Thursday, July 12, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Palm Beach Story

The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Written & Directed by: Preston Sturges
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor

"You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything."

Critics continue to hail The Palm Beach Story as a classic of the screwball comedy genre, one of its crowning achievements. The film is indeed an enjoyable diversion, albeit one that occasionally suffers from one too many scenes that distracts from the four main characters at the centre of the plot.

After five years in a seemingly happy and stable marriage, Gerry (Claudette Colbert) up and leaves her penniless husband, Tom (Joel McCrea), a struggling architect who just can't seem to make ends meet. Gerry flees to Florida for a quickie divorce, whereupon she meets the charmingly gullible John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) and his sister, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). When Gerry discovers that the siblings are multi-millionaires she immediately concocts a plan that will help funnel some of their wealth into her soon-to-be-ex-husband's bank account, saving them both from a life of poverty. When a disgruntled Tom shows up looking for his wife, Gerry convinces him to play along as her brother so she can get closer to John and carry out the plan.

Writer and director Preston Sturges crafted an easy, breezy farce with cleverly witty and engaging dialogue that centres about the pursuit of wealth -- and the consequences that come with it. However, Palm Beach Story often gets a little lost in its own zaniness. The film starts off on a rocky note with an unnecessarily drawn-out set-up for Gerry and the millionaire John to meet on a train ride to Florida. Their engaging banter is too often broken up a gun club aboard the train who insist on shooting the place up after having one too many drinks. At this point the film nearly topples under the strain of its own wackiness.

However, once Gerry and John exit the train, the narrative settles into itself -- and it's a combination of Sturges' rapid-fire dialogue and his exceptional casting choices that help steer The Palm Beach Story on course.
Joel McCrae, Rudy Vallee and Claudette Colbert
As Gerry, Claudette Colbert reminds audiences of why they were so charmed by her in the earlier screwball classic, It Happened One Night (1934). The beautiful, doe-eyed actress had a knack for finding hilarity in even the smallest of gestures and its because of her talent that Gerry is such an immensely entertaining character. 

While Joel McCrea plays straight-man Tom perhaps a little too straight (never quite loosening up), Rudy Vallee nearly runs away with the film as the charismatic and socially awkward millionaire John D. Hackensacker III. Under the assumption that Colbert's Gerry is leaving her big, strong husband because of abuse, Vallee perfectly delivers one of Sturges' best lines of dialogue: "That's one of the tragedies of this life, that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous." He underplays the role to perfection, his John creating a perfect balance between himself and the wild antics of the frenzied Gerry.

For the most part, The Palm Beach Story holds up well, delivering charming performances and genuine laughs. Despite a couple of missteps in the first half of the film, it's an amusing romp led by the vastly different, yet equally entertaining, performances of Colbert and Vallee.