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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

George praises mediocrity, Marvel movies, and why everyone needs to see Sullivan's Travels.

By George Seminara

What is a hack? It's a negative, right? Or is it? My book agent, the late Knox Burger, told me a hack was a reliably average creative. Movies, books, music, whatever. The hack delivers the job and it works. It’s good enough, it may not be art, but it doesn’t have to be. The marketplace demands content, and not all content will be great. Television is a medium where making the same thing fresh week after week is a freaking art form. It is a rare program that has a single artistic vision. Many competent but not spectacular artisans direct the individual episodes weekly in rotation, seamlessly merging one episode into the season.

Most motion pictures might strive to be art. They, more often than not, fail at being art. But they can be entertaining. After all, what do most of us go to a movie for? Movies are expensive to make. You probably would never need to work again if you won the lotto equal to a low-budget film's budget. Motion pictures are incredibly complex and require a specific skill set. Studios need to protect their finances, and they look to filmmakers who may not have that spark but can deliver the film on time and within budget.

There is a reason why Francis Ford Coppola was out of work for decades, and Clint Eastwood keeps directing a movie a year. I'm a huge Clint Eastwood fan, and he is a great director and has made great films over his fifty years as a director. What marks his work is his consistency. If I were to grade him for his career, he'd get a B-B+. He has never made a bad movie. He rarely, maybe never, goes over budget and always delivers on time. Because many of his films are genre films, action, western, etc., his best movies, bar The Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, may not carry the respect they deserve.

(See what happens? Even I am dissing his career, and Clint has Oscars! I was initially going to compare Ridley and Tony Scott but elected not to. But as homework, check out the difference between their films.)

Francis, on the other hand, has made far fewer films. Some of the greatest films of all time, but much less. They are so good that they transcend genre. (Leave the gun, take the cannoli!) Francis Ford Coppola is an artist without idea or care about the budget. He is more than an auteur. He is a film artist. His movies are imminently watchable but vary significantly from The Godfather to Jack. (Robin Williams plays a 10-year-old with that disease where kids turn into Robin Williams.)

Side Bar #1: Auteur au·teur: (author)

The auteur theory of filmmaking is that the director is the foremost creative force in a motion picture. The auteur theory comes from Alexandre Astruc's concept of caméra-stylo ("camera-pen" Go ahead, it's French. I'll wait while you roll your eyes.) The theory posits that since the director lords over all the audio and visual elements of the motion picture, they should be considered the "author" of the movie rather than the writer of the screenplay. Truffaut ran with it, and the great American critic, Andrew Sarris, nailed it down. Now we're stuck with it. According to no one but me: Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, and Wes Anderson are artists. Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee, The Coen Brothers, George A. Romero, and Ryan Coogler are auteurs.

Side Bar to the side bar:

You don't need an auteur or an artist to make a film. It's rare for a director to consistently stamp their unique vision onto a piece of celluloid or digital media. You may disagree with my choices, but none of those guys made the hundreds of other movies that came out this year. What makes a film theirs? (More homework for you.)

And now, we turn our attention to Frank W. Tuttle. Frank, a Yale man, spent his life in Hollywood and directed over sixty films, from the Cradle Master in 1922 to Island of Lost Women in 1959.

Frank W. Tuttle (The chinless wonder)

Did he make a good film? Yes, of course, and a lot of them. Did he make a great film? He got close, so very close, but greatness eluded him. I'm a big fan his This Gun for Hire, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. (Hubba, Hubba!)

Like Sullivan Travel's John L. Sullivan, Frank W. Tuttle is best remembered today as a successful but somewhat average movie director. He always yearned to create a work of great meaning. Of art. More on Sullivan's Travels a few paragraphs down, but he consistently churned out comedy, action films, mysteries, rom-coms, and a hand full of above-average noirs. (For him.) I personally would love to have had his career.

It's on him, and that of his fellow hacks’ shoulders that Hollywood got built. For every Hitchcock, there are 10 Alan Dwans (120 films from 1913's The Restless Spirit to 1961's The Most Dangerous Man.) Sure, some split the difference between hack and artist, Wellman, Walsh, Cukor, and more. But those names that you can't remember, or the first film with such and such or written by that guy, or featuring the Bowery Boys, that's who created our desire to see movies.

Side Bar #2.5:

The Most Dangerous Man. If he could pick a film as his last, it probably wouldn't be this one. "It's a gig!" Also, strangely similar to The Incredible Hulk. Except with a steel-hard (wait, that didn't read right?) gangster on a journey of revenge! After getting caught in an A-Bomb test, escaped convict Eddie Candel goes after all those damn squealers!

He has strength! Steel-hard skin! A taste for blood! What kind of gangster name is that? Eddie "the foot" Candello is what it should have been. He meets his end in a fight with the Abomination. Sorry, that's the Hulk! Eddie gets reduced to ash via flame thrower. It's a hot time in the old town tonight! (Yeah, I said it! I never met a low-hanging fruit I didn't go for,)

Over the last 15 years, Marvel Comics has made a terrific body of work. The source material was tried and true. These stories, like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, have worked for centuries. Marvel's stories have worked, in Captain America's case, for 80 years, and all the rest of their titles have been around for at least fifty. The movies are brash, bold, action-packed, and well worth the money I spent at the box office. But are they great films? Of the 30+ movies, only Black Panther is a truly great film.

"You want to go? We'll go!" I stand by that. "I pity the fool who disagrees with me!"

Black Panther is the only Marvel film at a level where any schmo would say it's art. Story, character, costume, effects, and presentation is rare to see at that level of originality. I'll throw Spider-Man into the Spider-verse into the mix. This is not to say the others aren't good. In my opinion, they have a cumulative average grade of a B. You are never bored. The films rarely drag, stuff blows up, there's flying, chases, and fights, and boy, they are funny. (Unlike the other superhero studio). I have no complaints. So, they are good. Only once were they great, okay with Spider-verse. 1.5 great. Almost great. The rest were good, like pizza. It's rarely bad.

That's the point. Their only purpose is to entertain. If a Marvel film does more than that, it's a bonus! Now I wouldn't want to spend three hundred million bucks for a pizza. $20.00 for a couple of hours of fun is well worth it.

There is nothing wrong with entertaining your audience. There are millions of films people love that entertainment was its only purpose. That's being generous. Okay, and make a buck too, but make that buck while entertaining me! Let's talk about The Tomster, New Jersey's favorite (non-Bruce Bon Jovi) son, the biggest movie star Elron Hubbard ever made. Tom Cruise, our generations Harold Lloyd, how many mediocre films did he make trying to get the best actor Oscar? Too many! Just put him in a jet, with a house-breaking prostitute, saving the world before this article self-destructs, movie, and I'm happy! The best-supporting actor and the Irving Thalberg award are what a movie star gets if he plays his cards right.

"Cheer up, Tom. You ain't a spring chicken anymore. I promise I'm counting the days until you get your Thalberg!"

For the uninitiated, I have two words for you, Preston Sturges. That's right. He's the first guy to get the credit “written and directed by” on a motion picture. He did that by writing the wittiest dialogue, the most entertaining scenarios, and the best-supporting casts, a virtual stock company of character actors in most of his films. Another thing about him was that he was never sheepish about the judicious use of the pratfall. Sturges made films lampooning politics, marriage, divorce, premarital sex, the war effort, and he tried to stage a comeback for the Tom Cruise of the 1920s, Harold Lloyd.

Preston Sturges (I wouldn’t say he was born rich, but his silver spoon was gold)

The only problem about Sturges as a filmmaker, maybe, is that he is a little like the directorial equivalent of Groucho Marx. He never met a character or institution he couldn't make fun of. I didn't even start to think until I studied his films for years. (By study, I mean watching them when I should have been working.) His films have a level of controlled chaos that bubble and push below the story's surface, occasionally erupting. You will laugh.

Sturges' career in Hollywood is tiny, compared to Frank Tuttles (see how I did that?), with only 11 films as a writer/director and about the same number of solo screenplays without directing. There isn't a stinker in the bunch. Okay, the last two are the worst of the bunch. I can't say they are bad, just not great. He had a young wife, and Howard Hughes ripped him off and needed the cash. Never mind that! Money should never be an excuse for the artist. My painting teacher told me that after I asked about paying rent. Yeesh!

Preston Sturges made one of the best films about Hollywood ever, Sullivan's Travels. It follows the famous and successful Hollywood director, Frank W- no! John L Sullivan. Reliably acted by the B-Version of Gary Cooper and perfectly cast, Joel McCrea. Sullivan is tired of the Hollywood fluff he makes millions making and yearns to create a socially relevant art film, a great drama that shines a light on the plight of the common man, Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? (Ring any bells?) To that end, he needs research. After all, he's a pampered and entitled Hollywood director! What does he know about the little guy? Nothing, and to that end, he sets out to live as a tramp to gain life experience for his forthcoming film.

French on-sheet for Sullivan's Travels (1942)

The studio refuses to let him out of sight, and they travel behind him on a giant Winnebago-type bus. The team lurks in the Winne, never allowing him out of their sight for long. As Lady Luck would have it, he meets a young woman sick of Hollywood with plans to hitchhike back home. How lucky? Veronica Lake, lucky! (Hubba, Hubba, and a Hubba!)

Veronica Lake (Hubba, Hubba.)

They have their cross-country adventure, quaint hobo camps, migrant working, and various old-fashioned poor people stuff. Very Hollywood, but when they get to New York, the studio launches a press blitz. Sullivan leaves his five-star hotel with a massive wad of cash and gives five-dollar bills to various homeless folks. At this point in the film, Hollywood gives way to real life. (For a Hollywood film.) The streets teem with the great unwashed, and things go from bad to worse as Sullivan wakes up in a Bayou chain gang,

What happens next is surprising. Sullivan eventually learns a valuable lesson from his dire circumstance when an African-American pastor welcomes the chained convicts from the nearby bayou prison camp to his church in the middle of the swamp. He preaches understanding to his flock as they welcome the prisoners to a little respite from their hell. Movie night!

As the film rolls, we are surprised by a rare, non-Disney guest appearance of Mickey Mouse. The convicts and parishioners take great joy in the small rodent's adventure. Sullivan learns his place in the universe.

Sullivans Travels is a very entertaining movie about the importance of entertainment, and it's a great work of art! Incredible! See, Sturges did it in 1941. There is always the need for content, now more than ever, but fewer artists create it. The great thing about movies is that it is a collaborative art. Sometimes the cards are dealt for a film to be mediocre, and somehow it transcends into art. Examples are Blood Simple, Platoon, Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, 48 Hours, Gladiator, and Black Panther.

Thankfully, or unfortunately, we rate our artists on their hits rather than their bombs. But I feel that it is relative. Back to Francis Ford Coppola and Jack, it's an entertaining movie, well told, well-acted, and looks good, but it's no Godfather. It's enjoyable. If Frank W. Tuttle had made it, he'd have been ecstatic, and it would have been his best film. My point is it's okay to be okay. They can't all be winners as much as we wish they could be. We should all be able to recognize when a film is more than just a movie. Hopefully, we can spot the art when it shows up.

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Greg Goodsell
Greg Goodsell
01 févr. 2023

Liad up in the hospital a while ago, one of my few respites was a classic movie channel that featured SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. I certainly didn't regret the time spent on it, and, yes -- the purpose of the motion picture is to entertain. If it fails to do that, it loses all relevance.

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