Film Friday: Preston Sturges' 'The Palm Beach Story' starring Claudette Colbert & Joel McCrae

By Daniel S Levine,
Happy birthday, Preston Sturges!

Preston Sturges was among Hollywood's first screenwriter to direct his own scripts. Like many writers who make the switch, he wasn't impressed with how other directors handled his material. So, in 1940, he convinced Paramount to let him direct his latest, The Great McGinty and wound up winning the Oscar for his original screenplay. Now, with that on his resume, Sturges would go on to create a series of successful comedies, a streak rarely equaled. While The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels (remarkably, both released within 1941) are recognized as his best works, I have a soft spot for 1942's The Palm Beach Story.

Sturges' films are very surreal, all moving at an incredible pace that doesn't even let you catch your breath. That's how The Palm Beach Story plays outs. It's over before you know it, running a scant 88 minutes, but ending at the precise moment it needs to. The film is one long set-up to a single joke, one that you almost forget Sturges was setting up as the film develops.

Gerry (Claudette Colbert) and Tom (Joel McCrae) are a happily married couple in New York, or so Tom thinks. Tom has yet to come up with a successful invention and Gerry is convinced she's useless to Tom. So, she runs off to Palm Beach to get a divorce. Of course, Tom isn't going to just let her go, so he followers her.

Along the way down the coast, Gerry meets John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Valee), who is incredibly rich thanks to his family. Now, she thinks that she has found her next husband, but Tom's presence makes it really hard to woo him. Tom does get to convince Gerry that they are right for each other, but Gerry still goes after Hackensacker to try to get his money to help Tom's project. Meanwhile, Hackensacker's sister (Mary Astor) is in town and she sets her sights on Tom.

It's all a very confusing plot, but that's what Sturges was best at. He told stories through dialogue, delivered by actors who could keep up the pace. Sturges built a rapport with Joel McCrae, who also appeared in Sullivan's Travels. Palm Beach provides McCrae with another great character and one of the actor's best roles. The fact that his skills were ignored at the Oscars is a great injustice. He was one of those incredibly dashing men who could do Westerns, romantic comedies and even a Hitchcock thriller without batting an eye.

However, his co-star was even better. I could never pick a favorite Claudette Colbert performance, but Palm Beach would be in the top five. Some of the best parts of the movie are her scenes on the train alone with a wild bunch of drunk old men. There's also the great moment on the pier when she comes up with “McGlue” as Tom's alias. She was so good at acting like the lines came naturally to her. You feel like she came up with it on the spot.

Of course, much of the credit for making these two stars work so well together in their roles has to go to Sturges. For him, his words were the stars and you can tell that if you see his other movies that don't have big names in them. Hail The Conquering Hero (1944), for example, is headlined by Eddie Bracken, an actor little known today, yet the film is still a shining example of one of the funniest screenplays to reach the screen. While having McCrae and Colbert on hand certainly helped, Palm Beach could have worked just as well. Yes, film is a collaborative medium, but you can tell throughout Sturges' best work that every frame of the film and every element within it were approved by him.

The Palm Beach Story is one of the funniest movies from its era, a screwball comedy with the volume turned up to an extreme. Every star gets laughs, from Sig Arno as the hapless Toto to the bartender in the train car ducking bullets from drunks. Mary Astor is delivering hilarious dialogue a mile a second. Joel McCrae is running around without his pants. Claudette Colbert is crushing glasses in Rudy Valee's eyes. Still not laughing? Just watch the movie and that ending will have you rolling on the floor.

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