The Palm Beach Story August 14, 2016
The Palm Beach Story is about as holistically followable as an edition of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace printed in eight-point font on an Interview Magazine sized page, but don’t let its chaotic nature spurn you away from its blinding erraticism. Written and directed by Preston Sturges, in the midst of his 1940-1944 hot streak (featuring such masterpieces as The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), it’s a screwball romantic comedy that puts sizable emphasis on its screwball characteristics; of little importance is its supposedly central romance, and I'm not complaining.
Sturges, a pundit of maniacally quick dialogue and cockamamie comic misunderstandings, never specialized in romance, anyway (though The Lady Eve is pretty sexy) — he’s fluent in the art of the farce, lionhearted enough to push his wit so far that absurdity sometimes overtakes a sense of focused canniness. Embedded in his The Great McGinty and Sullivan’s Travels is jaggedly edged satire never to be doubted; The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek are bedlam knockabouts with sturdy storylines that give their many fatuities a place to latch onto.
The Palm Beach Story is a rom-com send up without enough plot to make its calculations burn; the scenarios, as well as many of the characterizations, are so nonsensical and so loony that we oftentimes find ourselves in the presence of anarchical comedy without the order necessary to hit our funny bone at its sweetest spot. It makes My Man Godfrey look like a declawed feline.
But The Palm Beach Story’s chaos is a special kind of chaos, a chaos not accidental but a chaos premeditated and meant to make the head spin. The film is certainly one of Sturges's most uninhibited and most rabid — a collection of his wildest characters acquainting with his wildest situations — and yet the extremism is engaging because Sturges is so much in control of the madness. Just expect your brain to tingle more than your belly to ache.
At least the stars of The Palm Beach Story give it a few grains of normalcy. In the movie, headliners Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea are Gerry and Tom Jeffers, a married couple approaching their fifth anniversary. Those five years, despite moments of bliss, have, unfortunately, mostly been rocky. Inventor Tom’s creations have generated a minuscule amount of money, and housewife Gerry has become fed up living cheaply with a man who seems to be more attentive toward his work than he is toward her. She loves the man, but is worried that their marriage cannot survive such an up-and-down routine for much longer.
After much introspection does she decide that divorce, painful as it is, is the best route to take. Only this isn’t your typical divorce: because Gerry knows the marriage can succeed so long as financial stability is present, the divorce itself is more a front to allow for her to wed a rich guy and use his money to fund her husband’s undertakings. An unethical thing to do, maybe, but Gerry, in touch with her feminine wiles, figures she doesn’t have many other options. Using money generously handed to her by an outré billionaire (Robert Dudley) in a random act of kindness, she puts the plan in motion, setting off on a Palm Beach bound train without any sort of green-lighting from a perplexed Tom.
Because things are always much simpler in a ninety-minute movie than they are in our oft difficult real life, Gerry’s gold digging hits the loot quickly when she meets John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallée), a mild-mannered wimp who also happens to be among the wealthiest men in the world. Seeing a perfect candidate in him — he spends an odious amount of money buying her a new wardrobe after just a few hours of knowing her — she follows him on his yacht to the Florida getaway hoping for the best. But Tom has been hot on Gerry’s trail ever since she left, following her by sky, and is hardly willing to let her asinine plot go through.
And The Palm Beach Story gets even more insane when it lands in the titular city; that’s when all conflicts rise to a breaking point, and that’s when Hackensacker’s sister, The Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), shows up and terrorizes everyone with her fast talk and her fast living.
Indeed, the film’s convoluted and mostly illogical, but there’s something hypnotic about how frenzied it is — Sturges is so aware of his skills as a writer and as a director that not a single moment hits a wrong note, even if many of those notes sound funny and are perhaps played too quickly for us to really grasp them. The movie is shrewd, breakneck, and frivolous, expertly acted (though Colbert and McCrea are really the least interesting characters because they’re so much more cogent than their supporting players) and ebulliently helmed. While I admire it more than I do wholeheartedly love it in the ways I idolize The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, there’s no denying the genius that The Palm Beach Story majestically shows off. B+