It’s hard to find a movie as diametrically opposed to the last film I wrote about, the socially conscious Hungarian drama Emberek a havason. But, at the risk of sounding too weepy-eyed about the wonder of movies, that really is the joy of film. So many people have brought so many styles and perspectives, making their work truly their own and giving us a rich selection of film from all genres. Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story is one of the best comedies of the 1940s and an easy choice for the best of 1942.
Preston Sturges makes his intentions clear with the opening sequence of The Palm Beach Story. We cut between Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea each dashing to the church for their wedding, racing to be on time. We see a woman tied up and locked in a closet and an hysterical maid, though we aren’t sure what it all means. We might not understand, but they do set the tone. We immediately know that there will be no high-minded philosophizing like we got in Sullivan’s Travels or denunciation of political machines like in The Great McGinty. This is going to be a pure, madcap, zany comedy and, if the first few minutes are any indication, we are in for an hour and a half of great screwball comedy.
If it seems like this movie ends where most begin, Sturges designed it that way. Colbert and McCrea get married at the beginning and Sturges spends the next hour and a half deconstructing the traditional Hollywood happy ending. We rejoin the couple five years later, down on their luck and on the rocks. Gerry (Colbert) decides to leave her inventor husband, Tom (McCrea). She is, she reasons, a millstone around his neck, a burden, just an added expense and responsibility without giving him anything in return. She can’t even cook. And she believes she can do more for him out in the world, cooing and cajoling rich old men to invest in his harebrained plan to build a suspended airport over the city. Tom, of course, resents the idea of benefiting from Gerry’s sexuality and tries to stop her leaving, but her mind is made up.
She jumps on a train forPalm Beachto get a divorce and meet rich men. On the way she meets one of the richest men in the country, J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). He falls for her hard and she sees her chance to live out her life on easy street and help Tom build his airport. Meanwhile, Tom flies toFloridato stop the divorce and win her back.
This brief outline of the plot misses the comedic richness of the film, like Tom’s and Gerry’s (haha) individual meeting with the Weenie King, a stone deaf old man who throws his money around, or Gerry’s encounter with a drunken hunting club, which spends more time shooting up the bar than game. These are the people that populate Sturges’ world, a world that is dictated by mostly unspoken gender politics and sexualized scuffles. Movies like this make me wonder why people think it used to be so much more wholesome back in grandpa’s day. It wasn’t. They just winked more.
Sturges’ characters crackle with his signature witty dialogue and brilliant double entendres, allowing the miscreants and misfits of the film the chance to say much more on the DL than censors would have allowed them to say outright and allowing Sturges a chance to say something about sexuality in a supposedly sexless society. The characters are deaf, drunk, snobby, horny, solicitous, but they are never boring and always find a way to say something true about how sexuality is alternately exploited and wielded in a country where married couples supposedly slept in twin beds.
Sturges had something of a stock company of performers who could rattle off his rapid-fire dialogue with ease, including William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn, and they come through for him here. Robert Dudley plays the Wienie King and his deafness makes for some great wordplay. Also joining the cast is Mary Astor as Hackensacker’s horny sister who sets her eyes on Tom, who Gerry has convinced to pose as her brother. She has some great one-liners, some of which would have made Mae West proud.
Through all the screwball antics Sturges is making a point: sexual power games may be the way the world really operates, but they don’t have to define us. Sturges places Gerry smack dab in the middle of a love triangle that forces her to choose between money (and security) and love (and insecurity). It isn’t difficult to figure out she’ll sacrifice the practical for the sentimental, though Sturges gives us a final twist, however implausible, that allows everyone to have a happy ending, including Hackensacker and his sister. But do we care that it isn’t plausible? It was all goofy from the beginning, but we had a great time, one of the marks of a truly great comedy.