The Palm Beach Story, 1942, Paramount Pictures. Starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 88 minutes.
Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) Jeffers have hit a stalemate in their marriage: they are seemingly better friends than lovers, his business is floundering and she’s bored with the whole situation. He hasn’t given up, but she has, and one day she leaves for Palm Beach to get a divorce and find a wealthy man who not only can support her in the way she feels she deserves, but also provide the financing for Tom’s entrepreneurial project.
As fate would have it, on the train to Palm Beach, she meets just that man, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). In the meantime, thanks to a generous benefactor, Tom has flown to meet Gerry and stop her from divorcing him. Instead, he’s greeted by John, Gerry, and John’s flighty, oft-married sister, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor).
This is a fun film, with a simple story line but one unexpected and delightful scene after another. It’s fast-paced, sassy, completely implausible yet acceptably unbelievable.
Writer and director Preston Sturges drew on his own experience with the wealthy to create the characters in the story. His former wife, Eleanor Hutton, was a socialite and introduced him to the world of high-society millionaires, a world he satirized in several of his films. Although Ms. Hutton had sued for annulment and their marriage ended after only two years, his humor is sharp and witty rather than mean-spirited, keeping the overall tone of the film one of good fun. Sturges later said the Palm Beach in the story was one he’d come to know as a house guest of Eleanor’s, noting that “millionaires are funny.”
Sturges had some trouble getting all the sexual innuendo and the treatment of marriage and divorce past the censors. Oddly, while they felt six divorces were too many for Princess Centimillia, four or five were acceptable. In the end, they changed two of her five divorces to annulments to further appease those enforcing the Code.
This is a cast that shines with its effortless charm, particularly Colbert and McCrea, who are a contrast in her sophistication and his laid-back ease, yet a match in personal appeal. Astor, whose performance is lively and engaging, reportedly didn’t get along with Sturges and as a result, didn’t enjoy making the film.
While the rest of the cast were well-established box-office draws, Rudy Vallee was still better known as a “crooner” at this time. He’d made film appearances before, but was finally gaining some recognition in movies, particularly comedies. Earlier performances had been unremarkable, but experience had taught him well and he became a respected character actor in the 40s and 50s.
You may recognize William Demarest in a small character role in the film as a member of the Ale and Quail Club. Demarest was one of Preston Sturges’ favorite character actors, appearing in eight of the films Sturges directed, and he later went on to play Uncle Charley in the television series My Three Sons.
The Palm Beach Story is a farcical, classic Preston Sturges film, a wonderful romantic screwball comedy and a timeless story of tired romance finding new fuel.