Reviews and notes
Sturges was riding high in the early '40s, writing and directing comedies of such density and wit that a moment's inattention might make an audience miss six great one-liners, five amazing bits of business, four eight-syllable words, and three crowd scenes. And few of his films were as smoothly accomplished as The Palm Beach Story
, a knowing satire on the driving forces of sex and money, with Colbert fleeing from her righteous and penniless husband into the ridiculous arms of yachtsman billionaire Rudy Vallee. Hilarious, irresistible, impeccably cast.
- Geoff Brown, Time Out, London.
A screwball romantic comedy, The Palm Beach Story
stays funny by keeping itself ridiculously off balance. Married New York couple Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea & Claudette Colbert) break up due to money issues. He can't find a buyer for his revolutionary airport idea. As she has no intention of being poor, she simply decides to take the train South in search of a rich man to solve both their problems. An eccentric millionaire called "The Weenie King" (Robert Dudley) gives Gerry the last rent money just because he likes her. Her train ride becomes an affectionate kidnapping by the drunken, carousing and adorable "Ale and Quail Club", a group of revelers so rowdy that the railroad men abandon their car on a side rail. Gerry continues but finds that she's lost her baggage and has only a pair of pajamas. But that's perfectly fine. She's almost immediately scooped up by J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a nearsighted, fussy but endearingly polite kazillionaire who immediately takes a shine to her. One expensive shopping trip and yacht journey later, Gerry is the guest of J.D. and his sister The Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), a randy playgirl with an admiring European 'houseguest' she can't get rid of, a fellow she dismissively calls Toto (Sig Arno). Hoping to score the investment for Tom's experimental airport concept, Gerry is upset when Tom shows up to retrieve her. She passes him off as a brother, with the silly name Mister Mc Glue. The Princess immediately tries to seduce the sober Tom. To keep Tom from ruining her plans, Gerry makes him promise to keep up the 'Mc Glue' act - at least until something goes wrong and she succumbs to J.D.'s advances. But the punctilious Hackensacker heir courts her as if it were the previous century - even hiring an orchestra so he can sing below her balcony.
Unless you're some kind of movie Scrooge, The Palm Beach Story
will definitely put a smile on your face. Sturges invents so many original and funny characters, and his cast brings them to life with such gusto, that one can't help be infected by their madness. As a delivery system for the director's (sometimes belittled) slapstick, Sturges' Ale and Quail Club can't be bettered. It matters not that the comedy premise is so thin - "I love you so I have to leave you". The movie seems nailed to its time (1942) while remaining completely frivolous - there's no mention of the war whatsoever. At one point we study a long shopping list of luxury clothing items - just reading the prices from that year is funny. Rudy Vallee had been an idol fifteen years or so earlier, but Sturges gives him a comedy comeback persona that lasted him the rest of his life. Even when crooning one of his old megaphone tunes, Vallee is utterly charming. Mary Astor's earlier sex scandals were perhaps meant to influence our reading of her refreshingly morals-free Princess, who makes being an insufferable snob seem wholly attractive. The Princess laughs at her own decadence in a way that makes us laugh too, and she gets funnier every time she dismisses her lapdog consort, Toto.
Claudette Colbert was pushing 40 but as seen on screen could hold her own physically with any 19 year-old. She's the one carrying most of Sturges' story concept, which is really a character attitude. Everything's crucial and yet nothing is. As Gerry puts it, everything's about sex and she isn't afraid to let her attractiveness make things a little easier. Her big achievement is avoiding being completely bowled over by all the things Sturges' plot throws at her. Straight man/frustrated husband Joel McCrea anchors the comedy in reality. He's the only character who doesn't talk incessantly, yet he's never left out of the proceedings. Tom and Gerry obviously belong together, and we know everything's going to work out fine. The movie is too silly to be otherwise.
So that's a rundown of The Palm Beach Story
that doesn't give examples of specific jokes - the level of wit here is unequalled, and the double-entendres are so clever that they come very close to being direct sex talk. I'm also refraining from repeating any of the choice dialogue bits, that come direct from the writer's joke book yet seem to have sprung exclusively to the characters he's invented. Sturges begins his movie with a title sequence of total unexplained chaos because he needs it to set up a finale for his story. It's a case of desperate invention - as I said, stories that lurch several times into completely unexpected situations often paint themselves into a corner. Sturges escapes by jumping to a new level of silliness.
This time around we marvel at Sturges' use of the swanky Paramount sets - the Jeffers' art deco apartment, the ridiculously luxurious Palm Beach mansion - and also at Paramount's impressive special effects. The final shot 'multiplies' the characters (don't ask how) and performs a camera pullback through several layers of superimposed text - yet reveals no extra grain whatsoever.
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant, 26 January 2015.
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