Combustible Celluloid
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With: Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, Robert Warwick, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Arthur Hoyt, Alan Bridge
Written by: Preston Sturges
Directed by: Preston Sturges
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English
Running Time: 88
Date: 11/02/1942

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Coupling and Re-coupling

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Preston Sturges uses the "lie" plot in The Palm Beach Story (1942), which, in most modern films, annoys me to no end. But when Sturges does it with such reckless joy, it's easy to forget that it's even being done. Though people remember Sturges for his great, original comical dialogue, it should be noted that he was a great director, too, drawing the best possible performances (and line readings), and bestowing upon everything an incredible, rebellious energy. He was probably not what you'd call a craftsman; he did not build great plots filled with jokes. Rather, he wrote great jokes and made the plots fit.

Joel McCrea, Sturges' favorite actor, stars as Tom Jeffers. An inventor, like Sturges (he reportedly invented a kiss-proof lipstick), Tom has designed a kind of airport landing strip that can be suspended in the sky, but which will cost a lot of money to build. Meanwhile, he and his wife Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are struggling to pay the rent. Their landlord shows their apartment to an older couple. The man, known only as the "wienie king" (Robert Dudley), takes a shine to Gerry and gives her a wad of cash for rent and other amenities.

Gerry realizes she's only holding back Tom and asks for a divorce. (This was a big theme back then, as evidenced by the Oscar-winning The Awful Truth.) She escapes and catches a train with a pack of eccentric millionaires, the "Ale and Quail Club," who -- understandably -- proceed to get drunk and shoot up the train. Eventually she meets multi-millionaire J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) and manages to charm him. She's invited onto his yacht, with his sister, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), and her latest boy-toy, the non-English speaker Toto (Sig Arno). Tom also shows up, having chased Gerry, and is invited aboard, posing as her "brother," with the princess lavishing gooey attention on him.

Sturges isn't terribly preoccupied with the acrobatics of keeping the lie going. He sticks with his greyhound pace, and keeps the one-liners coming. Characters are not shy about saying whatever the heck they want, and it never feels like anything terribly important is going on. No big lessons are learned. Astor, who could be so stiff in serious roles, is clearly having a ball. Coblert and McCrea, it goes without saying, are at the top of their game. And pop star Vallee gamely turns his image on its side, though perhaps it stuck? Movie fans may remember a line from Some Like It Hot years later in which the nerdy Joe E. Brown's idea of a hot date is listening to "a batch of Rudy Vallee records."

The thing I love best about The Palm Beach Story, however, are is prologue and ending. The movie opens with what looks like scenes from some other, badly made comedy. They images play under a blaring theme song; characters race around madly, apparently dashing to get to a wedding. Someone is tied up in a closet, and a maid keeps fainting. Whether or not you forget all about this opening during the rest of the movie doesn't really matter; Sturges brings it back at the end with a thundercrack and a grin, and it's absolutely perfect.

This was part of an incredible period of creativity for Sturges, having made his directorial debut in 1940 and making five great movies in three years. The Palm Beach Story was the last before a small break, and then more great films. Though it was available on a 2005 DVD from Universal, the Criterion Collection has released it on an exquisite Blu-ray edition for 2015, adding it to their previous Sturges DVDs Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve, and Unfaithfully Yours.

The Blu-ray includes a beautiful new 4K digitally restored transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, an interview with historian James Harvey, an interview with Bill Hader ("Saturday Night Live"), Sturges' WWII propaganda short Safeguarding Military Information (1942), and a radio adaptation of the movie (I couldn't confirm this, but it sounds like Mel Blanc playing the "wienie king" with his Elmer Fudd voice). Film critic Stephanie Zacharek provides the liner notes.

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