by Brandie Ashe
Frenetic. It’s the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy classic The Palm Beach Story. From the opening credits—a brief sequence with enough plot devices jammed in to fill an entirely separate movie—to the closing scene, the film proceeds at a breakneck speed, moving swiftly from one improbable situation to the next. The end result is one of the funniest comedies to ever be produced in Hollywood, one that defines the word “screwball” in every way imaginable.
That the film is a comedic masterwork should come as no surprise to those familiar with Sturges’ oeuvre, for no film director in history had quite as deft a hand in crafting wild, outrageous comedy as he. Not merely content to sit in the director’s chair, Sturges wrote and produced his own screenplays, in addition to dabbling in acting, songwriting, inventing, and playwriting, among other varied interests. A prototypical “Renaissance man,” Sturges brought a wide-ranging knowledge to his films, reflected in intelligent characterizations, sharp, witty dialogue, and furious pacing.
As I mentioned above, The Palm Beach Story begins with a wild opening sequence that barely makes sense—at least, until you reach the end of the film. A man and a woman are set to get married, but both are running late for the altar. We see a woman (Claudette Colbert) bound and gagged inside a closet, struggling to get free. Meanwhile, her doppelganger (Colbert again) runs out in a wedding gown as a maid faints in horror. The groom (Joel McCrea) races across town in the back of a taxi, trying desperately to throw on his tuxedo. The bound woman manages to kick a hole in the closet door—as her bound feet emerge, the maid faints dead away once more. The bride grabs a taxi and manages to make it to the altar just as the groom bustles in as well. As they proceed with the ceremony, title cards appear, telling the audience, “And they lived happily ever after … or did they?” No other explanation is given; the film simply moves on without further comment.
Five years pass on the screen, and we are then formally introduced to the not-so-newlyweds: Tom Jeffers, a failing inventor, and Gerry, his unhappy and aspiring wife. The couple owes money to practically everyone in New York City, from the grocer to the landlord—the latter of whom has already begun showing the Jeffers’ apartment to prospective new tenants. One afternoon, Gerry encounters one of these prospects, a millionaire known as the Wienie King (Robert Dudley), who takes a liking to Gerry and gives her some money to pay her bills, no questions asked. Tom is upset and suspicious as to how Gerry exactly obtained the money, and the couple quarrels. Gerry, a master of logical reasoning, decides the best option for both of them is for Gerry to divorce Tom, use her charms to snare a millionaire second husband, and use her newfound wealth to finance Tom’s latest invention (an improbably suspended airport designed to float above a city).
Gerry, with Tom in vain pursuit, hops a train to Palm Beach in order to obtain a quickie divorce. After being temporarily taken in by a group of raucous, drunken millionaires (a group that includes such invaluable Sturges stock players as William Demerest, Chester Conklin, and Robert Greig, among others), Gerry meets John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), one of the richest men in the world, who quickly falls for her after hearing the story of her “brutish” soon-to-be ex. Upon reaching Palm Beach, Tom turns up and tries to convince Gerry to come back, but she introduces him to Hackensacker as her brother, Captain McGlue … at which point Hackensacker’s flighty sister, the Princess Centimillia (played by a hard-working Mary Astor), falls for Tom, despite dealing with the unwanted affections of her latest suitor, an unintelligible dandy named Toto (Sig Arno). And that’s only the beginning of an insane climax to an already nutty film.
In Beach, Sturges takes the genre of screwball comedy to dizzying heights. The film has a little bit of everything—intriguing characters indulging in snappy repartee, genuine romantic chemistry between McCrea and Colbert, guffaws galore—and deftly juggles it all. But the movie is no mere laugh riot; it can be argued that the movie is also Sturges’ most incisively satirical film, skewering all of its characters with an equally skeptical hand. The biggest target of Sturges’ cynicism is his leading lady, for Gerry is the classic “dizzy dame,” intent on seeing her scheme through and not above using her sexual wiles to get what she wants. Sex is a commodity to Gerry, one that she trades in with little remorse. She’s almost pragmatic in her admission that her attractiveness is her strongest weapon, explaining to Tom, “You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything.”
But Gerry is not the only focus of Beach’s cynicism. The men who fall prey to Gerry’s schemes are, in their own respects, ridiculed for buying into it—something these men tend to do quite literally: the Wienie King peels off some bills after the briefest of exchanges; the Ale and Quail Club, eager to play a collection “white knight” to Gerry’s “damsel in distress,” provide her a (temporary) berth in their private train car; and in the case of Hackensacker, there’s that ludicrously lavish shopping spree to which he treats Gerry after she “loses” her clothes on the train. The film treats these idle rich with a sniff of condescension that borders on parody: are the rich really this clueless, this entirely wasteful? In Sturges’ own experience, at least, they truly are—after all, he reportedly based the film’s characters on real-life acquaintances from his own days in Palm Beach, when he was married to Eleanor Hutton—who bears more than a passing resemblance to Astor’s flighty Princess.
Indeed, Sturges seems to go out of his way in demonstrating that the wealthy are utterly ridiculous creatures. Hackensacker refuses to tip properly (claiming it’s “un-American”), yet sails on a private yacht and spends thousands of dollars outfitting a woman he’s only just met without the blink of an eye. His sister goes through husband like most women go through pairs of shoes; she takes new lovers and discards them easily (or at least tries to—Toto is not gotten rid of so easily). And the end of the film demonstrates how easily these two think people, like possessions, can be replaced; supposedly broken-hearted upon realizing the truth about Gerry and Tom’s relationship, both Hackensackers are immediately cheered up upon realizing that each of their former paramours has a twin. Cut to a wedding in which the doubles of Gerry and Tom stand ready to marry a Hackensacker—looks of trepidation notwithstanding. (And a neat little bow is thereby tied upon the film, linking the previously extraneous opening credit sequence to the body of the film. Well played, Mr. Sturges.)
Still, the strong sense of entitlement surrounding these characters—all of them, to some extent—does not preclude their appeal. And The Palm Beach Story largely succeeds because we find these people, with their multitude of flaws and general lack of responsibility, to still be somewhat endearing. You’re not only laughing at them, you’re laughing with them, identifying with the foibles that define us all, rich or poor, insane or not. It’s nothing less than brilliant, beautiful farce, delivered straight from the hands of an unparalleled master.
How The Palm Beach Story made the Top 100:
#4 Brandie Ashe
#7 R.D. Finch
#9 Pat Perry
#10 Marilyn Ferdinand
#32 Pierre De Plume
#33 Steven Mullen (Weeping Sam)
#36 Dean Treadway
#50 Bobby McCartney