Veronica Lake was an oddity. She didn't look like other actresses of the era, even the other blondes. Her long hair, usually covering one eye, and a squint of cynicism that emanated from the uncovered eye gave her a look and feel that places her squarely in the modern era. Veronica Lake could star in a movie today and not seem the least bit out of place. She became a hit playing the femme lead in flicks like This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, both 1942. But it was the year before, 1941, that she gave the performance that used all of gifts perfectly: Sullivan's Travels.
Her cynicism was used in noir, her gift for displaying vulnerability used in comedies like I Married a Witch but in Sullivan's Travels Preston Sturges allowed her to combine all of her talents into the role of "the girl." That's right, the girl. Her character is never given a name and it's not until the movie's over that one realizes it, if then. And it doesn't matter. She doesn't need a name. The only name that would have seemed appropriate was Veronica Lake, so that's how I'll describe her here.
When Sullivan (Joel McCrea) first meets Veronica she's standing in a diner dressed to the nines. She would appear to be Hollywood royalty but she's not. She buys the penniless Sullivan some eggs for breakfast and breaks into a dialogue with him that so drips with sarcasm and cynicism you might have to remind yourself that the movie was made in 1941. McCrea is solid as always, an actor never given to overplaying his parts, but it's Veronica that makes the scene, blazing through her lines with a world weary irony that leaves the viewer alternately in stitches and in awe. Her delivery throughout the scene is pitch-perfect. And the lines provided by Sturges, brilliant in their own right, could have easily been played as punchlines. Take this one, for instance, after Sullivan comments that he'd like to give her the things she needs prompting her to laugh before saying:
Veronica: "You know the nice about buying food for a man, is that you don't have to laugh at his jokes."
It could have been played to the hilt with a pause between the first phrase, then the second phrase delivered for the kill. But not Veronica. It's spoken deadpan and uninterrupted. But what's more amazing is she speaks it after laughing at a remark he made. Now that's a choice. She's making a statement about how men expect certain behavior from a woman and how women are expected to oblige but by turning it around she's also saying, "I can laugh at you now because I'm in control."
She elaborates further:
"Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something I'd be staring into your bridgework saying, 'Yes Mr. Smearkase, No Mr. Smearkase, Not Really Mr. Smearkase! Oh Mr. Smearkase, that's my knee!"
With each "Mr. Smearkase" the feigned interest in her inflection is different until she arrives at the knee line almost as a throwaway before saying to the cook at the diner, "Give Mr. Smearkase another cup of coffee."
As she relates to Sullivan that she's had it with Hollywood and will soon be thumbing her way home, Sullivan acts the proper man and says, "I don't like to think of you asking a bunch of thugs for lifts along the highway." Her deadpan reply, "Then don't think about it."
She reveals very little to Sullivan in this scene but her weariness and cynicism implies everything. When Sullivan (undercover as a hobo) hints that he might know some people in the biz who could help her she doesn't care anymore. She just wants to go back home and forget it all ever happened.
When Sullivan borrows his own car to drive her instead he tries to lecture her on the educational power of film.
Sullivan, "You take a picture like Hold Back Tomorrow..."
Veronica, "You hold it. Did you ever meet Lubitsch?"
She doesn't care to hear him listen to himself talk and makes it clear in line after line, delivered so deadpan and straightforward that she, and McCrea, achieve the ultimate goal of all actors: You'd think they were just making it up as they went, off the cuff and improvised.
Later in the film, after she has learned who Sullivan really is, a big time movie director, she refuses to stay in his cushy mansion while he mingles among the hobos as research for his next movie. She tells him she liked him better when she thought he was a tramp. She liked that she'd "found a friend who'd swipe a car to take me home." She doesn't want to stay in his mansion she wants go with him, to protect him and because she understands survival much better than he does.
In their scenes on the train together, sleeping in hay, she is much more playful and happy, unrestrained from trying to make it big in Hollywood or just trying to make an impression. Veronica seems endlessly amused at Sullivan's seriousness about understanding struggle. It's never said but in Veronica's eyes we can sense that her amusement comes from knowing that struggling and hardship finds you, not the other way around.
Sturges shows most of the hobo scenes silently, accompanied by music. In these scenes it's all about looks and Veronica provides perfect pantomimes of sadness across her face. Or of simple annoyance. Or laughter. And in a scene in a crowded hall, one homeless person after another lining the floor, Veronica snuggles in close to Sullivan, and seems for the first time to be vulnerable and in need.
Upon returning to the luxury of his mansion she hints at staying with him but he reveals that he's married. She's disappointed. She doesn't want his help in Hollywood, she wants to be with him and if he's married she may as well go back home. In this last important scene for Veronica she shows again her ability to show a sadness and weariness that has been missing since they went tramping. In misery she's happy, in luxury she's miserable. Eventually, of course they do wind up together but the thrust of her character development ends here.
Veronica Lake was diminutive but not fragile. At 4' 11" she was an unlikely leading lady but her personality was strong and engaging. After a string of hits in the early to mid forties she was placed in one dismal film after another. By 1952 her career was over. She filed for bankruptcy, had all of her assets seized by the government to cover unpaid taxes and found herself arrested more than once for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. By the late fifties and early sixties she was working as a barmaid in diners in New York and then Baltimore. She occasionally got written up when discovered in one of those jobs and would manage to wrangle some T.V. work out of it. In Baltimore she hosted a local program and got a part in a low budget independent film, Footsteps in the Snow in 1966. She died on July 7, 1973 from hepatitis and kidney failure, the latter brought on by her alcoholism. The Internet Movie Database says she was born in 1919 but King's County records in New York show her birthdate as November of 1922, making her a mere 50 years old at the time of her death.
All of this could be the life story of the girl in Sullivan's Travels. She's down and out and troubled when Sullivan meets her. Then she ends up in the movies. One can easily imagine her character following the same path as Veronica. But Veronica Lake never felt sorry for herself. She once said, "I was always a rebel and probably could have got much farther had I changed my attitude. But when you think about it, I got pretty far without changing attitudes. I'm happier with that." And she was self-deprecating and cynical to the end saying about herself, "You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision." It's a wonderful way to put yourself down so you don't have to listen to anyone else do it for you. But it wasn't true. Veronica Lake made each movie she was in special because of her hypnotic presence alone. She may not be as known today as other big stars from the forties (which is startling considering her amazing modernity) but she wasn't a no-talent nobody. And if you did put all of her talent into your left eye, you'd be blind in a New York minute.