In Preston Sturges' classic comedy of Depression-era America, filmmaker John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), fed up with directing profitable comedies like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, is consumed with the desire to make a serious social statement in his upcoming film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Unable to function in the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood, Sullivan decides to hit the road, disguised as a tramp, and touch base with the real people of America. But Sullivan's studio transforms his odyssey into a publicity stunt, providing the would-be nomad with a luxury van, complete with butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore).
Advised by his servants that the poor resent having the rich intrude upon them, Sullivan escapes his retinue and continues his travels incognito. En route, he meets a down-and-out failed actress (Veronica Lake). Experiencing firsthand the scroungy existence of real-life hoboes, Sullivan returns to Hollywood full of bleeding-heart fervor.
After first arranging for the girl's screen test, he heads for the railyards, intending to improve the lot of the local rail-riders and bindlestiffs by handing out ten thousand dollars in five-dollar bills. Instead, Sullivan is coldcocked by a tramp, who steals Sullivan's clothes and identification.
When the tramp is run over by a speeding train, the world at large is convinced that the great John L. Sullivan is dead. Meanwhile, the dazed Sullivan, dressed like a bum with no identification on his person, is arrested and put to work on a brutal Southern chain gang.
With its almost Shakespearean combination of uproarious comedy and grim tragedy, Sullivan's Travels is Sturges' masterpiece and one of the finest movies about movies ever made.