Monday, November 9, 2015

Palm Beach Story, The (1942)

Director: Preston Sturges


Divorce is not a subject to take lightly, but that is exactly the case in Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story. Hailed as one of American cinema’s funniest pictures, this screwball comedy is a fast-paced tale of the most unlikely story of a married couple at a major crossroads in their relationship. The film is a typical Preston Sturges comedy with its off-the-wall, fast-talking, never to be taken seriously humor along with a sprinkle of subject matter censors were always leery about, sex, to make things seem a like more adult.

The Palm Beach Story is a screwball romantic comedy about a good natured wife who feels the best thing to do with her marriage after a few years of being wed is get a divorce, and her husband who will go to great lengths to stop her.  Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are a marriage couple who have fallen on hard times financially while having peculiar unspoken relationship issues. Gerry believes the best thing for both of them is to get a divorce she begins a trek from New York to Palm Beach, Florida to do so while Tom attempts to stop her from this crazy idea.  While on her journey Gerry begins a relationship with John D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallée), a play on J.D. Rockefeller as one of the richest men in the world. To slow Tom down Gerry introduces Hackensacker’s man hungry sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) to Tom as her next possible male trophy. Through much though and effects of knowing each other so well Tom and Gerry eventually intend to stay together. They reveal that they have identical twins to who marry Hackensacker and the Princess in the feature’s screwy conclusion.

From the moment the picture starts rolling you know you are in for something very different, fast paced, and nutty with action on the screen that you cannot explain. The film’s opening title sequence plays out with a series of images with McCrea and Colbert each in two places at once eventually leading to the alter on their wedding day. Right away the audience is confused, but you know you are in for a ride. Eventually, for those that are paying attention, the audience will be able to piece together that the opening was intended to manifest how the opposite twins ending up marrying each other after each shared affection for the other’s twins, resulting in the two who had no feelings for each other ending up at the altar, but are not in love.

Does that make sense? No. Maybe. If yes…Good… moving on.

Preston Sturges proceeds forward and further grabs the attention of the audience with the subject American viewers seldom herd spoken on screen as the two main characters talk about the allure of Colbert’s sex appeal. This subject led to a bit of good fortune for Gerry while Tom misunderstands she was only talking about appeal and not any physical action of sex. It is a humorous scene that seizes your attention, because censors of this time usually kept all sex out of movies, especially the word itself, and here, like inSturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, it is so bluntly used in a scene that it hits one like a slap in the face. Sturges knew how to grab audiences as it pulls you right into the tale of Tom and Gerry and their adventure down the eastern seaboard as one attempts to stop the other from getting a divorce.

Overall the film is nothing more than a series of off-the-wall moments where Colbert utilizes her appeal to gain the help of men, all of whom are a bit outlandish, including hunting club full of men that get plastered train and fire guns while within their car to prove their skill, or happening upon one the wealthiest men in the world. McCrea is more or less the straight man who must pursue Colbert and gets caught up in her eccentric game along the way. In the end you know they get back together, but you are thrown so many curveballs that sometimes it makes your head spin. Though It is all in good humorous fun.

During this period Preston Sturges was expanding his skill as a filmmaker after being given the chance sit in the director’s chair after years of being only a screenwriter. His brand of screwy comedy was fast, witty, yet plot driven, providing a clear story, even though the plot was outlandish to a point. His humor is refreshing, especially in a time when war was the forefront news, allowing this feature to be an 88 minute mental vacation from the worries that lie outside the theater doors.

The cast was very well assemble, each unique in character design and portrayal. The film’s headliner was the established actress Claudette Colbert who even at 39 was one of the most prestigious and best paid actresses of the day, commanding a salary nearly three times her co-star. Joel McCrea in his second Sturges’ feature gives the performance that is straight enough make audiences root for him, but with a dash of silly, as he pitches his idea of airports that are suspended above cities by wire mess screens. Popular entertainer and actor Rudy Valée appears in his first comedy as the awkward, yet wealthy man that attempts to make Colbert his own. Playing Vallée’s sister is the acclaimed Mary Astor who had trouble acting at the amusing pace Struges needed out of his characters, but does provide a funny performance as the self-appointed “Princess.”

Form the beginning the studio and Sturges had trouble with the censors in the making of this feature. The original title “Is Marriage Necessary?” made the Production Code office nervous with how lightly the feature played with the ideas of marriage and divorce. The sexually suggestive dialogue would also be cut back a bit as censors found Struges’ sexual dialogue to risqué for audiences even though the humor is found in the nature that it was being misunderstood by McCrea’s character. Furthermore the man-hungry Princess had her backstory toned down as well with the number of supposed unsuccessful marriages from an original eight cut to three, plus two annulments. (A silly, but nice touch there by Sturges)
What The Palm Beach Story leaves as a legacy is one of the more humorous films from this period of American cinema. Writer/Director Preston Sturges was bringing with him a new kind of silliness to Hollywood as his motion pictures were just pure entertainment that audiences loved to go see. The Palm Beach Story would find itself on many all-time lists amongst the best comedies in history including the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 American comedies, released in 2000.

Contemporary audiences should give thanks to Sturges and films like these as they inspired future generations with expanding on the genre of screwball comedies by allowing them to be funny with a sense of being grounded at the same time. With word play, intelligent writing, some physical comedy, and sound structure this feature stands strong amongst the more serious dramas of that time to last generations later in the minds of audiences, critics, and filmmakers alike.

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