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THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

The Palm Beach Story - Cover'The Criterion Collection’ have recently released a digitally enhanced version of ‘The Palm Beach Story’. It was directed by Preston Sturges; it starred Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, and Rudy Vallee; and it lasts for 88-minutes. Plus, as an extra added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with a World War II propaganda film, a radio adaptation broadcast by the Screen Guild Theater, as well as two visual essays focused on the life and times of Sturges, one by the film historian, James Harvey, and the other by the comedian, Bill Hader. Please enjoy.


The Palm Beach Story [The Criterion Collection]


THE STORY:
Excuse me, Tom (Joel McCrea), but I have something of the utmost importance I desperately want to tell you. Well, the two of us haven’t been getting along for quite some time now, have we? On account of us never having enough money. So, to move forward and live a happier and healthier life, I suggest that we both get a divorce as soon as possible!

After all, I’m a very attractive lady, and I’m sure I can find a wealthy gentleman who can support me financially. Heck, all I have to do is to go down to Palm Beach and fill out the necessary paperwork before searching for my next husband. 

So, what do you say, beloved? Are you willing to call it quits? Or would you rather chase me halfway across the country until we can find an alternative? Either way, that’s most probably why what next transpires goes, kiss-kiss-kiss, when Tom turns to me and says, ‘Gerry (Claudette Colbert). You’re mad, but I love you’. As a train trip quickly goes astray - a wealthy bachelor comes out to play - a strained reunion doesn’t go away - and at the end of the day, please remember, tainted love smells a lot better than a pungent ashtray.




THE REVIEW:
At face value, ‘The Palm Beach Story’ comes across as a fairly funny film about a wife who leaves her husband for the sake of their financial stability. But upon closer inspection, it also touches upon a variety of different subjects we still talk about today, such as materialism, feminism, and the sanctity of marriage, keeping in mind that it was made in 1942, only a year after America entered the Second World War. 

The Palm Beach Story - Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea
Well, let’s face it, back then, not many people would encourage someone to get a divorce as it was thought of as being ungodly and uncivilized. In fact, infidelity was chastised so much by society, certain parts of America banned unmarried couples sharing the same hotel room together (as reflected in the 1960 Billy Wilder classic, ‘The Apartment’). In stark contrast to this, though, someone finding a wealthy companion to marry was encouraged and generally applauded. So to some extent, the friction between these two ideologies makes for an interesting story that’s well worth exploring.

Although, in this case, the overall nature of the exploration can best be broken down into a three-act play. Act One, for instance, introduces us to the two main characters, Tom and Gerry, before explaining its general conceit (wife leaves husband for their own good). Whereas Act Two, on the other hand, introduces us to a third character, J.D. Hackensacker, by showing us how this wealthy businessman befriends Gerry during the course of her journey. And as for Act Three? Well, once again, yet another character is introduced. But this time it’s a princess, Princess Centimillia, who just so happens to be the sister of Hackensacker and a possible love interest for Tom (when he eventually catches up with his reluctant wife).


The Palm Beach Story - Ale and Quail Club


So, as you can see, the basic construction of this film does seem to meander in places, going back and forth, back and forth, between character development, plot progression, and anything else associated with these silly shenanigans, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t fun to follow or entertaining to watch! Come to think of it, some of the best bits were those seemingly disposable scenes that bridged the gap between one part of the plot and another part of the plot. Such as the ‘Ale and Quail Club’ sequence, for example, which involved Gerry befriending a group of men who all get drunk and kicked off of a train because of their mischievous behavior. More importantly, though, this sequence also made us laugh, made us smile, and made us spend a bit of time with Gerry so we can try to figure out if what she's doing is the right thing or not. 'No', to some, 'yes', to others, and 'who knows', to the remaining participants.

The Palm Beach Story - Poster
Anyway, that’s enough of that for the time being, because now I think we should sit back, relax, and check out the following filmic facts: (1) 'Paramount’ first released this production in London, England, on the exact same day a Japanese destroyer was sunk by American SBD Dauntless dive bombers en route to Guadalcanal. It was on the 28th of August, 1942. (2) According to certain sources, Preston Sturges was inspired to write and direct this film because of an incident involving his ex-wife, Eleanor Hutton, who was an heiress that was once wooed by an Italian Prince: Prince Jerome Rospigliosi-Gioeni. (3) Loosely translated, this project was entitled, ‘The Paradise of Fools’ in Sweden, ‘Seeking Love’ in Turkey, and during pre-production, it was given two working-titles, ‘Is Marriage Necessary?’ and ‘Is That Bad?’, which were both rejected by ‘The Hays Office’ because of their disrespectful tone. (4) To follow on from my previous point, and you might like to know that ‘The Hays Office’ asked for more alterations to the initial script. This included, the depiction of John D. Hackensacker [which was fairly similar to that of John D. Rockefeller], the number of marriages Princess Centimillia previously had [which was reduced from eight to three due to its frivolous implication], as well as certain sections of dialogue and certain parts of the plot [which were deemed a "light treatment of marriage and divorce"]. (5) The majority of this movie was shot inside ‘Paramount Studios’, located at 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles, although an additional pick-up shot was captured outside ‘Penn Station’, located in Manhattan, New York City. (6) Originally the role of Gerry went to Carole Lombard, but after she died in a plane crash, the part went to Claudette Colbert, who Sturges worked with previously on ‘The Big Pond’ [1930] and ‘Imitation of Life’ [1934]. (7) Later on in her life, Mary Astor would write a series of books about her time working in the film industry. One of them reminisced about her time working on this film, which stated, "It was not my thing. I couldn't talk in a high fluty voice and run my words together as he thought high society women did, or at least mad high society women who'd had six husbands and six million dollars." (8) If you look very closely at that scene where Joel McCrea and Mary Astor stroll down the pier from Rudy Vallee's yacht, you will notice a chubby man with a black mustache carrying Claudette Colbert's luggage. That man was Preston Sturges.


The Palm Beach Story - Preston Sturges, Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, and Rudy Vallee


In closing my review of ’The Palm Beach Story’, I would now like to rank most of the performances in order of preference. So, at the top of my list, I’d like to select Rudy Vallee because he did a pretty good job at balancing the three main sides to Hackensacker's persona, the frigid side, the logical side, and the charming side, all in a very comical yet understated fashion. Up next, I want to single out the two main leads, Joel McCrea (Tom) and Claudette Colbert (Gerry), on account of them both selling their passion for each other without really buying into their basic humanity. After all, it’s pretty difficult to empathize with a sexy woman who dumps her husband without trying to work through their differences. And along similar lines, it’s just as difficult to empathize with a man who isn’t willing to make a compromise between his wife’s needs and his pet passion project. A project, I hasten to add, that isn't going to work, no matter how much money is pumped into it. And as for the rest of the cast? Well, in their case, an honorable mention goes out to a couple of key players! Namely, Robert Dudley, who depicted the half-deaf Wienie King as if he were a stubborn yet generous guardian angel; Mary Astor, who was so zany and so adorable as Princess Centimillia, that I almost forgot she starred in one of my favorite film noirs, ‘The Maltese Falcon’; and let's not neglect all of those crazy, crazy clowns who belonged to the 'Ale and Quail Club', ranging from William Demarest, all the way to Chester Conklin. 

The Palm Beach Story - Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, and Rudy Vallee
Having said that, though, the one thing I wasn’t too keen on was the depiction of most of the ethnic characters! Not only because they were shouted at (Charles R. Moore / The Porter) and treated like simpletons (Sig Arno /  Toto), but in addition to this, they were also used as the butt of a joke (Fred Toones / The Bartender). Not all the time, mind you, but just enough to make this film feel dated, very dated, despite what it was trying to say about the sanctity of marriage. I mean, with some benefit of hindsight, does an attractive and adventurous woman really need a man to constantly be by her side? And if she does, what does she need him for? For financial gain? For emotional support? For fun and games?  Or for everything or nothing in between? Either way, it’s definitely a topic that’s well worth thinking about, that’s for sure, and to some degree, is one of the most interesting things to come out of this film. Tonally, it may be a funny screwball comedy; but ethically, it’s an exploration about life and the pursuit of happiness.

Anyway, all that aside, and on the whole, I would just like to say that this was a surprisingly satisfying film, which was good in places, bad in others, and funny somewhere in between. 

THE RATING: B-

THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) Reviewed by David Andrews on November 11, 2019 Rating: 5

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