Most Arrow Academy booklets feature a 'Contemporary Reviews' section, which offers what is often a fascinatingly unexpected overview of the kind of critical reception that the film got on its original release. In some cases (Ashes and Diamonds, for instance), the film was widely regarded as a classic from the start, but many other films now recognised as such attracted a far more mixed response at first.
Notoriously, in the case of The Night of the Hunter virtually everyone hated it - even the vaguely positive reviews suggested that actor-turned-director Charles Laughton shouldn't give up his day job (tragically for film history, he took their advice), whereas The Long Goodbye triggered a famously polarised reaction, broadly split between Robert Altman fans who loved his imaginative update of Raymond Chandler to the early 1970s, and Chandler/film noir purists who felt very differently.
Given that Sullivan's Travels was one of the first American feature films to be selected by the US Library of Congress for preservation by its National Film Registry (a collection of films deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant), you'd have thought that its stature as a major masterpiece was rock-solid. Which has been true for most of its life, but in January 1942 it debuted to a reception that was far from unanimous.
To put this in context, only a few months earlier Preston Sturges had released the masterly The Lady Eve, one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, and a huge critical and commercial hit. Unsurprisingly, his fans expected more of the same, and so when Sullivan's Travels turned out to be a mixture of comedy and a startlingly serious, almost Dickensian probe into America's impoverished underbelly (in other words, precisely the qualities that make the film so fascinating to us today), many people simply didn't know what to make of it - as you can see from the attached excerpts from the new Blu-ray booklet. (Click the image to see full size.)
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