“Crimes of Juxtaposition”: Incongruous Frames in Sullivan’s Travels

Brian O’Sullivan, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland


Increasingly, rhetoricians are taking notice of the intertwining of “serious” discourse with comedy, humor and satire. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, for example, includes an array of articles that recognize the “discursive integration” (Baym 2005) of news and politics with comic entertainment. Rather than seeing this integration as a degradation of news into infotainment, Baym sees it as a creative response to the need to make important information competitively appealing in the “televisual sphere” of a post-modern consumer economy. But does the framing of journalism and politics as humor or clowning leave room for the possibility of serious, constructive action?

A KIND OF COMMENTARY IN advance on this “postmodern” problem is offered by Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a seminal film-about-film which has often stymied viewers by its seemingly incoherent muddling of serious themes and low comedy.  Sturges’ film takes as its central question whether or not comedy is relevant in a world of economic depression and war—and it arrives at an ambivalent conclusion.  In exploring this question, Sturges (1898-1959) paralleled his near contemporary, Kenneth Burke. Burke’s frames, along with his concept of perspective by incongruity, provide robust and flexible equipment for analyzing the discursive integration of the humorous and the serious in the mass media. The idea of comic framing has already been applied to Saturday Night Live (Smith and Voth), for instance, and Kaylor has recently applied comic, burlesque and satirical (as well as epic) frames to reviewing the controversy over Judge Roy Moore’s courtroom display of the Ten Commandments. To frame serious matters comically and comic matters seriously, or even comically, is to partake of the spirit of Burkean “counterstatement”—the principle that active inquiry and flexible thinking require every settled perspective to be unsettled by contrary perspectives.  This unsettling approach serves as an antidote to false certitude and leaves us self-reflectively aware of the absence of a firm foundation for action—though still in want of such a foundation. Through Burke, we can see Sturges’ apparent muddling as a productive, and disquieting, example of perspective by incongruity. Like Burke, Sturges finds no particular perspective—or genre—adequate in itself.

The Problem and the Plot

Sturges, in his memoirs, retrospectively took a dim view of the genre mixing in his film:

Sullivan’s Travels started with a discussion about movie-making, and during its unwinding tried a little bit of every form that was discussed. It made for some horrible crimes of juxtaposition, as a result of which I took a few on the chin. One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy, and another wanted to know what the comic passages were doing in a drama. They were both right of course. (Sturges 195)

The notion that tragic passages were incompatible with comedy and comic passages incompatible with drama echoess 1930s and 40s Hollywood marketing demands. Predictability was commercially important, especially as movie-making became more capital-intensive, and most especially in times of hardship when audiences were thought to want the reassurance of the familiar without too much intellectual challenge or provocation (Harvey 410). Burkean rhetorical theory, however, makes it possible to understand Sturges’ “crimes of juxtaposition” as intentional, strategic violations of the Hollywood rules. “Burke,” as Hatch (744) puts it, “offers a comic corrective, ‘perspective by incongruity,’ which transcends the serious commitments of each distinct perspective of human motives and can appreciate their differences as complementary, not conflictual.” This complementariness, however, is perhaps only available at a certain level of abstraction—that is, from a kind of critical metaperspective. In Sturges’ film, the divergent perspectives and genres are complementary only in that they all contribute to the whole narrative and its critique of its own medium and social context. The incongruity between these perspectives allows Sturges to expose a false choice offered by the Hollywood machine, in which it sometimes seemed that directors could only choose between going through the crowd-pleasing motions of formulaic comedy or making solipsistic gestures at symbolic action in serious (but seriously unpopular) drama.

Initially, Sturges, by his own account, intended the film as a rebuke—a “comic corrective,” even— to some whom failed to respect the purity of the comic:

After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy-directors, which seemed to  have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to tell them that they were getting too deep dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers. (195)

Sturges’ peers, driven by the seriousness of the times, were making films that mixed “comedy” (or humor, or satire) with “deep dish,” or ponderously grave, social and political messages. Capra, for example, was criticizing political corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Luvitch was satirizing Soviet totalitarianism in Ninotchka.  As Sturges saw such projects when he set out to make Sullivan’s Travels, they were subordinating the primary imperative of cinematic comedy—to make people laugh—to external agendas. As Moran and Rogin have pointed out, Sturges feared that Capra and company were losing the appeal of comedy in the process of trying to harness that appeal to a Popular Front; these directors seemed overly optimistic about their ability to critique capitalist corruption within a capital-driven medium. In the first half of Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges mocks the errant comedy directors by portraying the vain efforts of his protagonist-director to transcend genre and make a socially important work. As the film goes on, however, it portrays real injustice, and its satire shifts to target social conditions, thus undermining the notion that laughter by itself is a sufficient goal. This ambiguity of genre can profitably be understood, and can in turn illuminate, Burke’s literary categories and genre-based frames for narrating history.

Before discussing the film from divergent perspectives, a synopsis will be helpful. The protagonist, John L. Sullivan, is a Hollywood slapstick director who decides to cast comedy aside and make a saga, O Brother Where Art Thou, which will speak to the serious issues of the Great Depression. Studio executives, appalled at the idea of a project that sets social commentary above profit, tell Sullivan that he can’t succeed because he “[doesn’t] know what trouble is”; a pampered studio executive, he lacks the perspective necessary to represent the suffering of the masses.  Sullivan takes the criticism to heart—and he is propelled also, perhaps, by his sense of being trapped in a gilded cage with all the comforts Hollywood has to offer but without a real purpose, stuck in a sham marriage designed as a tax write-off by the accountant who has now taken up with his wife.  Sullivan resolves to travel the country in the guise of “tramp” so that he can learn enough about the lives of the poor to portray them empathetically in his film. Much of the first half of the movie concerns itself with Sullivan’s vain attempts to escape from Hollywood and see the real world; he is trailed by a “land yacht” sent by the studio executives who are trying to protect their prime talent, and when be he convinces his handlers to leave him alone, he hitches a ride only to be dropped off back in Hollywood.

Finally, however, Sullivan, along with a female travelling companion and love interest he meets along the way, does manage to move among the poor as one of their own.  In a long silent montage in the middle of the film, Sullivan and his companion (who is never named in the film, and who is known in the credits only as “The Girl”) witness a poignant yet sentimental tableau of deprivation, as they sleep in flophouses and rummage in garbage cans. Unlike their “fellow” impoverished, however, they are able to leave their deprived state and return to the comforts of the land yacht at will—and in fact, they run to that comfort after they apparently rummage in the wrong garbage can (although viewers are spared the apparently revolting sight that the protagonists see in that can). Sullivan now feels he knows enough about trouble to make O Brother Where Art Thou, and, as studio publicists prepare to tell his heroic story, he returns to the poor to reward them with handouts of cash for helping him learn what he needed to know. However, in the process of making this “last hurrah,” Sullivan is mugged, rendered amnesiac, and presumed dead. In his confusion, he quarrels with and strikes a railroad employee, and he is sentenced to a chain gang. In scenes reminiscent of I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (as noted by Moran and Rogin 131), the prisoners’ life is represented in ways that are more gritty and realistic than the film’s earlier representations of poverty. After running afoul of the warden and spending time in a “sweat box,” Sullivan apparently finally does “know what trouble is.” However, rather than confirming his ambition to leave slapstick behind, Sullivan’s time as a prisoner leads him to an epiphany about the value of laughter. When the prisoners are welcomed to a local African-American church to watch a Walt Disney cartoon, Sullivan is startled by the almost ecstatic laughter of his fellow prisoners. The cartoon depicts a hapless dog, Pluto, getting trapped in fly paper and otherwise stymied; although, or perhaps because, the film depicts a kind of imprisonment, the real prisoners watching it forget their troubles and are transported by laughter. Sullivan himself joins with the prisoners and their hosts in the laughter—thus becoming, for the first time in the film, unambiguously part of a social body; as Moran and Rogin (133) observe, the camera pans back to show the director as part of the masses. After Sullivan returns to Hollywood by “confessing” to his own murder and thus getting himself in the papers and getting the attention of his old friends and employers, he reunites with The Girl, whom he can marry now that his estranged wife, believing him dead, has remarried. He startles his employers by renouncing his ambition to make O Brother Where Art Thou; though they believe the film can now be a sensation and commercial success, he says, amazingly, that he has not “suffered enough” to make the film faithfully. Sullivan tells them what he has learned about the importance of laughter: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that laughter is all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

But this gushing line seems hollow. If laughter alone is “all some people have,” it hardly seems sufficient—especially after the film has shown us the suffering of the poor and imprisoned. And even as the film breaks up into a tableau of laughing faces—with Sullivan’s and his fellow prisoners among them—laughter alone seems an inadequate response to real suffering. Sullivan seems to have been co-opted back into his world of oblivious luxury.  This has left critics puzzled as to Sturges’ point. Although he claims, in his memoir, to have begun with the intention to remind his peers that laughter is a worthy goal, he seems to ultimately arrive at this conclusion only facetiously. If Sullivan’s ambition to speak for the poor was self-righteous and presumptuous, his retreat from that ambition is nevertheless callow and quitistic. Thus, Moran and Rogin (107) call the film “oddly self-cancelling” and suggest that it brilliantly critiques cinematic activism while still leaving the impression that dumb laughs are not enough—and without proposing an alternative to activism. Harvey suggests that its picaresque digressiveness makes it sometimes less purposeful than some of Sturges’ other films, though he also finds it ultimately also a bit too “blatant” in its “preachment against preachments.” Sturges, as we have seen, agreed with critics who found that the film erred by mixing comic and tragic idioms. I argue, however, that this muddling was key to Sturges’ innovation.

Perspective by Incongruity: The Method of a Clown

Sturges’ retrospective worries about his film’s “crimes of juxtaposition” are symptomatic of the “occupational psychoses” of a Hollywood writer/director and a critic. An “occupational psychosis,” as Burke reads Dewey’s term, is a “pronounced character of the mind” that arises from and supports a particular way of making a living (PC 40). Writers have their own occupational psychoses; professional writers, Burke says, have found their audiences and made their livings by specializing in particular sensibilities: “One became adept a kind of barometric response to the concerns of others. The type ranges from Broadway drama, through Hollywood, to simple reporting” (PC 48). The subtype of “Hollywood” is still further subdivided by Sturges, in his concern for the proper domain of “comedy-directors.” Comedy-directors, according to Sturges, specialize in “fun,” and straying into “message” compromises their professional integrity. He nevertheless does so stray in Sullivan’s Travels--but in his retrospective doubts about his “crimes of juxtaposition,” the Hollywood occupational psychosis is amplified by the critic’s. “Paradoxically enough,” says Burke, “perhaps the specifically writer’s psychosis, as opposed to any other, is to be seen in criticism, though it is usually the critics who are plaguing the poets with the charge of specialization” (PC 48).  The typical modern critic’s sense of superiority is partly “justified,” however, in that the critic’s “essayistic” mode of writing is better suited than poetic writing to the dominant occupational psychosis of the modern world: the technological psychosis (PC 48). For Burke, whereas primitive magic sought to control nature and religion sought to control human relations, science, the “third great rationalization,” is “the attempt to control for our purposes the forces of technology, or machinery” (44). The occupational psychosis of technology is to see values primarily or only in terms of machinery, or as “tools or weapons in the struggle for existence” (PC 45). For instance, to the extent that Hollywood writing and filmmaking aim to become “barometers” of the concerns of the movie-going public in order to fund the Hollywood machine, they reduce art to “tools or weapons” and are unable to perceive alternative purposes or principles—except, perhaps, in the light of perspective by incongruity.

The term “occupational psychosis”—and with it, the related but more explicitly ambivalent term trained incapacity--is an example of “perspective by incongruity,” which Burke  defines at an elementary level as “taking a word usually applied to one setting and transferring its use to another setting” (PC 90). Perspective by incongruity “violate[s] the ‘proprieties’ of the word in its previous linkages,” (PC 90) and thus has the capacity to startle us out of rigid preconceptions. Like Shakespearean metaphor, it has the power of “revealing…hitherto unsuspected connectives which we may note in the progressions of a dream. It appeals by exemplifying relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has ignored” (PC 90).  Among Burke’s examples are “that big dog, the lion” and “man as the ‘ape-God”; depending on how we are used to categorizing “lion” and “man,” these verbal innovations may provide a “sudden flash” that disrupts, or shines light on, our categories (PC 90). Thus, “perspective by incongruity” is not only a category which the terms “occupational psychosis” and “trained incapacity” exemplify, but also a corrective to these limitations which these specialized perspectives entail. Though we are trained to see in certain ways and not in others, we can glimpse in other ways by the “flash” of perspective by incongruity.

Burke’s idea of enlightenment through violating proprieties is reflected by Sturges’ praise of clowns—those specialists who make an occupation of impropriety. Sturges dedicates the film to clowns:

To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.
Clowns are by nature improper and incongruous; they are defined by “defiance of normal rules of behavior, or of physical logic” (McManus 13). The clown in fiction “is either too smart or too dumb” to be bound by conventions, and he or she thus struggles with problems whose solutions are obvious to “normative characters” and the audience. The clown’s novel solutions to these problems make us laugh and/or think (McManus 12). In its method of revelation by impropriety and surprise, clowning is like perspective by incongruity.


And by taking on the perspective of tramp, buffoon or clown, Sullivan enacts a kind of perspective by incongruity; he becomes what we might think of as “’that big dog,’ that penniless tramp, a Hollywood director,” in order to surprise himself and his viewers into seeing differently.  For Sturges as for Burke, “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” are obstacles to identification across socio-economic class; the capitalist and the laborer cannot see from each other’s occupational perspectives.  Sullivan seeks to overcome these obstacles by literally walking in the shoes of another class. The attempt is not unpredecented; as Schocket explains,

Between the depression of the early 1890s and progressive reforms of the 1910s, a number of white middle-class writers, journalists and social researchers ‘dressed down’ in order to traverse with their bodies what they saw as a growing gulf between the middle class and white working and lower classes. (Schocket 110).
In a sense, this masquerade might be seen as an attempt at Burkean identification and consubstantiation. As Schocket shows, however, such experiments frequently led to “the translation of class conflict into class difference and then into cultural difference” (127). Instead of consubstantiation, they lead to a substantiation of perceived differences, essentializing poverty as a distinct identity or way of being.


To more effectively communicate to and for the poor, the filmmaker cannot simply imitate the poor; though the naiveté of such a procedure is initially lost on Sullivan, it is not lost on Sturges. Though the film may have been intended, if Sturges’ memoir is to be believed, as a satire on directors who turned their attention from comedy to social problems, it became also, sometimes by turns and sometimes simultaneously, a satire on the social problems itself, a light-heartedly humorous story of a clown, a modern quest romance, a tragedy and a comedy. By reading the film successively as each of these (following the structure used by Kaylor in his study of a religious-political controversy through several frames), I will show how the incongruous rhetorics of the film self-consciously reflect the complex relationship between a socially conscious filmmaker and the viewing public.

Satire: Scapegoating the Director

Insofar as Sturges originally intended the film as a rebuke to wayward comedy directors, he framed it as satire. Oddly, though, to the extent to which Sturges satirizes his peers, he commits the same sin of which he accuses them—for to satirize is not only to play for laughs, but also to have a “message.” This ambiguity as to whether Sturges divides himself from his targets or identifies with them is characteristic of the satirical frame as described by Burke.

The satirical frame, as Burke describes it, is more a “frame of rejection” than a “frame of acceptance”; it is a narrative strategy that tends to be used oppositionally to break with the prevailing order, not to reaffirm it. Burke agrees with Wyndham Lewis that satire is “an attack ‘from without’” (AH 49). Though Burke self-deprecatingly describes one of his own attempts at satire as a bit of “clowning” (“Why Satire” 22), the satirist is not ordinarily equivalent to a clown. Aas Wickberg points out, whereas medieval fools served as “an object of laughter, the butt of all jests,” neoclassical wits and satirists actively directed raillery at others and made their targets ridiculous (52). But Burke adds an important caveat to the “from without” formulation: he believes that satirists characteristically externalize their own shortcomings in order to satirize them as if  “from without” (i.e., as if from a detached critical perspective). “The satirist attacks in others the weaknesses and temptations that are really within himself,” Burke says (AH 49). The best satirists, such as Swift and Juvenal, Burke argues, display a “strategic ambiguity” (AH 49), subtly empathizing with their targets and criticizing themselves.

Such a strategic ambiguity is made apparent by the opening moves of Sullivan’s Travels. First, to slow and sentimental music, a female, well-manicured and tastefully bejeweled pair of hands opens an envelope bearing a “Paramount” seal. The envelope contains a frontispiece; the male and female leads, both in “tramp” clothes and with his hand on her shoulder, gaze solemnly down at a landscape full of Lilliputian-sized, indistinct fellow tramps, who form a queue extending beyond the horizon. The frontispiece is reminiscent simultaneously of Gulliver’s Travels (already evoked by the film’s title) and Grapes of Wrath, forecasting the ambiguity as to whether the film is a Swiftian satire or a “straight” social commentary. The mediation or constructedness of the film is inescapable; the elegant hands that opened the envelope frame the frontispiece—reminding us, together with the towering protagonists, that our view of the poor in this picture is heavily mediated by the affluent. The frontispiece teaches us to be skeptical of this very film along with the films it satirizes.

The strategic ambiguity continues as a page turns, and in place of the frontispiece the credits roll, with the sentimental music reaching a crescendo at “Written and Directed by Preston Sturges”—still a rare credit in 1941, and one that suggests to viewers that the story about to unfold reflects the imagination of one man more than it reflects shared reality. A page turns again, and Sturges’ credit gives way to his dedication “to the memory of those who made us laugh.” This leads us to expect, perhaps, a movie that pays homage to the kinds of tramps known to moviegoers through Keaton, Chaplin, and others, to whom the clothing of the protagonists in the frontispiece alludes. But the white page of the dedication  abruptly fades to black, to be replaced by a darker scene, accompanied by frenetic music; two men—one clad in darker and one in lighter clothes—struggling on the outside of a train, from which they eventually fall into a river, under the title “The End.” This “ending,” as Ames (81) observes, ejects us from one cinematic illusion into another, making us aware that we have been watching a film within a film, and prompting us to be suspicious of further tricks.

At the same time, the film-within-a-film frames the film as a clash between the interests of labor and capital. Sullivan has shown the film as an example of the kind of work he would like to do, but it also seems to be an implicit, perhaps unwitting, ironic comment on his relationship with the executives.  The swirling of the river into which the antagonists have fallen gives way to the swirling of tobacco smoke as we see Sullivan, haloed in the backlight, gesturing wildly and expostulating to studio executives on this allegory of social struggle. In this struggle, Sullivan views himself as “labor,” of a sort; he grumbles that he is “just a minor employee” of the studio. However, their relationship is not so allegorically “black and white”; while Sullivan is wearing light colors in contrast to the executives’ dark, his suit is offset by a dark boutonniere, just as his ideological purity as “labor” is mitigated by his interdependence with studio “capital.” Indeed, he hints that the social problem film will serve his and the executives’ interests as members of a capitalist class; when an executive calls the film he has screened “Communism,” Sullivan calls it “an answer to Communism,” suggesting its utility for capitalists who must mollify labor in order to avoid revolution. The executives are not notably persuaded by this argument, but they are persuaded by profits. Though they believe the public is hungry for Hey, Hey in the Hayloft 1941, and not for O Brother Where Art Thou, Sullivan is a proven moneymaker, so they are resigned to humor him in his humorless project—as long as the film can have “a little sex in it.” Sullivan is only slightly grudging in agreeing to include “a little sex”; he has become idealistic, but not to the point of ignoring marketability altogether. In the rhetoric of the smoke-filled viewing room and the opulent office adjoining it, the persuasive factor is not logos or ethos or pathos, but the inartistic proof of money.

This inartistic proof operates two ways, however. The executives manage to convince their “minor employee” that he has been too rich and too comfortable to speak for the poor. Sullivan has not suffered enough to make a movie about suffering—and he takes this criticism to heart, though not with the result the executives intended. Instead of abandoning the project, he resolves to develop an ethos of experience and suffering that will validate his new, serious cinematic rhetoric. Or maybe he will just dress up as a hobo and go slumming as a way of feeding his ego. Here, the strategic ambiguity of satire arises from contradictory repulsions. The film signals us to be repelled by the mercenary outlook of the dark-clad executives yet it signals this so ham-handedly that we are alerted to be skeptical of the self-appointed cinematic white knight, Sullivan.

And the next scene amplifies this skepticism; here Sullivan is clearly not a neoclassical wielder of ridicule, but a simple object of laughter—the image of the clown, buffoon or fool to which the film is dedicated. Wearing a tattered coat and with sack tied to a stick over his shoulder, he practices his role, he trudges towards a mirror, shoulders slung low;  he is accompanied by cartoonish, comic music, and even his valet tells him that he might be overdoing it a little. While Sullivan thinks that dressing in a hobo’s clothes is part of a sober sociological experiment, the viewers can share Sturges’ joke that Sullivan is really just making himself a Charlie Chaplin character—a recognizable cinematic “tramp” as defined by generic conventions. At the same time, viewers get a hint of Sullivan’s real motivations when his estranged wife calls about her alimony check. The romance of a quest to save the poor and the American way—and now the even greater romance of a quest in search of suffering—seem to be less about altruism than about freedom from a bad marriage and from a comfortable but sterile existence. For Sullivan, the silly tramp costume represents freedom. As Sullivan will realize later, “tramps” are essentially outlaws; they are outside the social system in which every law-abiding citizen has an assigned and inescapable place, and thus they have a kind of freedom. If, as McManus argues, clowns typically acknowledge and break invisible walls that separate the fictional world occupied by characters from the “real” world occupied by viewers, Sullivan goes further; here, the rules at issue are those that make the viewers’ own world a kind of fiction or “imaginary representation” (Althusser)—rules of ideology that determine the sphere or action open to particular classes.


Sullivan, like the typical clown, is both too stupid and too smart to follow the rules. He is “too stupid” in that he doesn’t realize the ethical and physical hazards of class travestitism. He is warned of the risks of class masquerade by his butler, Borroughs.  In a close-up which confers a remarkable gravitas upon an already grave actor, the butler warns Sullivan that the poor resent “invasions of their privacy” and that “poverty is an affirmative evil…to be shunned, sir, even for purposes of study.” And the butler also warns Sullivan that he may be swallowed by this evil; in what may be an allusion to the turn-of-century transvestisim examined by Schocket, Borroughs tells Sullivan of his previous employers who went adventuring “similarly accoutered” in 1910, and “have not been heard from since.” Burroughs’ speech is a key epideictic moment in the early part of the film; his critique reinforces a suspicion that has already been with a viewer who paid attention to the film’s dedication to clowns—the suspicion that Sullivan’s preference for suffering over comedy may be misguided.

But Sullivan is also “too smart” for the rules in that he is learning a clown’s evasive maneuvers. This point is comically dramatized in a tumultuous chase scene immediately after Sullivan’s confrontations with Burroughs and the executives at his home. Now on the road, Sullivan tries to elude the Hollywood land yacht and the comforts of his class. The velocity of his escape, aided by a child in a model whippet tank, pays homage to the slapstick of silent movies while also foreshadowing continued topsy-turvy social mobility and turmoil. In the process, a black cook is dosed in white floor and a police officer soaked in mud; the humor here is an example of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, as hierarchical social distinctions are inverted and dissolved in laughter. This scene exemplifies Bergson’s claim about laughter—that it exposes and defuses the tendency for human behavior to become rigid or automated and devoid of the flexibility and fluidity that conscious choice makes possible (Bergson 10). In Burkean terms, laughter reveals the fissure between action and motion. In the chase scene, we laugh at Sullivan’s incongruous ability to evade and outwit the massive machinery behind him—and perhaps even to evade the occupational psychosis of technology as embodied by this machinery. Sullivan sees the mechanized chase as the sign of things to come at the end of the chase scene. “What a future!,” Sullivan sighs at the end of the chase scene, after the has asked his young tank driver’s age and learned that he is only eight. Clearly he is contemplating the boy’s potential future as a getaway driver or some other kind of speed demon; but at the same time, he might be imagining a larger future in which the world of “moving pictures” has developed into a technological world of unconstrained motion and velocity. Thus, the pursuit of a tramp by a massive land yacht is satire in the sense that Burke describes in his Hellhaven writings—an enetelechial extension of a situation’s negative tendencies towards their dystopian extreme.

Here we again see the satirist’s “strategic ambivalence,” or displaced self-criticism. As an innovator in the still-fledgling enterprise of moving pictures, Sturges is part of a technological movement towards the incipient culture of technology and speed that he satirizes. Conversely, when he satirizes traditional rather than emerging value systems, he also reproduces and exploits the sins of those systems; the carnivaleseue accidents of the cook and the police officer—who are thrust into white face and black face—parody the American minstrel tradition and the stereotypes that carried over from that tradition into film, just as the film parodies social problem cinema. Such an upheaval of values is characteristic of what Burke sees as a transitional time between dominant psychoses—a time of the “bureaucratization of the imaginative.” Deprived by that bureaucratization of a stable moral standpoint, Sturges faces a problem that Bakhtin saw and that literary theorist Linda Hutcheon has called the “paradox of parody”: parody is simultaneously critical and conservative, exploiting and reinscribing what it critiques. Though Hutcheon is addressing parodic imitation, this paradox applies to satire of social realities as well, and it marks of one of the frustrations and limitations of the satirical frame. For Sturges, the comedy-director caught up in the paradoxes and ambiguities of message is necessarily inclined towards losing “the fun” (Sturges 195).

Humor: Dwarfing the Situation

Much of what Sturges calls “comedy” Burke would call “humor.” Most modern “comedians,” Burke notes, are actually humorists, in that they promote an “attitude of ‘happy stupidity,’ in which the gravity of life simply fails to register” (AH 43). This attitude is exemplified by “some childish quality of voice” that is found in Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor and their peers, “the stutterers and the silent” (AH 43). In the company of these peers it is not hard to imagine the old John L. Sullivan, whose oeuvre included such titles as Hey, Hey in the Heyloft and Ants in Your Pants 1941. The childishness and seeming powerlessness of such humorists leads not to their destruction by a cruel world, but to laughter—and this provides otherwise fearful audiences with momentary relief. Humor “takes up the slack between the momentousness of a situation and those in the situation by dwarfing the situation” (AH 43). The humorist diminishes and trivializes problems by turning them into jokes. Humor “specializes in incongruity”—and specifically in the incongruity between small agent and vast situation—but, unlike the grotesque, humor represents incongruity in such a way that it produces the relief of laughter.

Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with his previous films is similar to Burke’s view of humor as a strategy for living. Like the sentimental, in Burke’s view, humor provides an illusory relief by portraying the world as simpler and more hospitable than serious adults typically find it to be. Unlike comedy, humor and the sentimental tend to “gauge the situation falsely” (AH 43). Once Sullivan realizes just how falsely his lighthearted cinematic romps are gauging the situation of the Great Depression and the war in Europe, he responds, in effect, by trying to shift from the humorous to the heroic as a strategy for bridging the gap between human beings and their situation.

“Humor,” for Burke, “is the opposite of the heroic” (43); both humor and the heroic (in particular, the epic) respond to incongruities between a finite individual and the infinite, and infinitely troublesome, world. The epic resolves this incongruity by magnifying the hero. Ancient epics magnified the image of the warlike hero, Burke suggests, in promoting the values of courage and strength that were thought necessary to the defense of the tribe. Epics endow their heroes with virtues such that they appear adequate to the greatest challenges presented by the world.  In a sense, Sullivan’s ambition is epic: he recognizes the vastness of the challenge of representing the poor in cinema, yet he imagines himself adequate to meeting that challenge. The problem for Sullivan is that he is only imagining; he is not, in fact, at all adequate to comprehending the experience of the poor and making himself their spokesman. In his belief that he is adequate to this challenge, Sullivan repeats the error of “gauging the situation falsely”—even though he waxes eloquent about the extent of social problems, he still dramatically underestimates the difficulty of understanding and addressing them. Sullivan, in short, is a mock-heroic hero. As he sets out to cross the landscape of American Depression—the kind of Eliotic waste land that haunts the literature of the twenties and thirties—the viewer knows he is doomed to epic failure. Thus, while attempting to make his own epic, Sullivan becomes the butt of Sturges’ humor. And when the fictional director realizes the falseness of his heroic pose, he returns to humor. For Sullivan, both humor and heroism have now been revealed as false—but humor at least appears to be useful. It provides needed, regenerative relief to the prisoners, and it creates a sense of community between them and their African-American hosts

But when Sullivan fully embraces humor, the portrayal of his character, in the eyes of many viewers, may edge from the humorous towards the unwittingly burlesque. His final line (“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that laughter is all that some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”) exemplifies the child-like voice or “happy stupidity” that Burke finds among humorists—but if we laugh at it, we probably laugh dryly, and we are perhaps more likely rejecting its stupidity than accepting its happiness. To whatever extent we cringe at Sullivan’s willful obliviousness at this moment, we are reading Sturges’ scripting of Sullivan as something closer to the burleseque—that narrative strategy which features its targets’ flaws to the exclusion of their virtues—than to humor. Any laughter at Sullivan’s misrecognition of himself and his situation does not so much provide relief as express judgment.

And yet Sullivan is rewarded by implicit engagement to The Girl. A Hollywood comic paradigm seems to require this happy ending. The competing demands of humbling Sullivan and marrying him to the Girl posed a problem that Sturges confessed being unable to solve:

The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story. It would have been very easy to make a big finish either way, but one would have defeated the other. There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it. It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did. (Sturges 195)

But Sturges’ dissatisfaction with his own work is premised on the assumption that there had to be a “big finish” that resolved the problems of the film one way or another. We might instead read the vexed ending as a realistic “gauging of the [vexed] situation.” If the ending is unsettling—shouldn’t it be unsettling? The Great Depression and World War II were unsettling, to say less than the least; the question of whether comedies could be “serious” works in such times was unsettling. It is perhaps necessary that the film should have an unconvincing end. The film trains us to be skeptical of Hollywood; it must, then, draw some of our skepticism towards itself.

Romance: Courting Freedom

But to be successful entertainment, a film had to do more than court skepticism; it also needed, in the words of Sullivan’s boss, “a little sex.” More than that, it needed romance. If Sullivan cannot escape Hollywood literally, neither can the story Sturges is telling about Sullivan escape Hollywood conventions. Just as the studio executive cautioned Sullivan that his movie must have a little sex in it, Sturges puts a little romance, if not actual sex, in Sullivan’s Travels. Yet while the satirical frame tends to keep Sullivan trapped in Hollywood, the romantic frame impels him to wander. In an odd sense, the Paramount marketers actually advertised the film’s “romantic frame” as an alternative to comedy and tragedy; the film’s tagline reads “A Happy-Go Lucky Hitch-Hiker on the Highway to happiness! He wanted to see the world . . . but wound up in Lover's Lane!” (IMDB). This tagline emphasizes the film’s “love story,” but the film is also a romance in another sense: it enacts what Burke, in A Rhetoric of Motives, calls “the ‘principle of courtship’” (208). This principle is “the use of suasive devices for the transcending of social estrangement” (208). Taking her cue from this principle, Lewis approaches interreligious dialogue from through a “romantic” frame, seeing a kind of “courtship” between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. This romantic frame is useful for understanding Sullivan’s Travels as an attempt to “woo” a movie-going audience to transcend social estrangement and identify with the downtrodden.

The difficulties of such “wooing” are made apparent in Sullivan’s first stop after he ditches the land yacht. Promising to meet his exhausted pursuers in Las Vegas, he nevertheless finds himself back at the movies. He is hired as a laborer by an amorous widow with designs on him based on misrecognition of his socio-economic needs and vulnerability; her “courtship” of him parodies, in effect, the kind of cross-class courtship that Burke envisions:
If a woman of higher social standing (a ‘woman of refinement’) were to seek communion by profligate abandonment among the ‘dregs of society,’ such yielding in sexual degradation could become almost mystical. (208)
But instead of a socially recognizable “woman of refinement” who courts the economic “dregs of society,” Sullivan’s Travels presents a backwoods petty doyenne who reaches across class lines to court a supposed tramp who is actually a wealthy Hollywood director. The lack of authenticity of their “courtship” frames an example of the inauthenticity of socially conscious film; the widow takes him to a sad, serious movie, which proves to be a claustrophobic experience, in which the audience seems neither entertained nor edified but merely bored.  This does nothing to jolt Sullivan out of his ambition to make serious films, but it does seem to fuel his desire to be free (while also foreshadowing the frustration of that desire). That night, he escapes from the bedroom in which the widow has locked him; he hitches a ride—and finds himself again in Hollywood.


To escape Hollywood will require a more convincing instance of the principle of courtship. When Sullivan meets the Girl, there is again a misrecognition of social disparity. Though leaving Hollywood in poverty, she can at least afford a bus ticket and a plate of ham and eggs for someone who appears to be a penniless tramp; she believes she is doing a favor for someone who is socially inferior to her. She doesn’t know that he is among the directors she has been trying to “court” to advance her career. Her attempt to reach out to the poor is, unknown to her, a farce, and to the viewer she appears at first only to be present for a gag and as a concession to Hollywood conventions and marketability. As he tells a police officer who has pulled him over as an apparent hobo who seems to have stolen John L. Sullivan’s car, and who asks him what The Girl is doing in this picture, “there’s always a girl in the picture; haven’t you ever gone to the movies?”.

When The Girl learns Sullivan’s true identity and becomes an ally in his project, their relationship becomes a truer courtship in Burke’s sense of the word; they are partners from across a social gulf, bringing disparate perspective together. She is crucial in helping Sullivan escape; in keeping with the conventions of screwball comedy, which Sturges himself had played a leading role in creating, The Girl is in some ways more savvy and gritty than her male co-protagonist, and it is only with her as companion that he manages to break out of the Hollywood bubble. Moreover, The Girl disguises her gender in order to travel inconspicuously with Sullivan; she adopts gender tranvestisim in order to facilitate what Schocket calls “class transvestitism.”  With The Girl, Sullivan finally gets his first taste of the open road—they hop onto freight car, and, though sneered at as amateurs by their fellow travelers, they make it off alive.  They accidentally find themselves in Las Vegas; though they are glad to find the land yacht, as they are hungry and penniless, Sullivan yearns to continue his adventure. It seems he will be sidetracked by a fever—but it is in that fever that he has his epiphany about the freedom of tramps. He realizes that “some invisible force”—the invisible hand of capitalism, perhaps—keeps him and others in place, as if saying “as you were, so you shall remain.”  And “tramps,” Sullivan imagines, get in trouble because they are outside the system that the invisible force protects. After Sullivan has this realization he and The Girl escape their handlers and enter the world of breadlines, shelters and revivals, and the film blends slapstick humor with gritty realism. In a long, silent montage in the middle of the movie, the two protagonists move among scenes of the gravest suffering—even passing under the shadow of a hanged body in one scene—but they also laugh at vermin-induced dancing, and we laugh at the quirks of their shelter-mates and the ridiculous extremities of their circumstances . The montage provides a funnyhouse version of the mutually destructive complicity between labor and capital seen at the beginning of the film; while Sullivan wears a sandwich board for Mo’s tailor shop (“Don’t look like a tramp! Slightly damaged misfits.”), the girl carries a picket sign protesting Mo’s exploitation of union labor. We begin to see that poverty and comedy are not mutually exclusive. It is here that the “paradox of parody” leads Sturges’ film to become more progressive than he may have meant for it to be; whereas he may have set out to tease directors who had gotten too invested in a high-minded, activist role, he does some of their work for them by showing audiences what suffering looks like.

But despite the success of courtship at broadening the film’s perspective, Sullivan, at first, is unable to bring his relationship with The Girl to the happy ending suitable to a comedy; trapped in a tax shelter marriage, Sullivan is unable to propose to the Girl, and unable to wriggle out of the fiction he has made for himself. This frustration seems to confirm Sullivan’s intuition that an “invisible force” keeps everyone in place; rather than a “mystical” fulfillment of romance, the film seems headed towards tragic acceptance—a reaffirmation of resignation to the existing order, with all its inequities and encumbrances on freedom.

Tragedy: Victimage and Transformation

Sullivan’s hubris in trying to escape this system leads to his tragic downfall: amnesia and imprisonment. Amnesia serves as a symbolic death, wiping away Sullivan’s prior identity as a wealthy director. Sullivan’s misrecognition—indeed, his non-recognition of himself—leads to a tragic reversal. For the movie to end at that point would have seemed to validate two seemingly quite different positions: that of the socially conscious “deep dish” directors whom Sturges professedly wanted to rebuke, and that of Burroughs in his admonition to Sullivan. The tragic ending would show that the deep dish directors were right that the times demanded tragedy rather than unalloyed comedy, and that Burroughs was right to warn that poverty is “to be shunned, even for purposes of study.”


By such closure the film would complete the mortification of the commercial individualist that was, by Burke’s reckoning, the original function of tragedy. In Burke’s imagination of the passage from the primitive to the classical, tragedy displaced epic when “warlike” virtues (AH 35) became outmoded due to “the individualistic development of commerce” (AH 37). As merchants gained wealth and power not rooted in “the earlier primitive-collectivist structure” (AH 37) of tribes and communities, the peoples’ “fear of self-aggrandizement was strong” (AH 37). Tragedy gives vent to this fear by symbolically humbling and expelling the hubristic self-aggrandizer.

On the other hand, the problem with a tragic frame for the Great Depression is that tragedy is a frame of acceptance—and the Depression exposed and aggravated social injustices that were not acceptable. In the absence of a “primitive-collectivist structure,” humbling one capitalist among many—especially when the one humbled capitalist had pro-social ambitions—would do little to satisfy any “fear of self-aggrandizement.” We would simply be told that directors should stay in their place and the impoverished masses should stay in theirs—not a particularly satisfying prospect for anyone.

Accordingly, the movie continues beyond its tragic “ending” to enact a more productive aspect of Sullivan’s symbolic death, which allows Sullivan to discover a remnant of “collectivist structure.” Death in literature, as Burke argues in his discussion of Lycidas in A Rhetoric of Motives, is often a symbolic action that prepares the way for transformation (RM 3-6). Sullivan’s amnesia wipes out his old substance—his identity as wealthy director. Needing new ground on which to stand, he is enabled to identify with the poor and reach the moment of consubstantiality in the church, at the movies.  There, the film provides an epideictic answer to Burroughs in the person of an African-American preacher who welcomes the prisoners to a picture show. Whereas Burroughs argued that “poverty is to be shunned,” the preacher suggests that poverty is to be engaged; he tells his congregants that they are not to shun “those less fortunate than ourselves,” but to welcome them. The preacher also serves as an answer to the awkward minstrel-show parody of race relations in the land yacht chase scene; whereas that scene merely inverts racial roles, the preacher reconciles them; singing “Let My People Go,” he includes the white prisoners in his congregation’s aspiration to freedom. When the congregation and the prisoners, watching Pluto’s humorously entrapped antics, laugh together, Sullivan finally experiences consubstantiality with a community.

And only after discovering the value of laughter does Sullivan move toward a comedic end, reversing the transformation worked by his amnesia. In making this move, he depends on upon the fixed social boundaries that he once, as a clown, transgressed; he had told the prison trusty, much to the latter’s innocent surprise, that “they don’t send picture directors to a place like this for a little disagreement with a yard boss”—and it turns out to be true, at least, that directors don’t stay in prison. “I killed John L. Sullivan,” Sullivan proclaims loudly in the presence of the warden, thus getting his picture in the newspaper and bringing about his rescue by The Girl and the studio.  Like the imagery of killing and suicide Burke discusses in his analyses of Milton’s Lycidas and many other literary and rhetorical works, Sullivan’s “killing” of Sullivan is a transformative symbolic action (RM 3-6). It is his final clown-like act of transgression—but also an act of reaffirmation. “He’d have to be a Houdini to get out of this one,” Sullivan’s business manager had told his wife on hearing the news of his “death.” And indeed, in his clowning, the director has also become an escape artist. He escapes even his marriage: “You’re free,” the girl tells him, after giving him the news of his wife’s remarriage. “Not for long,” he replies, smiling. “Freedom” is redefined from the individualistic economic liberty of the rich to free participation in community and family. Sullivan has escaped tragedy and is about to attain the classic comedic conclusion, a wedding.

Comedy: Man in Society

“Rather than seeking death or banishment of the scapegoat, [comedy] attempts to shame or humiliate the protagonist into changing his or her actions,” as Smith and Voth paraphrase Burke. Sullivan has, indeed, been humiliated into changing his actions; he has abandoned his hubristic view of himself as an American savior. And he reaches the threshold of the traditional comic closure: marriage. Yet Sullivan’s own perspective at the end of the film is more humorous than comic; Sullivan chooses “happy stupidity” and the renunciation of any social purpose beyond the relief that laughter brings.

Comedy, as Burke understands it, is not to be confused with humor; its objective is not necessarily to produce laughter, but to promote a humane and tolerant, yet not passive, attitude of acceptance (AH 107). Indeed, contrary to Smith and Voth, comedy is not always about shame and humiliation, but it is necessarily about sharpening our awareness of our own, inevitable, human foolishness—so that self-knowledge may be tempered or mitigated, though it cannot be eliminated. The comic frame, according to Burke, entails self-observation without passiveness; the true comedian has an ironic detachment, but that detachment provides a space for reflection and judgment, not for ultimate resignation and withdrawal.

“The progress of humane enlightenment,” Burke says, “can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken” (41). If, for a moment, we view Sullivan’s newfound advocacy of the humorist’s perspective as “not vicious, but…mistaken”—if we do not sneer but smile and shake our heads at his blithe acquiescence to a situation in which laughter is “all some people have,” and at his abandonment of the ambition to expose and change the material conditions of that situation—then we see the film not as either burlesque or tragedy but as comedy. Sullivan chooses to make a humorous film; but Sturges, in large part, has made a true comedy.

Yet, it could only be comedy “in large part” because pure comedy would not ring true. “An ideal world is one in which comedy would be a perfect fit. But to say as much,” Burke laments, “is to disqualify comedy, since this is so far from being a perfect world” (72). Some recent Burkean scholars have tried to reconcile the potential of “comedy” with manifestly tragic aspects of history. Condit, Farrell and Hatch have all recognized that recognition of the tragic construction of history is ubiquitous in Burke’s thought and may be a necessary predicate to the reconciliation and healing Burke seeks; as such, they have suggested that we should think of this reconciliation and healing not as simply “comic” but as “tragicomic.” For Hatch, “tragicomic framing” is a way of confronting the need for racial reconciliation without excessive scapegoating; the tragicomic frame recognizes tragic history while projecting a comedic conclusion.  Sturges achieves a kind of tragicomic framing by incorporating the tragic realities of destitution and chain gangs in the midst of laughter. But in doing so, and in allowing his fictional director only the most tentative and questionable of triumphs, Sturges acknowledges, like Burke, that “this is far from being a perfect world.”

Discursive (Dis)integration

Sullivan’s Travels influenced the Coen Brothers’s playful version of the tragicomic corrective in O Brother Where Art Thou, the film that takes its name from the abandoned project in Sullivan’s Travels. This O Brother has been called a comic epic of the American South (Ruppersburg). It is not the “deep dish” panorama of suffering that Sullivan imagined, but it is a film that incorporates chain gangs and the Ku Klux Klan into an irreverent, non-formulaic comedy. Indeed, it represents a pastiche of every stereotype of the racist South. Like Sullivan’s Travels, then, it encourages us to laugh with our eyes open, without obscuring the reality of injustice and of suffering. As another encomium to clowns, and an homage to Sullivan’s Travels itself, O Brother Where Art Thou, with the new televisual satires, testifies to the continuing relevance of Sturges’ film as well as the growing relevance of satire, humor and comedy to serious discourse. This rhetoric seeks to induce in the audience the clown’s outsider perspective, free of the blindspots of insiders well-socialized in a discourse.

O Brother Where Art Thou, like Sullivan’s Travels, can be accused of “crimes of juxtaposition.” So can, for example, Jon Stewart, who was told “I thought you were going to be funny” when he reproached the Crossfire hosts for insufficient seriousness in their debates on public affairs. But as these “crimes” have become more ubiquitous, they have come to seem less criminal. While Baym’s concept of “discursive integration” is useful in conveying the convergence of discourses that formerly seemed mutually exclusive, we might equally well speak of discursive disintegration, as the boundaries and definitions of particular frames or genres no longer seem very clear. “Disintegration,” in this sense, need not be a pejorative term; if occupational psychoses are being disintegrated, ground may be prepared for consubstantiation and a more inclusive conversation.

At the same time, Sullivan’s Travels, together with Burke, cautions us not to be too sanguine about the prospect of salvation though comic framing or through perspective by incongruity. To expose the dysfunctionality of dysfunctional perspectives is not to produce a functional perspective. The film’s ungainly conclusion—suspended between the Hollywood happy ending and tragic loss—reminds us that there is no simple solution to the problem of making art in a troubled world. Humorous news and serious satire provide an abundance of counterstatement, but they do not provide the abiding and definitive statement which we continue to crave. Art, and mass media, will be troubled and troublesome. 

*Brian O'Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland.  He can be reached via email at bposullivan@smcm.edu.

In this way it is quite like much of the satire in the contemporary “televisual sphere”. The Daily Show, as Morreales points out, insistently critiques the very blending of entertainment and new that it exemplifies.

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“Crimes of Juxtaposition”: Incongruous Frames in Sullivan’s Travels by Brian O’Sullivan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.