The Palm Beach Story

Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert The Palm Beach Story

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).

Rudy Vallee Claudette Colbert.png
Rudy Vallee, Claudette Colbert

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 houseguest of Eleanor’s, noting that “millionaires are funny.”

Sturges had some trouble getting the 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. Surprisingly, Astor, whose performance is lively and engaging, reportedly didn’t get along with Sturges and as a result, didn’t enjoy making the film.

Mary Astor Claudette Colbert  Rudy Vallee
Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert, Rudy Vallee

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.

Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert The Palm Beach Story
Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert




Since You Went Away

Jennifer Jones, Claudette Colbert, Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away

Since You Went Away, 1944, United Artists. Starring Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple. Directed by John Cromwell. B&W, 177 minutes.

Everyday wife and mother Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) has just seen her husband Tim leave for battle, and returns home to begin a life alone her daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Brig (Shirley Temple). It’s a bittersweet departure for Anne, who believes in what her husband is doing, but is scared to face life without him, if only — she prays — for a short time.

Soon it becomes apparent the family will need more income, and they decide to take in a boarder, Colonel Smollet (Monty Woolley), a crusty older gentleman with stringent demands on the household. Joining the group is longtime friend Lieutenant Tony Willis (Joseph Cotten), a dashing man with an eye for the ladies — and the attention of Jane.

But Jane’s heart is soon captured by Col. Smollet’s grandson, Bill (Robert Walker), a humble and quiet man who was kicked out of West Point but is determined to carry on the family tradition of military service. The two men are estranged, but each takes cautious steps toward reconciliation.

Bill is off to war, and the lives of everyone he leaves behind are changed forever.

Jennifer Jones, Robert Walker in Since You Went Away
Jennifer Jones, Robert Walker

The onscreen romance between Jane and Bill was a sharp contrast to Jones’ and Walker’s real-life marriage. Jones had been having an affair with David Selznick, producer of the film, and she and Walker were struggling with the fallout. They had separated during filming, and divorced a little less than a year after Since You Went Away was released.

The film marked the debut of Temple as an adult, and fans were anxious to see her once again. Selznick, true to character, dictated the way her hair was to be styled and refused to allow her to wear makeup. Rather, he insisted she “scrub her face until it shone.” However, his interest in Temple’s success waned after one more film with her, and his attention to Jones’ career (and image) increased as their romance evolved.

Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten in Since You Went Away
Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten

Since You Went Away won the Academy award for Best Musical Score, and was nominated for eight other Oscars. These included Best Picture, Best Actress (Colbert), Best Supporting Actor (Woolley) and Best Supporting Actress (Jones).

Frequently melodramatic and sentimental, Since You Went Away is best appreciated when put in context of the time it was released, three years into the United States’ involvement in World War II. Many sought hope and comfort in the films they saw, although there was no way around the realities of war. Seen by some as Selznick’s answer to Mrs. Miniver, it is not the same movie, but served much of the same purpose. It remains an important movie today for its historical value and storytelling, and although a bit long, is worth watching, particularly for fans of any of its cast members.


Midnight (1939)

Claudette Colbert John Barrymore in Midnight

Midnight, 1939, Paramount Pictures. Starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. B&W, 94 minutes.

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) is a showgirl escaping a run of misfortune in Monte Carlo by way of train to Paris. She arrives with twenty-five centimes to her name, and talks cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) into driving her from venue to venue in an effort to find work.

Midnight Claudette Colbert Don Ameche
Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche

It’s a failed endeavor, however, and Eve is left with nowhere to go, until Tibor offers his home, which she adamantly refuses. He’s insistent, and first chance she gets she escapes his cab and runs to the nearest open door.

Here she gains entrance to an event for the social elite by passing off a pawn ticket as her invitation. Once inside, she meets Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) who has an enticing offer: lure dashing, single and wealthy Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) away from Georges’ wife, Helene (Mary Astor), and Georges will pay all expenses, including an extravagant wardrobe and luxury accommodations.

John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert

Of course Eve has already started to fall for Tibor, despite her best intentions, and she’s unwittingly complicated this fairy godmother situation by taking the name Baroness Czerny — as in wife of Tibor, who tracks her down after he learns of her deception.

This movie delivers all the wonderful fun a top-notch cast with a script by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder promises. Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche perhaps don’t make an obvious pairing, although they did work on three films together (this one being notably the best), but the match works in sophistication, banter and sly humor.

Claudette Colbert, Francis Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore in Midnight
Claudette Colbert, Frances Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore

The true delight — albeit far from assured prior to production — is John Barrymore’s smart and affable performance. Barrymore was deep in decline due to alcoholism by this time, and was generally unreliable, unable to memorize scripts or even show up on the set. His wife, Elaine Barrie, had a co-starring role and is credited with helping keep him in check.

However, as noted by co-star Mary Astor, Barrymore was such a highly skilled actor that despite all his problems, he was “able to act rings around everyone else.” High praise, given the quality of the entire cast.

Astor herself was several months pregnant at the time of filming, although her character was not, and numerous clever means were used to hide her changing figure.

Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche.png
Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Don Ameche, Claudette Colbert

(A bit of  background trivia — in 1924, a 40-year-old Barrymore had an affair with his co-star, then 17-year-old Astor, although the relationship faced severe constraints by her parents and eventually failed. By the time this film was made they were reportedly on good terms, each having survived a separate scandal or two in the meantime.)

This was also one of the first films as costume designer for the legendary Edith Head, who had previously been the assistant to one of Hollywood’s most popular designers, Travis Banton. Now on her own, she found herself constantly being challenged by Colbert, who herself had studied fashion design before turning to acting.

Today considered one of the top romantic comedies of the era, although surprisingly perhaps one of the lesser known, Midnight is everything it promises to be, and a must-see for classic movie fans.


It Happened One Night

Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night, 1934, Columbia Pictures. Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 105 minutes.

Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with dashing King Westley, much against the wishes of her father, who plans to do everything in his considerable power to keep the marriage from going forward. Ellie jumps ship while in Florida and hops on a bus to New York in an effort to reunite with King, and it’s there she meets up with down-on-his-luck reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable).

It doesn’t take Peter too long to figure out just who Ellie is and what a story he has on his hands, and he takes full advantage of the situation. What he doesn’t count on, of course, is falling for the foolish, yet appealing, Ellie, and she in turn begins to feel something for him. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to defy her father and stay married to King.

This was one of the last films released before the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced, and it shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There’s still the distinct element of propriety between a non-married couple, even when Clark Gable strips down to his underwear (sans t-shirt, which is said to have cost that industry thousands of dollars for about a decade because of one simple scene. If Gable didn’t wear a t-shirt, well, your average American male apparently didn’t feel a need to do so, either. No doubt a legend of some truth, some myth).

Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

But the dialogue is subtly racier, and details surrounding the case are as well. If you aren’t familiar with the restrictions of the Code, you may not pick it up, but the sexier, saucier quality is there in spades. It’s largely a product of the chemistry between the two stars, who transcend the almost stereotypical nature of their roles and create a film that proves witty dialogue can compensate for an average plot line.

It Happened One Night won what are considered the top five major Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin) — a feat matched only by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Interestingly, it didn’t initially do well at the box office, but eventually took off as word of mouth from moviegoers and critics got around. Critics remarked on its original dialogue more than the story itself, as well as the interaction between the two stars.

Both Colbert and Gable were said to have been reluctant to star in the film, but contractual agreements brought about the pairing. Colbert, after shooting was completed, told friends she’d just finished “the worst picture in the world.” At the time, Columbia Pictures was best known for B-movies, and for other studios to lend their stars to Columbia was generally a punishment or a desperate move in bargaining.

Colbert did not expect to win the Oscar and didn’t plan to attend the ceremony. She was at the train station when studio representatives arrived to “drag her to the awards” if necessary, by orders of producer Harry Cohn, who’d learned she would, in fact, win that night (winners were announced prior to the ceremony at that time). She arrived just in time to accept her award, and turned around to return to her waiting train.

Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable It Happened One Night
Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable

The film has been remade countless times in countless ways, including a variation that is substantially different in tone and ending than It Happened One Night, but parallels with the concept of the dissatisfied, well-off young woman who runs from her situation straight into the arms of the errant reporter, and that is Roman Holiday. A good director with the right writer can take a strong idea and make a movie that is right for the times, classic for the ages, and different from what’s been done before. Both films should be on the must-seen list of all classic film fans.