They say “if at first you don’t succeed…get a divorce and everything will work itself out.” Okay, that’s not totally the adage as we know it, but that’s the plan for Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) in Preston Sturges’ delightful tale of love, matrimony, and alimony, The Palm Beach Story. Recently released and lovingly restored to DVD and Blu from Criterion, The Palm Beach Story ups the romance, the laughs, and the sensuality!
Gerry and Tom Jeffers (Colbert and Joel McCrea) are a struggling married couple. When Gerry gets an influx of money from a kind fairy godfather of sorts, she decides to use it to get a divorce. Now, it’s not because Gerry doesn’t love Tom. No, it’s to help him! See, if she can snag a wealthy husband, she can siphon money to fund Tom and his dream of creating an airport in the sky. Gerry leaves, despite Tom’s protestations, and ends up in Palm Beach where she catches the eye of oil king, J.D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee).
The Palm Beach Story is about pie in the sky dreams. I mean, just look at the nature of the plot or Tom’s dream of an airport that hangs in the air with wire for proof of the absurdity of the characters’ dreams. And yet, it is Sturges’ dreams that leads to such hilarity, and it’s his characters who believe so heartily in their aspirations which keeps us engaged and rooting for their success. (Other examples include McCrea’s John Sullivan and his attempts to film O Brother, Where Art Thou in Sullivan’s Travels; or the weird romance of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). Gerry’s plot, while insane, has some logic in furthering how much she loves Tom. She wouldn’t even try funding his dream by divorcing him and remarrying a wealthy man if she didn’t love him, right?
Sturges was about creating a tangled web of inanity, love quadrangles and the like, and keeping the audience wondering how it all would work out by the end. The opening scene is famous, introducing Gerry and Tom on their wedding day…with Claudette Colbert locked in a closet one minute, and rushing to her wedding in a wedding dress the next. The script tries giving some type of explanation for the opening by the end, but you’re still left wondering about how it all worked out either way.
Regardless of the opening, Sturges creates character first and plot second, although the two work lovely in unison. As we heard in Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges’ movies benefited by throwing in “a little sex,” and The Palm Beach Story boasts the distinction of showing Sturges at his most provocative through mundane means. Outside of the wacky introduction, the movie doesn’t revel in putting Gerry and Tom in situations where they spout grand pronouncements of love for each other; it’s all in the action. When Gerry gets her zipper stuck and sits on Tom’s lap for him to fix it, there’s passion between the two through their body language and the intimacy of the act itself. Joel McCrea, giving her a playful kiss here and there, has never been as romantic as he is in this, and it’s such a simple gesture that shouldn’t be as intense as it plays out. This has to be the best example of a movie being passionate without showing the actual passion.
With such a wacky series of characters and events you have to sit back and let things happen. Certain sequences never properly add up towards an explanation for their inclusion outside of a tenuous need to move from A to B. The middle sequence, involving Colbert and a drunken group of old men on a train, seems particularly out-of-place despite leading towards the introduction to Hackensacker. When the train conductor decides to uncouple and leave the group at the station, it’s not hard believing Sturges couldn’t find a way to end the plot and movie on. It’s moments like this creating an air of drunkenness to the world Sturges has created. You, and the character, aren’t sure how you got there, but you’re having fun, regardless.
The zaniness works when you have a cast of comedic talents. Sturges was great at taking stars not well-regarded for the comedic genre (Veronica Lake, for example). Joel McCrea had just come off the successful Sullivan’s Travels a year before, and it’s obvious he knows the method to his director’s madness. He’s romantic when necessary and never devolves into pratfalls. He’s the voice of reason, but his insanity is grounded in wide-eyed dreams that sound ludicrous (I mean, an airport in the sky?). Carole Lombard was originally meant to play opposite McCrea, but her untimely death gave Claudette Colbert the role. I’m unsure why I feel Colbert comes off like Jean Arthur; or maybe Jean Arthur borrowed from Colbert in this? Colbert is never daffy, again, much of the characters’ humor stems from how logical their insanity sounds, and she anchors the film with all her scheming.
The surprise is Mary Astor as Hackensacker’s amorous sister, the Princess Centimilla. Best regarded for her serious and matronly roles, Astor is hilarious as a woman who knows what she wants, and what she doesn’t want. She tells the non-English speaking, Toto (Sig Arno), that she doesn’t like him anymore, ditching him for Tom – who she assumes is Gerry’s brother – with little compunction for his feelings. You would think her mean, but Astor’s delivery makes it sound like the spoils of being spoiled. There’s a reason she’ll marry anyone after all!
Preston Sturges continues to be the master of comedy, and yet every one of his movies feels completely unique and different. He molds actors into showing off their comedic potential and we see that here with Astor, especially. The rest of the cast is equally magnificent and the Criterion disc is packed with bonus features to keep you entertained long after the credits roll.
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