The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Toronto Film Society presented The Palm Beach Story (1942) on Sunday, November 22, 1987 in a double bill with Hellzapoppin as part of the Season 40 Sunday Afternoon Film Buffs Series “A”, Programme 4.

Toronto Film Society presented The Palm Beach Story  (1942) on Monday, August 4, 1970 in a single bill as part of the Season 22 Summer Series, Programme 4.

Production Company: Paramount.  Written and Directed by: Preston Sturges.  Associate Producer: Paul Jones. (Further technical credits not available).

Cast:  Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Rudy Vallee (John B. Hackensacker III), Mary Astor (Princess Maud Gentimillia), William Demarest (Mildocker), Torben Meyer (Dr. Kluck), Robert Warwick (Hench), Jimmy Conlin (Asweld), Franklin Pangborn (Hotel Clerk), Victor Potel (McKeewie), Alan Bridge (Conductor), Jack Norton (Hitchcock), Dewey Robinson, Chester Conklin.

Most of Preston Sturges’ comedies, however uproarious, had something of a serious theme behind the fun.  In The Great McGinty it was political corruption; in Christmas in July the crass falsity of the world of advertising, and success based on a phoney reputation rather than genuine talent; in Sullivan’s Travels the hypocrisy of affluent Hollywood presuming to portray Depression poverty and misery; in (even) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, unwanted wartime pregnancy; in Hail the Conquering Hero the vagaries of hysterical hero-worship and obsessive Momism; The Great Moment, though laced with comic sequences was virtually a serious movie about the dentist who discovered anasthesia only to be rewarded with neglect and non-recognition; and in Unfaithfully Yours the hero dreams up several possible methods of killing his (suppposedly) unfaithful spouse.

The Palm Beach Story, however, has no such disturbing or thought-provoking aspects.  Barring The Lady Eve it is Sturges’ most purely comic entertainment and can scarcely be said to be satirizing anything, unless it be the pursuit of wealth at any cost, the eccentricities of the already wealthy or (incidentally) the absurdity of businessmen’s hunting clubs.  From the wildly confused wedding preparations going on behind the credit titles, to an equally unlikely double ceremony at the end, the picture is in its way quite as zany as Morgan’s Creek but it is a less braod zaniness, encompassing fast-talking, sophisticated wit and fast-moving farce as well as slapstick, all deftly engineered.

For reasons too nonsensical to detail, our heroine (Claudette Colbert) decides to divorce her husband and sets out for Florida to bag a millionaire.  (Along the way, in a justly celebrated train sequence, she becomes hilariously involved with a jolly group known as the “Ale and Quail Club”,  complete with guns and dogs).  Fortunately her prey turns out to be Rudy Vallee in a delicious performance as a well-heeled penny-pincher.  Equally fortunately, his sister turns out to be Mary Astor (in her best man-eating form–need one say more?) who sets her cap for Joel McCrea, Claudette’s alleged brother but actual husband who has followed her.  Near-volumes have been written criticizing or defending Sturges’ predilection for concocting preposterously unbelievable “happy endings” for his characters; the ending of The Palm Beach Story is one of his most preposterous, and funniest.  One interesting angle of the film, historically, is Sturges’ adroit manipulation (as is some of his other works) of potentially sexy material to steer it past the Code censorship of the time, although there is nothing as tricky as in Morgan’s Creek.  How he got away with that one (even with the suggestion of a hurried marriage) still seems something of a Miracle.

From 1940 to 1944, in an almost incredible burst of creativity, Preston Sturges wrote and directed a string of memorable screen comedies for Paramount that included McGintyChristmas in JulyThe Lady EveSullivan’s TravelsThe Palm Beach StoryThe Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.  His last picture for Paramount, The Great Moment (1944), told the story of anaesthesia, and was apparently quite serious–at least for Sturges.  Paramount, however, wasn’t happy and demanded changes.  As released, the picture was a flop, and Sturges and Paramount parted company.

Penelope Houston, in her article on Sturges (Sight and Sound, Summer 1965), picks it up from there:

“After 1944, certainly, nothing was quite the same.  A partnership with Howard Hughes produced Mad Wednesday, with Harold Lloyd.  He directed Unfaithfully Yours, a comedy which was nearly brilliant, but not quite Sturges; then the less exhilarating The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend.  There was a long silence, and then in 1955 came The Diaries of Major Thompson, with Jack Buchanan as an Englishman in Paris.  It was Sturges’ last film, and it was sadly, defiantly, unfunny, as though somewhere along the line the mainstpring of that perfect comedy timing had snapped.”

Sturges died in New York City, August 6, 1959, three weeks before his 62nd birthday.

Notes by George G. Patterson and Doug Davidson

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