|Director: Preston Sturges
|Screenplay: Preston Sturges
|Stars: Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Mary Astor (The Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (J.D. Hackensacker III), Sig Arno (Toto), Robert Warwick (Mr. Hinch), Arthur Stuart Hull (Mr. Osmond), Torben Meyer (Dr. Kluck), Jimmy Conlin (Mr. Asweld), Victor Potel (Mr. McKeewie), William Demarest (First Member Ale and Quail Club), Jack Norton (Second Member Ale and Quail Club), Robert Greig (Third Member Ale and Quail Club), Roscoe Ates (Fourth Member Ale and Quail Club), Dewey Robinson (Fifth Member Ale and Quail Club), Chester Conklin (Sixth Member Ale and Quail Club), Sheldon Jett (Seventh Member Ale and Quail Club), Robert Dudley (Wienie King), Esther Howard (Wife of Wienie King)
|MPAA Rating: NR
|Year of Release: 1942
|The old adage tells us that tragedies end in death and comedies end in marriage. But, what do we do with a comedy that begins with a marriage? And not just that, but a marriage that takes place amid a virtually nonsensical montage of chaotic images completely devoid of context followed by a sharp qualification to the clichéd title card “And they lived happily ever after” with “Or did they?” That is precisely how Preston Sturges’s screwball romp The Palm Beach Story begins, which is the first indication that Sturges, one of classical Hollywood’s consummate comedic filmmakers, is not just challenging conventional notions of the romantic comedy, but turning them completely upside down. Sturges had always been unsentimental, if not downright subversive, when it came to depicting the institution of marriage, and The Palm Beach Story may very well be his ultimate statement on the subject (the film’s telling original title was Is Marriage Necessary?, which was not surprisingly nixed by the Production Code Administration).
The couple in question is Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert), who, after five years of marriage, have hid the skids. Their marital issues stem primarily from their financial woes (something audiences at the time, still feeling the pains of the Great Depression, could surely recognize). They owe months of back rent on their Park Avenue apartment, and Tom’s job as an inventor trying to sell a ridiculous above-the-ground airport concept is not enough to pay the bills and keep Gerry living the comfortably upper-class existence to which she has become accustomed. Gerry’s forthrightness about her unapologetic material needs carries a surprisingly indelible charm, as does her simple practicality. She proposes divorce, not because she doesn’t love Tom anymore, but because she recognizes that she is simply no good for him and he is incapable of giving her the life she wants. Without her he could focus on his inventions while she could find a man better suited financially.
The majority of the film is structured around a lengthy chase, in which Gerry takes off for Palm Beach (which, along with Reno, was the most popular place to get a divorce in the ’40s) with Tom in dogged pursuit. She is bound and determined that they go their separate ways, while Tom is bound and determined to convince her that they can make it as a couple; ironically, both attitudes are born out of affection, which keeps the film from becoming too bitterly cynical. The plot is filled with mistaken identities, purposeful misdirection, false pretenses, and advantageous coincidences, all of which Sturges (one of the rare true writer-directors of the era) elevates from the land of cliché with a sublime satirical touch that makes the resolutely unorthodox both funny and endearing.
As is typical in a Sturges comedy, the margins are packed with all manner of colorful supporting characters, beginning with a lengthy sequence on a train in which a farcical bunch of booze-soaked millionaires who call themselves the Ale and Quail Club take over several cars and adopt Gerry as their mascot. There is also the so-called Wienie King (Robert Dudley), a half-deaf old sausage magnate who shows up whenever the plot requires him to dispense no-nonsense folksy wisdom and hand out hundreds from the big wad of cash he regularly pulls out of his pants (the innuendo need not be mentioned, much less explained). The second half of the story finds Tom and Gerry becoming involved with John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Valle), a bespectacled heir in the John D. Rockefeller mold, and his nymphomaniac sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), a thrice-divorcee who has constantly at her heels an absurd European boy toy named Toto (Sig Arno). Hackensacker falls in love with Gerry while Centimillia sets her decidedly less romantic sights on Tom.
Even though it doesn’t quite rank up there with Sturges’s greatest comedies, The Palm Beach Story is nonetheless one of the outright funniest movies of its era, a veritable parade of wicked-rapid dialogue, absurdist narrative loops, and socially subversive attitude that allows for one of the most ridiculous last-minute twists of any film I can think of. It helps that he’s working with a superb cast: Joel McCrea, who had earlier starred in Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), plays the straight man’s exasperation with near perfection, while Claudette Colbert proves again why she was one of the era’s most indelible screen presences. The film’s biggest surprise, however, has to be Rudy Vallee, who was known as a bland radio crooner but, under Sturges’s direction, blossoms into a superbly understated comedic performer.
By the time The Palm Beach Story was released, the screwball comedy had been a Hollywood fixture for almost a decade, and you can sense Sturges’s desire to push the bounds of the genre by discarding almost all pretenses toward social responsibility and narrative decorum, not to mention good taste (it’s a miracle the Production Code Administration let him get away with as much as does, even after two forced script revisions). With a lesser filmmaker The Palm Beach Story might have felt scattershot and too random for its own good, but Sturges keeps threading the various pieces back together with coincidence, contrivance, and sheer lunacy presented with such unapologetic confidence that the whole thing becomes infectious.
|The Palm Beach Story Criterion Collection Blu-ray
|English Linear PCM 1.0 Monaural
|New interview with writer and film historian James Harvey about director Preston SturgesNew interview with actor and comedian Bill Hader about SturgesSafeguarding Military Information, a 1941 propaganda short written by SturgesScreen Guild Theater radio adaptation of the film from March 1943Essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek
|The Criterion Collection
|January 20, 2014
|Transferred at 4K from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain print and a safety duplicate negative, The Palm Beach Story looks absolutely stupendous. The film’s image maintains a fine sense of film grain while giving us a sharp, clear, and extremely well detailed presentation. Digital restoration has left the image virtually flawless, with no scratches, tears, or instability of note. Blacks are generally rich and contrast spot-on. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic soundtrack and digitally restored, is a bit flat, but still does a fine job of presenting Sturges’s witty dialogue, some of which flies so fast and furiously that you’ll find yourself hitting the rewind button on a regular basis.
|There’s no audio commentary, but there are two excellent new video interviews—one with writer and film historian James Harvey (17 min.) and another with actor and comedian Bill Hader (10 min.)—that help contextualize The Palm Beach Story within the larger body of Preston Sturges’s work and the genre of the screwball comedy. From the archives Criterion has unearthed Safeguarding Military Information, a 1941 World War II propaganda short written by Sturges, and the half-hour Screen Guild Theater radio adaptation of the film from March 1943 that starred Claudette Colbert, Randolph Scott, and Rudy Vallee.
Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick
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