seems to wind up back in Hollywood, where he soon meets up with a beautiful and witty would-be actress (Veronica Lake, whose character has no name). Of course, with a handsome devil like McCrea and a gorgeous lass like Lake, you’d be a fool not to start a little onscreen chemistry — and Sturges again provides us with a little romance between his two stars, as well as a heap of heart that serves as an everlasting message to all.
Amazingly enough, Lake was in the late stages of a pregnancy during shooting (though you wouldn‘t know it), and Sullivan’s Travels earned a great deal of admiration from the NCAAP for its depiction of African Americans in one particularly moving scene. Sullivan’s Travels is a funny, touching, topical piece of cinema that is just as important today as it was seventy years ago — and both it and My Man Godfrey get top-notch video and audio presentations as part of Universal’s “100 Years of Unforgettable Movies” series.
Both movies include English 2.0 mono audio (Sullivan’s Travels boasts a secondary 2.0 mono Spanish mix), optional subtitles in English (SDH), French and Spanish the exact same two featurettes — “100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era” and “100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era” — which have almost nothing to do with the feature films themselves, but do provide some fascinating trivia on the history of Universal Studios. Sullivan’s Travels also includes its own original theatrical trailer.
The downside to these issues is that both titles have previously been released as part of The Criterion Collection with their own exclusive content-specific special features. If you already own them, there is no need to pick these up. If you don’t own the Criterion versions, however, these Universal releases are reasonably priced for the more budget-conscious buyer who wants to add these two classics to their library (and you should, one way or the other).