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Kansas City’s role in classic movies, part 6: ‘Sullivan’s Travels’

Kansas City plays a prominent role in one of Hollywood’s greatest movies, Preston Sturges’ 1941 comic masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels.

Produced at the height of the Great Depression, Sullivan’s Travels follows John L. Sullivan, himself a Hollywood movie director of comedies, as he tries to find meaning through making a socially relevant dramatic film, called O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sullivan convinces his studio to allow him to research O Brother by traveling cross-country disguised as a hobo. Things don’t go well for Sullivan—he has difficulties living the tramp life, even with a crew of helpers following him in a “land yacht.” He finally eschews the crew, and strikes out on his own, but hits rock bottom in the Kansas City freight yards, then known as a hobo jungle.

In Kansas City, Sullivan declares his mission complete, but his traveling companion, played by the sultry (and still sexy by today’s standards) Veronica Lake, is saddened at the thought of losing him to Hollywood. That night, Sullivan wanders the streets of Kansas City handing out $5,000 in five-dollar bills to the needy.

A hobo wearing Sullivan’s stolen shoes, which contained his only identification, follows Sullivan and robs him, and after knocking him unconscious, drags his body onto a freight car. The hobo dies shortly thereafter when he is hit by a train.

Sullivan awakens the next day at an unknown train station of another city. Still groggy from the blow to his head, Sullivan lies face down on the floor of a moving freight car that is entering a rail yard. Bewildered, he staggers to his feet but falls down. When the train stops, he lowers himself down to the ground. A mean-looking yard bull with a thick club confronts Sullivan, insults him, pushes him along, and then slaps him on the back of the head.

Furious, Sullivan clenches his right fist around a rock and punches the yard man in the face. Realizing what he has done, Sullivan looks down at his fist which is now dripping with blood. Still in a confused state of mind, Sullivan is tried for the death of the railway bull, for which he is sentenced to six years in a chain-gang labor camp.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas City, Sullivan’s “people,” particularly the Veronica Lake character, are worried about Sullivan’s whereabouts: “I should have gone with him. I knew he’d get into trouble without me...”

Sullivan’s chauffeur from the “land-yacht” calls from the morgue, presuming that the unidentifiable old bum mangled and killed by the oncoming train is the missing Sullivan. In between the soles of the bum’s shoes (stolen from Sullivan), the director’s identification card is found. The next day’s Kansas City Tribune headlines erroneously report Sullivan’s death:

“STRANGE DEATH OF HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR—John L. Sullivan Found Dead in Freight Yards—Under circumstances cloaked in mystery, the remains of John L. Sullivan, ace director, were found today on the right-of-way of the local freight yard.”

Sullivan eventually regains his memory, but not before learning the importance of laughter in the otherwise dreary lives of his fellow prisoners when they are allowed to attend a showing of Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto cartoon. Sullivan comes to realize that comedy can do more good for the poor than O Brother, Where Art Thou?