The Palm Beach Story (1942)
This week I spent some lovely hours re-watching Preston Sturges‘ The Palm Beach Story (1942), and very carefully compiling images and words for my review. But mostly I thought about one actor in particular. He’s back!
Yes, The Palm Beach Story stars Joel McCrea. McCrea is Tom Jeffers, an unsuccessful inventor with a charmingly terrible idea for a new type of airport. Claudette Colbert plays his wife, Gerry. (Tom and Gerry–get it?)
The movie opens with a wild, fast-paced, confusing opening sequence: there’s a fainting maid, Colbert trapped and bound in a closet, McCrea running for a taxi in a half-fastened morning suit, and another Colbert running for a different taxi in a wedding dress and voluminous veil. It’s very screwball and very Sturges.
Sturges was an uncredited writer on Love Before Breakfast (1936), he wrote the screenplay for Easy Living (1937), and he wrote and directed one of my top-ten Netflix Instant movies, The Lady Eve (1941) and Sullivan’s Travels (1942). He’s considered the master of the fast-paced screwball genre, and his movies are a wonderful mix of clever, speedy dialogue and equally wonderful pratfalls.
It sometimes helps to suspend disbelief and just go with the farcical plot lines of a Sturges’ film, including this one. But if you do, you’ll find yourself in a very appealing semi-fantasy world where everyone is witty, awkward, and charmingly quirky, and where flashes of mature sophistication are followed by crashes of falling objects and people.
The opening sequence features more of the crashing objects and people than the witty sophistication. The scene pauses as the various credits appear on screen:
It’s a chaotic, confusing sequence, but it’s very enjoyable. I just wish you got a better look at Claudette Colbert’s wedding gown:
Colbert and McCrea finally arrive at the church, each running down the aisle but grinning at each other when they arrive. Aww.
The camera pulls back over the embroidered words “and they lived happily ever after,” but then more words appear on top of the first ones: “or did they?”
Sturges follows the “or did they?” plot, as otherwise it would be a very short movie. We move to a Park Avenue duplex, and the Wienie King (a meat mogul) and his wife (Esther Howard) as they tour the apartment with manager Franklin Pangborn.
Both Howard and Pangborn were members of Sturges’ unofficial stock company. Franklin Pangborn made six films with Sturges and Esther Howard made seven. And Robert Greig and William Demarest, whom we’ll meet shortly, made six and eight, respectively.
The Wienie King is almost deaf, so everything has to be shouted (comedy!) and he’s also pretty uninterested in this swanky place. Unbeknownst to any of them, Gerry Jeffers is upstairs and is rather unhappy to see people touring her apartment.
The Wienie King and his wife are told that the current occupants are delinquent on their rent (uh oh) and are about to kicked out. Gerry isn’t in the mood to talk, so she tries to keep out of the Wienie King’s way, but he sticks his nose into every corner of her bedroom and then bathroom.
She makes her presence known just before he tests out the shower. They shout at one another (because of his deafness, not due to anger), and eventually her financial situation comes out. Well, he’s got a huge wad of cash, and he’s a sweet guy who hates to see anyone in distress. So he peels off several bills and takes his leave. You can watch the scene here.
She pays the rent, the butcher, and the grocer, and buys a new dress, a pretty metallic thing with braid on the front and back. She’s excited to take her husband out to dinner and to tell him that their pressing money problems are over, at least for the time being.
The white stripes on that model are the runways, and he even has a little airplane attached to a string that “lands” on the mesh. It’s adorable and a really awful idea.
He needs $99,000 to build a prototype in a small city or town. And he’s having trouble getting it.
He comes home, and he’s very suspicious of his wife’s story. He’s also feeling guilty that he’s been unable to pay the grocer on his own…He asks her why in the world a strange man would give her seven hundred dollars. She answers: “No reason.”
And then he really gets going: “Oh, is that so? He just – seven hundred dollars? Just like that?”
Gerry: “Just like that.”
Tom: “I mean, sex didn’t even enter into it.”
Gerry: “Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don’t think he’d have given it to me if I had hair like excelsior and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear.”
And it’s now that we get to the crux of the matter. Gerry knows she’s gorgeous, and she knows that her looks give her a special kind of power over men. As she tells him: ” You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything.”
She also knows that her power is wasted when she’s married to Tom. She believes in his airport idea, and she knows it wouldn’t be that difficult to get the $99,000 from a rich man, but her husband keeps getting in the way. No, she knows she’d be much more successful as a pretty divorcée.
Tom hates this idea. He loves her and wants to stay married. And she says their love is dead, and that it’s more logical for her to get out there and use her talents on behalf of his invention, than to stay together and flounder indefinitely. Notice the sharp collar on Colbert’s metallic, braided gown.
This dress reminds me of the dress she wore in Midnight (1939):
Slinky, braided metallics–Colbert can pull ’em off.
They go out for a dour dinner, and Gerry drinks a bit too much. She stays firm in her resolve to leave Tom, though. But then she needs help getting out of her dress. She can’t quite reach the hooks and buttons, you see. Obviously it’s a mistake to sit on his lap…
In a cute little illustration of the power of that kiss, her toes curl. They look a bit like the witch’s toes in The Wizard of Oz after the house falls on her, but maybe that’s just me.
Fun fact: I think the same furniture was used in a previous Paramount-Preston Sturges-Joel McCrea film, Sullivan’s Travels (1942). The top two images are from Sullivan’s Travels, the bottom from The Palm Beach Story.
Tom carries her up the stairs (he’s very strong.) Fade to black. You can watch it here.
The next morning, Gerry’s in a tidy traveling suit, writing a farewell letter, as Tom slumbers.
I just love the letter writing scenes in old movies! She pins the letter to Tom’s comforter, but pokes him with the pin in the process. And then it’s off to the races. She grabs her suitcase and runs for the elevator. He grabs his blanket and follows. And falls, tremendously.
But he gets right back up, and despite having some trouble with his pajama pants, which he solves by kicking them off, he runs to catch her at the elevator. It’s a good thing he grabbed his blanket.
In one of my favorite moments, a woman in the hallway behind him screams when he accidentally turns his (pantless) back on her. So he turns to face her, forgetting about the occupants of the elevator. They snigger and grin as he apologizes to the scandalized woman. That distraction is all Gerry needs. She slips inside the elevator and the doors close…
Tom runs back to the apartment and yells to a policeman on the street that Gerry stole his suitcase.
A nice little scuffle ensues, but even after all that she gets away from him, though her suitcase ends up on the sidewalk, spilling its contents on the street. There’s something very upsetting about that.
Gerry makes it to the railway station, and she enlists a policeman’s help to keep Tom away from her. Tom attempts a disguise: he turns up his coat collar and pulls his hat down low. But it doesn’t fool the cop. It’s super cute, though.
Well, Gerry proves her point about long-legged women and sex and all that. Without any money or a suitcase, she gets a stateroom on the train to Palm Beach, courtesy of a group of rich men in the Ale and Quail hunting club. Best of all, they think it’s their idea to ask her to come along!
Tom watches her get on the train escorted by several millionaires, including Jimmy Conlin and Robert Greig, two of Sturges’ “stock company” of actors used in many of his movies. Both appear in Sullivan’s Travels, for example.
Tom is very sad. Nice jail imagery, too, as he clutches the bars; he’s imprisoned in his sadness, his inability to keep Gerry, and his failure to give her the life she thought she was getting when she married him. As she says, she’s not a good poor man’s wife; she can’t cook or sew or anything.
He’s also literally imprisoned behind the partition, so there’s that, too.
The Ale and Quail Club is a hoot, and their wildest member is William Demarest, who was Henry Fonda’s bodyguard/bad valet in another Sturges film, The Lady Eve, and a reporter in Easy Living, written by Sturges. He is a member of Sullivan’s entourage in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1942), and he also played Esther William’s father eleven years later in Dangerous When Wet. That’s him on the right. And that’s one of the train officials, not a Nazi.
The club looks upon Gerry as their mascot, and they even find her a pair of striped pajamas when she admits that she has no suitcase. They also provide an unwanted, nighttime serenade:
It would be a pity to wrinkle her monogrammed blouse by sleeping in it. Several of the club members invade her room to sing her a good night tune. It won’t be the last time she is serenaded to sleep against her will.
Meanwhile, William Demarest and one of his buddies get really drunk and start shooting live ammunition in their private train car. Soon more drunk men are firing their shotguns indiscriminately on the train.
Gerry runs away from the dangerous chaos. When the Ale and Quail Club discover she’s gone, they form a posse on the train, complete with hunting dogs hot on the trail.
So now there’s a train car with all of its windows shot out, a posse going from train car to train car, and a runaway wife wearing much-too-large men’s pajamas and a prim bow in her hair…Well done, Sturges.
Meanwhile, the Wienie King comes back to the Jeffers’ apartment. He meets Tom. And Tom’s mad. And handsome. Boy, he can wear a hat.
They shout at each other for a while, but eventually they calm down and Tom explains the situation. The Wienie King gives Tom a bunch of money to go and get Gerry. (The Wienie King’s roll of hundreds secured with a rubber band is a useful plot device.)
Back to the train: Gerry runs down the sleeping cars looking for a place to hide from the drunk, trigger-happy posse. She attempts to climb up into an upper berth, and accidentally uses the face of a dorky little man (Rudy Vallee) as a ladder. She breaks his pince-nez. She helps collect the broken glass from his face (ouch), but he’s very sweet and gentle about the whole thing.
Rudy Vallee was a very popular bandleader and crooner in the late 1920s-1940s. Fun fact: the last song he released was “As Time Goes By,” which you’ve heard in Casablanca (1942). He’s recorded the song in the 1940s, and Columbia re-issued the record in 1943. He’s perfect in this role, and you can watch this hilarious scene here.
The Ale and Quail Club’s private train cars are unhitched from the rest of the train, which solves that problem, though it’s the second time in one day that Gerry has lost her possessions. She gazes and sighs in the upper berth that night, as Tom gazes and sighs on an airplane flying to Palm Beach.
The next morning the pince-nez man invites Gerry to breakfast with him. She’s grateful for his help, but certainly not enamored with him. This is her reaction to one of his stiff, formal attempts at a joke:
He’s very different from her dashing husband, but he’s kind and excited to be of service. You get the feeling that he doesn’t have much contact with girls.
Gerry hasn’t any clothes to wear to breakfast, since her one outfit was in an Ale and Quail Club’s private car. The pince-nez man and a helpful porter attempt to collect items from other female passengers, but none suit. So Gerry improvises and crafts a sassy little outfit from the pajamas and the train blanket.
They strike up a friendship, and he offers to take her shopping, and then to Palm Beach on his yacht. She agrees. His disarming awkwardness and stiff gallantry quiet the “stranger-danger alarms” in her head. It’s lucky he is harmless, or this screwball comedy could have turned into a murder mystery in a trice.
They go shopping; cue the fashion show:
Gerry’s rather puzzled by his habit of happily scribbling the price of each item in a little book, but she goes with it. His little book is a useful way of showing the shopping spree without actually showing all of it. We see page after page of the man’s lists:
Once the nightgowns, bathrobes, girdles, and handbags are purchased, he even buys her a bracelet. It’s very odd–he knows that women are supposed to wear bracelets, and even that men often buy them for women, but he acts as though he’s an alien only vaguely aware of such customs and their implications.
With a more knowing gentlemen, Gerry might have felt compelled to refuse such an extravagant gift, as it would create a certain unwholesome expectation. But with this fellow she feels perfectly safe, if a little confused.
Off they go to his yacht, where they have a funny conversation while Gerry wears that funny veiled hat ensemble. He confesses that he is John D. Hackensacker III (a-not-so-subtle John D. Rockefeller reference), who happens to be the richest man in the world, and single. It’s certainly a happy surprise for Gerry.
She explains that she is heading to Palm Beach to get a divorce. John assumes that Gerry’s husband is a beast, and she lets him think that.
Dear John in his pince-nez is very upset to think of his new friend being trapped in a cruel marriage. He says things like: “I may not be exactly in the best of shape, but if ever I meet this Mr. Jeffers, I’ll thrash him within an inch of his life,” and this gem:
And Gerry tries not to giggle. It’s very amusing, and Preston Sturges gets plenty of laughs out of Joel McCrea’s tall strapping form and John’s oddities and dignified speech. You can watch their yacht-bound and veiled-hat conversation here.
Tom is waiting with a bouquet of roses at the yacht club when John’s monster of a boat arrives. He borrows binoculars and does not like what he sees:
Meanwhile, John’s sister, the Princess Maud Centimillia (Mary Astor) arrives on the yacht to welcome her brother to Palm Beach. Mary Astor played the adulterous aristocrat in Midnight (1939) with Claudette Colbert, and the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis, but in this movie she plays a totally different character.
She got her title when she married some prince, but it was fifth marriage (three divorces and two annulments). Sometimes she has trouble remembering her ex-husbands’ names, but she finds that amusing. She keeps up a constant stream of brutally honest la-dee-da conversation, and she’s always on the hunt for a handsome man.
She has too many fantastic lines to mention, but one of my favorites is: “Of course, I’m crazy; I’ll marry anybody.” She has a lot of fun, and she makes a lorgnette look cool. (Bad eyesight must run in the Hackensacker family.)
Maud calls her brother “Snoodles,” and she thinks it is hilarious that he managed to pick up a beautiful woman on a train. She takes to Gerry at once, but she takes to Tom even faster. You can watch her work here.
Gerry thinks fast when she sees Tom, and she introduces him to the Hackensacker siblings as her brother, Captain McGloo. He’s rather furious at being her “brother” and at the ridiculous name she chose; she claims that John won’t build Tom’s airport if he knows that Tom is Gerry’s husband, and wasn’t McGloo Tom’s mother’s maiden name? No, Geraldine, he says, it was McGrew. Woops.
Well, off they go to the Hackensacker mansion. John is enamored of Gerry, and Maud is thrilled to be enamored of Captain McGloo. She’s tired of her current fling, Toto. Toto appears every once in a while as comic relief. Tennis, anyone?
Gerry has everything figured out. She’s going to get John to give Tom/Captain McGloo money to build the airport, and she might become the wife of the richest man in the world as a bonus.
But Tom hates everything about this scheme, especially being seduced by the Princess while trying to keep John from seducing Gerry. He’s furious when he sees Gerry’s new bracelet; unlike alien-in-human-form John, Tom knows what it means to give a girl a diamond bracelet…His reaction to her sparkling new gems: “Do you know what it feels like to be strangled by bare hands?”
That night, the Princess shimmers in a beaded frock, and Gerry wows in a black lace dress by costume designer Irene. It’s got a mantilla headdress and a mini-capelet with a diamond clasp at her neck. It’s a dress, necklace, and veil in one
Good thing Tom brought his tuxedo on his last-minute jaunt to Palm Beach. The Princess keeps distracting Tom when he would much rather be punching John for dancing with Gerry.
After a night of dancing, the foursome returns to the mansion. Tom evades the Princess and settles by the ridiculous doors to wait for Gerry. He overhears John telling Gerry to keep her balcony doors open for a surprise…
Gerry tries to dissuade John from executing the promised surprise, but she fails.
John appears beneath her window with a full orchestra and a painfully sweet version of “Goodnight, Sweetheart.” I love Colbert and McCrea’s reactions.
Rudy Vallee is just perfect in this role. He’s odd and awkward, but not so much so that we feel pity and stop laughing, and nor do we think badly of Gerry for cringing from time to time at John’s forays into romance.
Gerry stays strong in her determination to keep Tom as her “brother” until she has trouble with her dratted dress, again. Their brother-sister relationship means they’re sharing a suite in the mansion, so guess who Gerry calls on to help her out of that thing?
And you know what happens next. Nice repetition, Sturges.
The next morning, Maud and John show off the “trinkets” they plan to give to Tom and Gerry, respectively. Maud is delighted that John has finally fallen for someone, and he is resigned to her falling, yet again.
Oh my! Things are getting serious! But I won’t spoil the ending except to tease you with these final shots, and to say that the opening sequence suddenly makes a little more sense:
Working titles for this movie were Is Marriage Necessary? and Is That Bad? The Production Code Administration, the industry’s self-censorship body, axed “Is Marriage Necessary,” for obvious reasons. They rejected the first script, too, due to dialogue and sexual situations, and the PCA remained disapproving of later drafts because of the “light treatment of marriage and divorce.” They weren’t crazy about the Hackensacker/Rockefeller parody, either.
To get the movie made, Sturges cleaned up dialogue and treated marriage just a smidge more heavily; for instance, originally Maud bragged about 8 previous marriages, but in the movie it’s reduced to five.
The script is wonderful–quick, sophisticated, and funny–and the cast is perfection. Mary Astor is highly amusing as a platinum blonde man-eater with a gift for double entendres and lightning patter. She would be a really fun best friend. Rudy Vallee is unflappable and grand, and his pince-nez become practically another character.
Claudette Colbert is “logical,” self-possessed, and also none of those things, and she wears the hell out of some very nice, often-veiled getups. She was a big star and got $150,000 for her role in this movie.
And then there’s Joel McCrea. He is so great at being terrifically handsome and sneakily romantic, but simultaneously clumsy and un-suave.
He’s just delightful to watch in this type of role and movie, as you can tell from my effusive praise about his performance in this movie and The More the Merrier (1943). He only got $60,000 for his work.
This was Sturges’ second film with McCrea. The actor had starred with Veronica Lake in what many people consider to be Sturges’ masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels (1942), which was filmed a few months before this movie went into production.
They would go on to do one more movie together, The Great Moment (1944, though it was filmed in 1942), about a 19th century dentist’s first use of ether as a general anesthetic. It’s not quite the laugh riot you’ll find in Sullivan’s Travels or The Palm Beach Story…
Preston Sturges later wrote that this movie was all about his theory of “the aristocracy of beauty,” as demonstrated by Gerry’s notion (proven right, by the way) that a beautiful woman can get just about anything she wants.
Sturges also claimed the story was based in part on his own experiences amongst the millionaires of Palm Beach, writing simply: “Millionaires are funny.” Sturges was friends with wealthy Palm Beach developer Paris Singer, and for two years he was married to the heiress Eleanor Close Hutton, whose mother, Marjorie Post, was the wealthiest woman in America. So he knew of what he filmed.
Even if you don’t like Joel McCrea as much as I do, you should watch this movie. It’s excellent. Here’s the trailer–enjoy!