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Movie Reviews

Spotlight on: Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story

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Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story

This film featuring Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert, as a couple seeking out new life partners for the sake of the other, came in the middle of the peak of writer/director Preston Sturges' career. (For the record, I consider that the peak began in 1940 with The Great McGinty, ended in 1944 with Hail the Conquering Hero, and includes The Lady Eve [1941], Sullivan's Travels [1941], and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek [1944]. That's quite a roll for anybody!) The Palm Beach Story doesn't quite match up to his best work, but it still has a lot more going for it than at first it seems.

McCrea (John Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels) stars as Tom Jeffers, an architect who doesn't make a lot of money, but has a big dream: to build his own airport. His wife, Gerry (Colbert), wants to support his dream ... by divorcing him so she can marry rich and give him money on the side. Her argument is that they don't love each other anymore, and all that is left is love and respect (their behavior towards each other says otherwise).

Then the first implausible thing happens: he goes along with her idea. Posing as her brother (they look alike because everyone marries his/her own face), he will have approval over who his wife marries. On her way to Palm Beach to meet a millionaire, she meets one on the train, John D. "Snoodles" Hackensacker, III (Rudy Vallee, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer), who falls for her is his own milquetoasty way. (Being Vallee, he even serenades her in one scene.) Snoodles also has a sister, who has been married five times and "will marry anything." She is played by Mary Astor (the femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon), whose saucy reputation is thoroughly covered in Kenneth Anger's tinsel-town expose, Hollywood Babylon.

The Palm Beach Story doesn't come across as very original, but it has a lot of charm. McCrea and Colbert make an ideal couple, and you just know that they will end up together (just like in The Awful Truth, the original Mr. and Mrs. Smith [the only pure comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock], Phffft!, and all the other loving-couple-tries-to-stay-apart-but-realizes-they-really-love-each-other films of that screwball subgenre). Astor plays her character as a mix of Angelica and Cornelia Bullock (Alice Brady and Gail Patrick, respectively) from My Man Godfrey, and her hanger-on, Toto (Sig Arno), resembles no one more than that film's Carlo (Mischa Auer). Of course, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, and Robert Greig show up in smaller roles to complete the full Sturges picture (the three were in a number of his films, always in memorable roles). My only real complaints with The Palm Beach Story are the slow pace and the fact that the happy ending requires such a ridiculous deus ex machina, but I can't help but admire Sturges for actually going through with it.

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