Joel McCrea did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying John L. Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels.
Joel McCrea plays the film director who we first meet after a screening of his latest film to the studio executives where he espouses about the allegorical ideas which leaves the execs not too impressed. McCrea is enjoyable as he presents Sullivan as a single minded director who carries himself with far too much pretension. He walks with the cocky stride of the great artist as he seems to have this certain tension about himself. Not the tension of a real problem, but the frustration of not being able to realize his true potential as a "genius" filmmaker. McCrea's someone with a great natural low key charm to begin with making himself quite likable just from the get go. This particularly important early on the film as he does portray Sullivan as an especially bullheaded figure who simply can't be happy with his great success, and insists upon living life in poverty a bit to make his assumed masterpiece Oh Brother Where Art Thou.
McCrea is good because although he does play Sullivan as a bit self-absorbed he does not show him to be at all pompous in this regard, and played differently Sullivan easily could have been off-putting. McCrea not only avoids this he also ends up making him quite endearing as well. McCrea carries himself with an earnestness as he speaks about making the film that handles the real issues for the poor people to connect, unlike the useless comedies he makes, or so he believes. McCrea treads the line wonderfully well as he manages to be quite funny by creating the absorption of his own ideas but within this McCrea though does convey that Sullivan is genuine in his desire to help even if he already is a bit too detached from reality. McCrea though does well to portray it as far more of naivety than anything else as he positions himself as a true noble who intends to speak for the downtrodden. McCrea is interesting in that he kinda reflects the purpose of the film itself with his performance as he has fun with the central idea, but does not completely disregard it either.
Sullivan's Travels is the first film where Joel McCrea and writer/director Preston Sturges collaborated together. Where he was mostly confined to an extreme dead pan who simply wasn't having the screwball in the comedy in their later film, The Palm Beach Story, here McCrea is given a bit more room to explore his character. Interestingly McCrea somewhat fits that role ever so slightly here. It's funny because Struges's particular sort of snappy dialogue is used mostly around McCrea. It isn't even that McCrea does not have a lot lines, he technically does, but often he is used as the one to react to the absurdity of those around him which seems kinda odd since Sullivan is already a bit absurd himself. It works though as McCrea has great comic timing in his moments of disbelief at the foolishness presented by his escort that the studios has follow Sullivan in travels. McCrea technically even is somehow reactionary at his own foolishness as seen in his exasperated reaction to finding out that after all of his initial traveling he immediately finds himself back in Hollywood where he started.
By chance Sullivan eventually finds a traveling companion in the form of a wannabe actress who has just given up simply known as the girl (Veronica Lake). McCrea and Lake make for a particularly charming duo in the film. They are very good together in that they don't necessarily fit the role of the romantic comedy couple. Their bickering is only quite brief, and fairly good humored merely being over his initial deception as he pretends to be a tramp at first. This does not last long and really past that their time together does not consist of a great number of overtly romantic moments. They are great together though by just having such a natural ease between the two. Together they show the two of them go on their adventure into dregs and the two of them are just fun to see interact. Their chemistry really is fantastic since they carry such an innate sweetness between the two and really it's just splendid to spend time with the two of them.
Sullivan's Travels although a screwball comedy to be sure, and a funny one at that, it actually has a fairly strong dramatic element to it. The film does bother to show the poverty that Sullivan seeks to examine although it keeps it a fairly quiet element in the first two third of the film. McCrea is very good in the understated way though he subtly shows Sullivan lose his self-indulgent thinking a bit as he looks at people in the life, although he end up truly receiving an education after a series of unfortunate events gets him into a hard labor prison camp. The film kinda suddenly becomes a bit like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang as Sullivan has to suffer some serious hardship although the film somehow manages to become tonally problematic. A pivotal part of this balancing factor is McCrea's performance. McCrea somehow manages to actually reflect the the effect of the brutal treatment from the prison's warden in proper detail yet this never seems to heavy. Part of it is McCrea gradually earned this transition, but he as well does still keep an underlying comic lightness that keeps things from becoming to heavy for the film. This all factors in for a great scene where Sullivan sees just what a comedy can do for something. His realization, as he sees the happiness the downtrodden people get from a simple funny cartoon, is pitch perfect as McCrea brilliantly renders the final transition as Sullivan finally understands it. McCrea gives very strong work here, giving what one expects from the lead of a screwball comedy, but also just a little bit more that leads the film through its more dramatic intent incredibly well.