Poor Joel McCrea. A solid, dependable actor who never relied on affect and was so seamlessly good that you never caught him "acting." He's the kind of actor who was taken for granted for decades, until finally towards the end of his life he started getting awards in honor of his career achievements, though the AMPAS still missed out on him. In 1941 he played perhaps his best part as movie director John Sullivan in a film which is itself one of the great comedies ever made and also went unrecognized by awarding bodies at the time.
What McCrea does in Sullivan's Travels is deceptively simple. John Sullivan is essentially a nice guy who tries to do good, playing out a riches to rags to riches story - nothing to that, right? On closer analysis, however, the role is actually pretty tricky. Sullivan is a golden boy, a director whose films are hits with seemingly little effort. He produces frivolous little entertainments, but what he wants to do is make a film about the human condition, about suffering and poverty - things about which he knows nothing. He'll learn about those things by dressing like a drifter and walking the mean streets, learning first hand what life is like for people at the bottom of the social pyramid. The idea of a person of privilege telling the world what life is like for the common people rings faintly of pretension, as Sullivan's butler points out, saying, "I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy... The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." Sullivan has a romantic idea of noble poverty, but McCrea doesn't allow him to seem like a fool or even a profiteer. His interest in the poor is genuine, even if his methods are somewhat suspect.
The film underscores how ludicrous Sullivan's mission is - his ratty clothes come straight out of the studio's costume department and a crew in a motorhome follows him on his journey of discovery - but McCrea's easy charm and sincerity keeps Sullivan from being the butt of the joke. Sullivan is the story's straight man and McCrea graciously allows everyone around him - the movie executives, his servants (Eric Blore and Robert Greig in top form), and Veronica Lake as his love interest - to get most of the best lines, which he dutifully sets them up for. McCrea underplays, mildly bemused through most of the film, letting us know that he recognizes the joke just as well as the rest of us do. His everyman quality comes in handy here, allowing us to easily identify with him.
Eventually circumstances give Sullivan the opportunity to experience real hardship - though by this time he has amnesia and can't appreciate the experience he's gaining for the sake of his art. McCrea moves easily from comedy into drama without allowing Sullivan to become too heavy and then shifts the character back into comedy without ever missing a beat. The lesson he learns - the "there's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have?" - is hard earned and deeply felt on his part. His films may be frivolous but they're also important, serving to bring some happiness into lives that might otherwise be devoid of it. The realization couldn't happen to a nicer guy, but as they say nice guys finish last. An adage that Joel McCrea proves all too well.