The Palm Beach Story (1942)

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Director: Preston Sturges

Producer: Paul Jones (Paramount)

Writer: Preston Sturges (screenplay)

Photography: Victor Milner

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, Sig Arno, Robert Warwick, Arthur Stuart Hill, Torben Meyer, Jimmy Conlin, Victor Potel, William Demarest, Jack Norton, Robert Greig, Roscoe Ates, Dewey Robinson

If Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is Preston Sturges’ most personal work, and The Lady Eve (1941) his most character-driven, The Palm Beach Story may be his funniest. While Sullivan’s Travels makes the AFI’s Top 100 list, TV Guide ranks The Palm Beach Story in its Top 50 Movies of All Time, a list where Travels is nowhere to be seen. It also beats out Travels for a spot on the National Society of Film Critics’ Top 100 and The Village Voice Top 100 (#59), well ahead of such classics as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Umbero D (1952) and Battelship Potemkin (1925).

Named after the mischievous cat and mouse cartoon Tom & Jerry, Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) are a loving New York couple barely making each month’s rent. Tom is an architect with a ludicrous idea for an airport suspended above the city, but he can’t find any takers. So it’s Gerry who decides that she will divorce Tom and take off for Palm Beach, in order to land a wealthy new husband and send the money back to Tom to finance his projects.

Tom tries to stop her from leaving, but she manages to board a train headed for the south. In the chaos of the Ale and Quail Club onboard, Gerry literally steps on her new beau, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), one of the richest men in the world. He immediately provides her with the best food, the priciest clothes and the finest jewelry. She’s all but ready to marry him when Tom, too, arrives in Palm Beach, causing Gerry to pass him off as her brother, Captain McGlew.

Enter Hackensacker’s man-eating sister, The Princess Centimilla (Mary Astor), who instantly takes a liking to Tom, creating a four-way mess as Hackensacker considers paying the $99,000 for Tom’s zany airport idea if it means winning over Gerry. Then, to top it all off, a surprise twist that makes you instantly want to go back and watch it all over again.

To pull off a plot of such questionable methods and mistaken identities, Sturges would need to cast the film perfectly. Luckily for us, he did. Joel McCrea returns from Sullivan’s Travels to give yet another noble, shyly handsome portrayal as the husband strung along on this crazy scheme. Meanwhile, Claudette Colbert once again shows her comedic side — even if we physically see only one side of her. She insisted on almost always being shot from the left side of her face. No matter, she is comic gold here, just like when she won Oscar gold lifting her skirt up for a hitchhike in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).

As for the film’s other Capra alum, Mary Astor (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), her role as a husband-chaser isn’t far from the truth. Astor went through four husbands in real life, once widowed and three times divorced, all the while having affairs with actor John Barrymore and playwright George Kaufman.

Rounding out the supporting cast is Rudy Vallee, the most adorable performance in the entire film and the greatest role of his career. A real recording artist, Valle’s songs have appeared on such soundtracks as Bonnie and Clyde and Miller’s Crossing, and his chance to sing in The Palm Beach Story garners untold amounts of sympathy with viewers. In fact, it was a film musical that first caught the attention of Sturges, who noticed audiences laughed every time Valle spoke, and thus wrote the part specifically for him, claiming Valle was funny and he didn’t even know it. (C)

What a character Sturges wrote for him! This John D. Hackensacker, an allusion to John D. Rockefeller, is so memorable because (a) we feel bad for his innocence, and (b) we revel in the little nuances given to his character. Hackensacker constantly removes his frameless glasses and records every single expenditure in his little book, even though he never tallies the total. This is the stuff of great characters, and The Palm Beach Story is filled with them. There’s the Wienie King (Robert Dudley), whose hearing loss makes for comic misinterpretation. There’s the Ale and Quail Club, whose members become so beligerent that they begin skeet-shooting on the train. And best of all, there’s Centimilla’s relentless beau Toto (Sig Arno), whose knowledge of the English language is hilariously limited.

If the detailed characters spruce up the script, the dialogue keeps perfect time. A sampling: “You’re one of the richest men in the world! I would step on your face.” “Chivalry is not only dead, it’s decomposed.” “That’s one of the tragedies in this life. That the men who are in most need of a beating up are always enormous.” “Don’t you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them. Haven’t you ever heard of a campaign promise?” And finally, “After you’re married. That’s a funny thing to hear your wife say.”

Many times, Sturges layers the dialogue with a sexual or ironic subtext. For the sexual innuendo, we get Gerry sitting on Tom’s lap, her toes curling up as she kisses him, him describing “the look,” and her explaining the need to hide in the bath tub to escape the Wienie King. We also get such quotes as: “Sex always had something to do with it,” “You never think of anything but Topic A” and “You have no idea what a long-legged gal could get you without doing anything,” a clear reference to Colbert’s famous skirt lift in It Happened One Night (1934).

As for the irony, we get characters speaking about people who don’t really exist and, most ironic, the fact that Hackensacker’s serenade, “Goodnight Sweetheart,” is sung with complete orchestra beneath Gerry’s balcony, having the opposite effect of what he intends.

But the most genius touch of the script — the twist — may turn viewers off at first. Initially, it feels like “Deus Ex Machina,” the idea that something random swoops in at the end to save the day. But upon second viewing, you’ll see the twist is actually given away during the opening credits (with the fainting maid), only viewers don’t get it until after they know the twist. (A) In essence, the ending mirrors the beginning, with a pair of wedding sequences.

It’s during these bookend weddings that Sturges experiments with many directorial techniques. In the opening we get freeze frames, sped up film, and an overall homage to silent film. In the ending, we get multiple exposures overlapping for the illusion of one solid image. More importantly, in both sequences, we get a “multiplane” feel, as the camera pulls back through several “windows” of text cards, the first saying, “And they lived happily ever after,” the second saying, “Or do they?” The parallelism of the two is perfect.

Sturges is mocking his very own genre, the romantic comedy, which often concludes with a wedding of resolution (i.e. The Philadelphia Story). Here, Sturges begins his film where most end, bucking the convention of American moviemaking as he did in Sullivan’s Travels when he began with the title card “The End.” In The Palm Beach Story, we are presented with an almost cyclical narrative, as Tom and Gerry go from one neatly-wrapped up wedding resolution to the other, where the ending could just as easily be the beginning of another movie.

Sturges was so ahead of his time in terms of narrative thinking. He was avant-garde before it was really theorized, and post-modern before there was even modern. And though his career was short by “great filmmaker” standards, he sure shined bright while he was here, giving us numerous classics all in a row: The Great McGinty (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Can you name someone with more genius packed into such a short span than Sturges from 1940-1944?

Citations:

CITE A: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

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