Director: Preston Sturges
"Sex always has something to do with it," Geraldine Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) says in exasperation to her husband Thomas (Joel McCrea) in writer-director Preston Sturges's 1942 screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story. She is trying to explain to the suspicious Thomas why she has just been given several hundred dollars by a perfect stranger, an elderly millionaire calling himself the Wienie King of Texas, who took pity on her after learning she was about to be evicted from their Park Avenue apartment for not being able to pay the rent. Thomas is having a hard time believing there isn't more to the unlikely tale than Geraldine is telling, and she has been trying to convince him that nothing improper happened. Like The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, those other audacious Sturges sex comedies of the 1940s, The Palm Beach Story pushed the strictures of the Production Code to the limit with its sexual innuendo. But then it had to, for the entire film might have been designed to illustrate the truth of Gerry's observation that the tangled relations between men and women are always in some way governed by sex.
The film begins with a mystery. In a silent, stop-and-start slapstick sequence, we see Claudette Colbert rushing out of an apartment in a wedding dress. At the same time, she appears—through the cinematic sleight of hand of crosscutting—to be locked in a closet in the apartment, bound and gagged, while a maid has hysterics and finally faints at the sight of the wedding-gowned Colbert. The meaning of this paradoxical sequence won't be revealed until the last scene in the picture, when it becomes the device used to resolve the plot's multiple sexual entanglements. By that point, though, so much else has happened in this frantically paced movie that most viewers probably won't even remember its puzzling opening.
Flash forward five years. The former bride and groom, Tom and Gerry, are having serious problems in the two areas this movie dwells on—money and sex. Tom, an engineer-inventor, is having trouble raising the capital to finance a demonstration project of his new invention, a stressed-cable mesh airport stretched across skyscraper rooftops. (Is this idea intended to be as loony as it sounds?) Not only are the couple broke and about to become homeless, but the pizazz has gone from their marriage—at least for Gerry, who tells Tom, "We don't love each other the way we used to." When Tom seems reluctant to believe her story about the Wienie King's largesse, it's the last straw and she heads for Palm Beach to get a divorce. Tom, however, isn't ready to give up on the marriage and takes off in pursuit to change Gerry's mind.
On her journey to Palm Beach, Gerry takes the viewer along on what can only be described as a frenetic spree, with one hilarious episode after another coming at a furious pace. Gerry starts her journey with no money, no luggage, no train ticket, nothing but the clothes she is wearing, and before long she has lost even those, showing up for breakfast in the train's dining car wearing a Pullman blanket for a skirt and the top of borrowed pajamas as a blouse, with the pajama pants wrapped around her head as an impromptu turban. This gal is nothing if not inventive. She manages to inveigle her way aboard a Florida-bound train, where she is adopted as a female mascot by the wacky Ale and Quail club, hooks up with a millionaire, J. D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), acquires an expensive new designer wardrobe and a diamond and ruby bracelet, is wined and dined aboard Hackensacker's yacht for the final leg of the journey, and arrives in Palm Beach engaged to him.
Gerry being serenaded by the Ale and Quail Club
The plot of The Palm Beach Story seems not so much to unfold deliberately as to be improvised as we watch the film. From an initial premise, the picture keeps evolving in unexpected ways, snowballing from one episode to the next, not with any conventional causality, but with its own delirious narrative momentum. If you haven't seen this movie before, trying to predict what will come next is a futile exercise that will only end up keeping you flummoxed. All you can do is surrender yourself to the frenzy of Sturges's relentless comic invention and hold on to your seat for the duration of the ride. One farcical situation seems to follow another spontaneously, in the tradition of sublime narrative anarchy found in the great silent comedies, the Marx Brothers, and the zaniest screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby. It's only in retrospect that it becomes apparent how carefully engineered the entire edifice is, held together by its own self-generated narrative logic.
In addition to its hilarious situations and frequent physical comedy ("I happen to love pratfalls," Sturges writes in his autobiography), the film is propelled by its clever dialogue and its characters. Sturges, who began as a playwright and later turned to writing movies, knew the value of dialogue and loaded the picture with rapid-fire conversations generously spiked with quips, bons mots, and witticisms. And as the writer as well as the director of the picture, he made sure to get the maximum effect from his expertly crafted dialogue, using long takes and being careful to avoid distracting the viewer with gratuitous directorial flourishes. This, of course, requires the expertise of actors perfectly attuned to Sturges's approach, and in The Palm Beach Story he has assembled a cast that might contain some surprising choices but would be difficult to improve on.
As well as his regular character actors like William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn in smaller roles, mostly as members of the Ale and Quail club, Sturges casts Rudy Vallee as the stodgy, sexually naive millionaire Gerry becomes engaged to. The colorless and rather enervated Vallee is an inspired choice for the boyish J. D. Hackensacker III. Standing in complete contrast is his unconventional sister, the manic, wisecracking Maude, the Princess Centimillia. Married and divorced five times and clearly possessing a powerful sex drive, Maude sets her sights on Tom, by this point masquerading as Gerry's brother, the moment she sees him. Mary Astor, cast against melodramatic type, plays the man-hungry Princess with a superb comic flair I haven't seen her display in any other picture.
As the on-again, off-again Tom and Gerry, Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert are a great team. He's single-minded, humorless, and sexually possessive, the straight man to Colbert's Gerry. It's a great role for the usually laid-back McCrea, who plays Tom with the same intensity as he played the movie director in Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, released earlier the same year. But the film really belongs to Claudette Colbert. Her Gerry is a woman with a clear and realistic view of herself and others, a woman who makes no bones about her mercenary nature, a great improviser who lives by her wits, using in a benign way what Sturges has described as "the aristocracy of beauty"—in other words, the power of her sexual attractiveness to men—to get by.
Yet there doesn't seem to be anything manipulative about her, beyond the fact that she knows what she wants and is uncommonly shrewd about how to get it. For Gerry, her sex appeal is merely a practical way to navigate her way through life. She's no guileful seductress; she doesn't go out of her way to vamp men. Nor is she a child-woman, playing dumb and pandering to helpless little-girl male fantasies, but a mature, intelligent, and unaffected woman. When men respond to her attractiveness, she simply goes along with it as a serendipitous opportunity.
This happens time and again—with the Wienie King, the cab driver who takes a shine to her and drives her to Penn Station for free, the rowdy Ale and Quail Club, J. D. Hackensacker. It is exactly this quality in Gerry's personality, her guilt-free willingness to use her natural advantages to get results, that maddens Tom and arouses his jealously. I can't think of a more appropriate choice to play such an original character as Gerry—with her combination of femininity, brains, and playfulness—than Claudette Colbert. For me it's her best role and her most delightful performance.
As a director, Sturges had a brief but illustrious run. Remarkably, he produced his two greatest films in the space of just one year: Sullivan's Travels, which makes a serious statement on the subject of humor, and The Palm Beach Story, which takes the serious subject of sex and makes it as funny as it's ever been in a movie.
This post is part of the Comedy Classics Blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. The event runs January 22-27. For a complete list of participants and to learn more, click here.