Monday, February 4, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

Screwball comedy director Preston Sturges offers a frothy concoction in The Palm Beach Story (1942). It's a light, short film, daring for its day in its treatment of the idea that an attractive woman might willingly use her sex appeal to advance her husband's career. The dialogue is witty, and the characters are certainly charming, but those who are bothered by loose ends will have fits over the way in which the movie leaves much unsaid and even more unexplained in its opening and closing scenes.

Our story involves a young married couple, Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert), whose marriage isn't going so well because Tom has yet to get his big break and Gerry is tired of being poor. Gerry decides to help Tom out by divorcing him so that she can romance rich lovers and bankroll Tom's idea for a revolutionary airport design. Despite Tom's confusion over how exactly this is supposed to be a swell plan, Gerry takes off for Palm Beach to get a divorce, proving along the way that she can in fact charm men into giving her just about anything she wants. Her most devoted victim is an alarmingly wealthy bachelor named John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), who falls hard for Gerry in short order. Tom pursues his wife to Florida, where Hackensacker's sister (Mary Astor) promptly conceives a passion for him, and the four besotted characters run around making fools of themselves until everything eventually gets sorted out, thanks to a deus ex machina so wild and so unaccounted for that it will either make you roar with laughter or tear your hair out in frustration.

The cast assembled for this trip to the loony bin is first rate. Colbert is lovely enough to sell the idea that men might fall all over themselves for her benefit, and Joel McCrea excels at comic reaction shots where he gapes open-mouthed in disbelief at the extent of his wife's zany endeavors. Rudy Vallee gets high marks for his amiable blueblood, and Mary Astor is a scream as the loopy sister. Even the secondary players bring plenty of laughs; Robert Dudley gets the movie off to a hilarious start as the generous Wienie King, whose inspection of the couple's apartment sets the plot in motion. Later, we get a whole club car of humorous characters with the Ale and Quail Club, who gallantly give Gerry a ticket so that she can board the train to Palm Beach. William Demarest, Victor Potel, Robert Warwick, Chester Conklin, Arthur Stuart Hull, Sheldon Jett, Dewey Robinson, Jimmy Conlin, Jack Norton, Torben Meyer, Robert Greig, and Roscoe Ates pack the train scenes with their drunken conviviality. A lot of these old character actors were regulars in Preston Sturges' pictures, and the director clearly takes great delight in their antics, literally setting them loose on the unsuspecting passengers and train crew until they eventually end up being set loose in a different way by the conductors.

It is difficult to say much about the beginning and ending of the movie without spoiling it, but it doesn't take two minutes to figure out that The Palm Beach Story opens with a scene from a completely different tale, one that won't be addressed in the scenes that follow. Who is the woman tied up in the closet? Why are both the bride and groom late for the wedding? What the heck is going on? I don't think Sturges means to torture his audience with these mystifying bookends to the main plot; I think that the title's wording is supposed to suggest that this is merely yet another story in the lives of these wild characters, and the beginning and ending show that the Palm Beach adventure is neither the first nor the last time that Tom and Gerry will find themselves doing crazy things. Like the television series Friends, where every episode is titled, "The One...," The Palm Beach Story is one story among many stories for our protagonists, with the only problem being that the other stories never actually get told. Personally, I would have liked to see the story that led up to the film's opening scenes; the comedic possibilities suggested there are marvelous.

If you enjoy The Palm Beach Story, you should certainly try out other Preston Sturges films, especially The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). For more comedy with Claudette Colbert, try It Happened One Night (1934), Midnight (1939),  and The Egg and I (1947). See Joel McCrea in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The More the Merrier (1943), and Ride the High Country (1962). Mary Astor is best remembered today as the femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but you'll also find her in The Great Lie (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). See more of Rudy Vallee in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Sturges' darker comedy, Unfaithfully Yours (1948).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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