The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Written by Preston Sturges & Ernest Laemmle
Directed by Preston Sturges
This is the ur-text of screwball comedies, every core element boiled down to its purest essence. There are pratfalls galore, windows getting smashed, and people confusing each other for others. It exists as both an ode to the comedies of mixed-up identities from Shakespeare and commentary on the late stages of the Great Depression. This film will inspire future pictures like Some Like It Hot and Intolerable Cruelty, but it doesn’t put on airs of being profound or world-changing. This is a pure character-centered comedy that understands how important it is to have a diverse variety of roles.
Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea & Claudette Colbert) are a married couple in New York City who are struggling with the Great Depression. After seven years of marriage, Gerry decides she wants a divorce because things have just fallen into a horrible rut. Despite Tom’s protestations, Gerry jumps on a train to Palm Beach to get a quickie divorce and maybe find a kind rich man to be her second husband and provide stability. Tom decides to head down after her, and when he discovers, she’s in the arms of John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a famous industrialist billionaire.
There is momentous energy from the opening credits of the film, a rapid-fire account of the wedding day between Gerry and Tom, which hints at a larger mystery that is revealed in the punchline of the finale. The movie isn’t concerned with following one core plot but allows for episodic asides. Gerry ends up sharing a train with a rowdy drunken group of millionaire hunters. This leads to an awkward and hilarious moment where two of the hunters begin clay pigeon shooting with saltine crackers while onboard the train. It’s a sequence that features a host of Sturges’ regular players who are having a fantastic time playing into the high comedic energy of the movie.
Sturges is working ahead of his time with a relationship between the leads that shows a level of maturity you didn’t see in movies at the time. Gerry speaks frankly about how she, as a woman, has to use her physical attributes to get anywhere in the world at the time. When the couple’s apartment is visited by a wealthy man (nicknamed the Weenie King because of his position in the sausage industry) seeking to buy it, he feels sorry for Gerry and gives her the money to pay off the household bills. Tom questions her about where the money came from and implores if it was sex. She says yes, not the act, but because of how she looks. Gerry goes on to give a short speech about how in her life, she’s always had to use her body and her looks because it’s all she’s allowed. Sturges managed to write some of the best female characters of his time, and they are always the spotlight stealers and focus of his stories.
I greatly enjoyed Rudy Vallee as Hackensacker, a riff on Rockefeller, a wealthy man who is kind yet easily tricked due to his lack of cleverness. Hackensacker sees the world only through the filter of his wealthy privilege. Gerry has more considerable street smarts and can spin the truth in a manner that benefits her and, ultimately, Tom the most. Even in divorce, she holds no grudge, she explicates that she has to find someone who will help keep her alive in the world and tries to get the money Tom needs to fund his business projects.
The Palm Beach Story isn’t as lofty as Sullivan’s Travels, but this is a fantastic classical comedy. You will see how the comedies of the following decades came to be through this film. Even movies like There’s Something About Mary owe a debt of gratitude to the hilariously complicated plots of Sturges. It would benefit all of us to revisit and spend some time with these movies, reminding us of how good comedy can be and look to them to refresh a comedy film industry that’s become dull and uninspired.