The Palm Beach Story

Movie Information

In Brief: The Palm Beach Story (1942) is almost certainly not Preston Sturges’ best film, but it very well might be his funniest. It’s almost certainly his fastest-paced and has a plot device that would have made Shakespeare proud. What we have here is the tale of Gerry (Claudette Colbert) and Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea), a couple who are struggling to make ends meet while Tom tries to his invention of a new kind of airport that’s suspended over a city “like a tennis racket.” Just as they’re about to be tossed out of their apartment, a prospective tenant — the Wienie King (Robert Dudley), inventor of the Texas Wienie (“Lay off of ‘em, you’ll live longer”) — takes a shine to Gerry and gives her $700. After getting them out of debt, Gerry takes off for a divorce in Palm Beach where she hopes to marry a millionaire — primarily to finance Tom’s airport. After getting taken in by a group of wealthy, rowdy drunks — the Ale and Quail Club — with a private railroad car, she sneaks into a Pullman when the rowdiness gets out of hand. She then just happens to run into the richest man in the world, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), by stepping on his face (twice) while climbing into an upper berth. But in the meantime, the Wienie King has financed Tom’s trip to fly down and get her back. It’s fresh and funny and full of the kind of dialogue that only Preston Sturges could write.
Score:

Genre: Comedy
Director: Preston Sturges
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno
Rated: NR

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Probably the most startling thing about The Palm Beach Story is the fact that the footage playing under the opening credits makes absolutely no sense until you get to the astounding plot twist (referred to in the dialogue as “but that’s another plot entirely”) at the very end of the film. This, however, is certainly not the only remarkable delight in the film, which, as I said is possibly the plain funniest film Preston Sturges made during his brief (1940-44), meteoric stint as the reigning director at Paramount.

 

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Those incomprehensible credits, however, do indicate the pace of the film, which can best be described as fast and furious. It almost never slows down, and when it does it is never at a loss for witty dialogue. The jokes and gags are so constant that it’s almost impossible to catch them all in a single viewing — and it is impossible to fully appreciate the sheer beauty of and love for language that permeates the film. Typically for Sturges, many of the gems are almost throwaways given to minor players — like the cop who notes, “I like peace, but I’m not morbid about it,” or the philosophical train porter who opines, “I don’t see how any man who can give me a nickel tip from New York to Jacksonville could have a yacht — maybe a canoe or a bicycle. Maybe.” The repartee is non-stop and every joke lands exactly as intended. This is a film that ought to be compulsory viewing for the people who write what passes for comedy these days.

The Asheville Film Society will screen The Palm Beach Story Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “The Palm Beach Story

  1. mtndancer

    The analogy to Shakespeare is perfect, particularly with the cutesy ending. My one problem with this film was that Joel McCrae has such a one note demeanor of being pissed off (not without some reason). I don’t think he smiles once.

    • Ken Hanke

      I’d never noticed that McCrea never smiles — though you may be right. Thinking back on McCrea’s career, it strikes me that he doesn’t tend to smile a lot in general.

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