O Brother - Where's Sturges?

Renowned for his comedies, the director John L Sullivan, titular hero of Preston Sturges' 1941 classic "Sullivan's Travels", hankered to make a serious film called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?". To the horror of his studio he insisted on embarking, without money, on a pilgrimage to discover the America of breadlines and doss-houses. By misadventure he became a lost man, railroaded into a long sentence on a southern prison farm where naturally nobody believed that he was a Hollywood director. He learned the hard way that comedy has more universality of appeal than high-minded social drama.

The Coen Brothers, as quirky as ever, and steeped in knowledge and appreciation of Hollywood's golden age, have made "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", and yes, it is set in the Depression-era American heartland, and peopled by victims of bank foreclosures, failed crops, and poverty.

Certainly Sturges is honoured. There's a scene in which convicts enjoy a picture show under the eyes of armed guards, for instance. The Coens claim their yarn is really based on Homer's "Odyssey" and the main character, played by George Clooney, has Ulysses in his name, while his estranged wife is Penny (Holly Hunter), short for Penelope, and various others have Homeric associations, including the one-eyed John Goodman, a Cyclopian villain.

Of course, the Coens are having fun. Their knowledge of the Greek myth appears to be largely confined to the Kirk Douglas movie "Ulysses" (1954), but "O Brother Where Art Thou?" has many resonances of Depression-era cinema, notably "The Grapes of Wrath", "Bonnie and Clyde", and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang". But the scene in which the prison escapees gatecrash a Ku Klux Klan ritual in the woods, choreographed Busby-Berkeley-style and donning KKK robes as disguise, owes more to a jungle "Road" comedy with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

Sturges would have approved.