The Palm Beach Story
Preston Sturges was apparently quite a hit back in the early forties. The List contains an entire swath of his movies and to me he seems to be a 1940’ies version of the Farrelly Brothers. He was a crafty comedy director who through craftsmanship knew how to get something fun out of even mediocre scripts, but like his modern day equivalent the quality of his production varies and some of his films are certainly better than others.
“The Palm Beach Story” is I believe not one of the highlights. It feels somewhat stretched and forced and not up to say “The Lady Eve” standard.
Many of the plot elements are taken right out of Leo McCarey’s “The Awful Truth”. A bantering couple split up, but cannot let go of each other and in the end must accept that they belong together. There are also the new relations with money and charm and the couple even have to play brother and sister so the new relations do not realize that are in fact a couple. I love “The Awful Truth” and a movie could do worse that borrowing from that one, but while Claudette Colbert is funny and witty Joel McCrea just is not Cary Grant. In fact McCrea as the husband Tom Jeffers in altogether too heavy and grumpy for his character to work. Instead of witty he appear bitter and angry so much that I feel I understand the real reason why Colbert’s Geraldine Jeffers want to divorce him and try something new and certainly it does not seem obvious why she would want to come back to him.
This may seem trivial but that character flaw almost blew the movie for me. This is a shame because it does have a lot of things going for it at least potentially.
Geraldine is an odd character. She appears distraught and confused, at least in the first half of the film, and yet resourceful which throws her into some odd situations. She is fed up with just getting by and has realized that she is a trophy wife with no practical skills so she wants a divorce so she can find some rich guy to marry. Her explanation that it is actually to help her husband Tom is really far out and yet that is actually what she accomplishes. I can kind of understand why he thinks that that is the most absurd idea, but she is so determined to go through with it that her leaving is more like a prison break escape. A comedic highlight of the film. I loved that she tried to fasten her goodbye note to him with a needle to his body.
Half way through the film however she seems to be losing momentum. When her husband shows up at the Hackensacker yacht she becomes more drama and less comedy and in fact the comedic focus instead is transferred to Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor).
Another very amusing element is The Ale and Quail Club. They have absolutely nothing to do with the storyline, but were quite hilarious on their own. A bunch of hunting enthusiasts who act like a gang of boys when they get something to drink resulting in, well, chaos. At first they offer to bring Geraldine on board the train without a ticket and later in the midst of chaos she escapes their company.
The Hackensackers are another potentially funny element. John D. Hackensacker( Rudy Vallée) is a nerdy billionaire, a dope ripe for picking and his sister Princess Centimillia is a frivolous idle rich complete with a history of failed or insincere marriages and a foreign admirer in tow (greetings!). Those are two outrageous characters and that is also their problem. They are just too much. I do not really buy their characters. The princess takes too easy to Tom and John D. too easily falls for the damsel in distress. Such two characters did not become billionaires by being idiots.
The resolution is a story on its own. When the Jeffers decide that they should stay together after all instead of a life in luxury the Hackensackers do not seem too upset that their new loves turn out to be frauds. Instead they happily jump their twins, whom they have never met.
In fact the resolution ties up to the beginning where we see a wedding involving tied up bride and fainting maids. I understood absolutely nothing of that and only while doing research on the film (no more Rosebud incidents!) did I understand that it was in fact their twins who should have been married, but Tom and Geraldine both stole their twins place and so ended up getting married, but not to the one they wanted to marry. That should explain why a few years later Geraldine want to flee the marriage, but not to my mind why their twins would then be ready to marry the Hackensackers.
All in all a film with many potentially fun and interesting elements, but also a lot in the execution that just do not work so well. Rapid dialogue and fast pace tries to make up for it, but there are just too many holes in the logic. Still some solid laughs and that is after all the purpose of a comedy.