In a decade full of smart, independent heroines, Preston Sturges created some of the most indelible female protagonists to grace the screen. His leading ladies crackled with intelligence, possessed rapier wits, and had the kind of resourcefulness to find benefit in some rather difficult accidents. That Sturges worked with some of the most recognizable and enduring talent of his era â€“ among them Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, and Betty Hutton â€“ helped take his work from merely memorable and clever to unforgettable.
The female protagonist in Sullivanâ€™s Travels â€“ an aspiring starlet identified only as â€œThe Girlâ€ â€“ represents a departure for Sturgesâ€™ heroines. Like many of those before her (and those to come), The Girl had an uncanny ability to think on her feet and say the right thing at exactly the right time. Unlike her predecessors, however, The Girl comes off as a much more likable character. She willingly helps the filmâ€™s protagonist, film executive-cum-hobo John Sullivan (and not merely for her own benefit) and isnâ€™t afraid to tell him where to get off when she feels sheâ€™s been had. Iconic 1940s actress Veronica Lake imbues the character with personable qualities and a greater sense of vulnerability. This is one of the few Sturges characters that â€“ if she existed in real life â€“ you might want to meet, and might not suspect of stealing your wallet or making you out to be a fool.
At the time of Sullivanâ€™s production, Lake was a rising star. After a string of cameo appearances in college-girl comedies with titles like Dancing Co-Ed and Sorority House, Lake met with great acclaim in I Wanted Wings, in which she played a sultry gold-digger. Though she stole â€œscene after sceneâ€ (if her entry on Wikipedia can be believed) from her more established costars, Paramount executives were still unsure of her ability to carry a film and tried to dissuade Sturges from casting her in his film. Sturges prevailed, casting her in the pivotal role over such established talents as Ida Lupino and Lucille Ball.
The Girl first appears towards the end of the first act. In order to research a film adaptation of the book O Brother, Where Art Thou?, film producer John Sullivan has donned rags and left his palatial existence to live as a hobo for a month. After a difficult first day of research, Sullivan stops into a dining cart. The Girl offers to pay for his meal, and the pair discusses their lines of work (or alleged work, in Sullivanâ€™s case). She tells him about the hard time sheâ€™s had getting work, and the humiliation she suffered close to the casting couch. Her initial plans involve going back to her Midwestern home â€œon the thumb,â€ but Sullivan persuades her to join him on his tour of duty. A series of mishaps eventually leads Sullivan back to his manse in the Hollywood Hills, where The Girl angrily throws him in the pool for misleading her. Figuring she has nothing to lose, she still opts to help him in his quest. If the ending is any indication, her assistance eventually allows her the meeting with Lubitsch she dreamed of in her first scene.
The script portrays Sullivanâ€™s relationship with The Girl as amorous, but the chemistry between Lake and her costar, Joel McCrea, suggest a more sibling-like camaraderie. This may not have been an accident. Lake became known on the Paramount lot for her erratic behavior (which many have speculated was the result of an as undiagnosed mental illness), and McCrea turned down the opportunity to play the male lead in I Married a Witch, which was conceived of as a star vehicle for Lake. She didnâ€™t limit her shenanigans to her leading man, either; midway through production, she announced that she was in the final months of pregnancy, and costume designer Edith Head was called upon to further mask her condition.
Sullivanâ€™s Travels did moderate business for Sturges, but failed to connect with critics or audiences the way The Lady Eve or The Great Mc- Ginty did. Lakeâ€™s profile continued to rise, and she appeared in a wide variety of films in the years to come, most notably in a series of film noirs with the similarly diminutive Alan Ladd. Though her â€œpeek-a-boo bangâ€ coif connected with female filmgoers, Lake eventually had to cut her hair to prevent female factory employees from donning such a dangerous look.
Many trace the decline of her career back to this incident. However, Lakeâ€™s temperamental attitude and unprofessional demeanor had become legend on the back lot. Fellow Sturges alum Eddie Bracken, who worked with Lake on Star-Spangled Rhythm, said of her, â€œShe was known as â€˜The Bitchâ€™ and she deserved the title.â€ Following a string of poorly received films, Paramount allowed her contract to lapse in 1948. She never regained her early cinematic prominence, appearing as a movie hostess in Baltimore in the 1950s and starring in a few low-budget horror flicks prior to her death in the mid-1970s.
Many present-day filmmakers hold Lake in high esteem, and have paid tribute to her in their own work. Kim Basinger received an Oscar for her portrayal of a prostitute dressed to look like Lake in 1998â€™s LA Confidential, and Lake herself makes an appearance in a clip from her noir This Gun for Hire. Peter Jackson and Kate Winslet have twice tipped their hats to Lake, once in a scene in Heavenly Creatures and again in a film-within-a-film in The Frighteners.