October 11, 2016

The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Preston Sturges
Stars: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee

What it's about. A screwball comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges. Perpetually grumpy Joel McCrea is married to easygoing brunette Claudette Colbert. McCrea is an architect, or inventor, or both, who has failed to find investors for his scheme of building a city airport out of pantyhose, or some such thing.

The couple is broke, and about to be evicted out of their posh apartment. A chance encounter with eccentric and spendthrift "weenie king" Robert Dudley gives Colbert the opportunity to pay creditors and purchase bling. This only makes McCrea more grouchy. Colbert decides to flee McCrea, get a quickie divorce in Palm Springs, marry a wealthy sugar daddy, and send McCrea the money he needs to build his airport.

McCrea pursues his well-intentioned yet misguided wife, but is always one step behind. Colbert walks the tightrope between golddigging and chastity, joining up first with a gun club consisting of rowdy middle-aged men. Once they lose their sanity, she takes up with nice dweeb Rudy Vallee. Because it is a movie, he turns out to be the never-married heir to the Rockerfeller, er, Hackensacker fortune, along with his multiply married man-hungry sister Mary Astor.

Vallee courts Colbert in lavish yet respectful fashion. Now in Palm Beach, McCrea catches up with his yet-to-be divorced wife, but for some reason poses as her brother due to the presence of Vallee. Astor promptly places her goofy foreign boyfriend Sig Arno on hold, and takes up with McCrea, paying no mind to his eternally cross manner.

Because it is a movie, and one with a Production Code at that, Colbert and McCrea would rather be married to each other than to multi-millionaires. But a preposterous ending ensues that satisfies all concerned, except possibly Arno.

How others will see it. Today, Preston Sturges is highly regarded as a filmmaker within the classic film community. During World War II, however, his films were considered profitable but insubstantial. His immediately preceding effort, Sullivan's Travels (1941), did garner some critical appreciation due to its social commentary. There appears to also have been some studio jealousy regarding Sturges, who was one of the few directors who also wrote his own screenplays and effectively produced his films.

The Palm Beach Story was ignored by the Academy Awards, and was not a considerable box office success. Today at imdb.com, though, it has a fairly high user rating of 7.7, which rises to 8.1 (out of 10) among women over 45. Clearly, most viewers sympathize with Colbert, instead of condemning her dubious actions throughout the film.

How I felt about it. There he is again. I am referring to William Demarest, who has supporting roles in most of not all of Sturges' films. His character is always irascible, but here it is minor. This is Colbert's movie, the only one she would make with Sturges in the director's chair.

Colbert is adorable, but she must be the luckiest woman on Earth, encountering and winning the heart of polite but determined zillionaire Vallee. Although at one point she has lost all her belongings, her makeup and hair remain ideal throughout the film.

McCrea is a Johnny one-note, obsessively determined to regain Colbert, and barely distracted by the wealthy and interested Astor, or Vallee's willingness to finance his cockamamie airport.

One could argue that Sig Arno's character is offensive. Many classic comedies, particularly the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pairings, have a foreigner supporting character who is either foppish or foolish, in unbecoming fashion. Arno borders on pathetic; in fact, he will be homeless if Astor kicks out her quasi-romantic houseguest. At least we don't know what nationality he is, though presumably he is from the court of one of those fictional Central Europe kingdoms that, if it existed in real life, would be occupied by the Nazis during 1942.