The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Genre: Screwball Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 28 min.

Release Date: December 10th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Preston Sturges Actors: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno, William Demarest, Robert Dudley

 


 

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o the finale of the William Tell Overture – an instantly recognizable, breakneck bit of orchestration – some sort of marriage heist gets underway, resulting in a potentially deceptive union that lasts about five happy years. But by 1942, Geraldine “Gerry” Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) and her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) are having difficulties. The main one involves finances, which forces the manager of the Jeffers’ Park Avenue duplex to begin showing the apartment to potential tenants. While Gerry is still in her bedroom, the affluent Wienie King (Robert Dudley), inventor of the Texas Wienie, surveys the place, but feels sorry for the lovely woman who can no longer afford to stay, and forces several hundred dollars into her hands. The second major problem is that Gerry has convinced herself that she no longer loves Tom.

“It was perfectly innocent, I assure you.” With the bills paid, the rent caught up, her hair done, and with a shiny new dress, Gerry takes her husband out for a fancy dinner – primarily to convince him that they’d be better apart. A divorce would help them both. She doesn’t have any practical skills and can’t help his career – one that has been stagnating for quite some time – and she wants to live a more glamorous life while she can. “You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything.”

And so, despite a pleasant evening, Gerry sneaks away the following morning – though not quietly, as she accidentally awakes Tom in a violent manner. A chase ensues, leaving Gerry without her suitcase and without any money, but she’s certain she can get along just fine. After all, she’s unusually attractive. As it turns out, the taxi ride is free, the Pennsylvania Station security guard helps her to her train unmolested, and she even manages to snag a free ticket for a private cabin from a group of elderly millionaires – called the Ale and Quail Club – which should get her all the way to Palm Beach, where an easy divorce proceeding awaits. But Tom is still in love – and, with the coincidental return of the Wienie King, plots to fly to Palm Beach to stop her.

The opening is funny, fast, and terribly romantic. But it’s also bittersweet; the stars are clearly meant to be together – it’s just going to take a series of slapstick-filled misadventures to persuade them of that fact. The script not only contains some of the most heartfelt and hilarious antics – from shooting competitions aboard the train, to love interest John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) picking glass from his face after Gerry accidentally steps on him (twice), to all sorts of ruckuses, many of which include singing and imbibing – but it also boasts clever double entendres and even the occasional, frank, sexual quip that sounds monumentally ahead of its time. It’s a surprisingly deft combination of romance, twisty comedic scenarios, and hilarious dialogue.

“Chivalry is not only dead, it’s decomposed.” Despite Gerry attempting to help her husband by doing all the wrong things – and getting caught up in outrageous lies – she has good intentions. If he can’t have her, at least she wants him to succeed with his lifelong architectural dreams. To this end, which complicates the plot in a deliciously delirious fashion, she finds no shortage of generous benefactors. To match the incredibly swift pacing and the whirlwind unions is the electrifying Mary Astor as a rich princess, who rattles off her lines with perfect comic timing and precision. And she’s joined by Sig Arno as a ludicrous plaything – and one of the better purely comic-relief personas. The conclusion, which wraps things up nicely before using a bit of auteur Preston Sturges’ signature fantasy to make things a little too neat, is just as enjoyable, contributing to one of the absolute greatest of all screwball comedies.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10