The Palm Beach Story Movie Review

Is marriage really so important? One could take that as being the surprisingly modern theme of Preston Sturges' manic, brilliant 1942 farce The Palm Beach Story, or one could simply take it as screwball comedy of the highest order. Fortunately both interpretations are completely valid.

One of the few truly great writer/directors of American film, Sturges had more ideas than he knew what to do with; witness the film's credits sequence showing the main characters (Joel McCrea and a wonderful Claudette Colbert) getting married. There's a race to the altar, mistaken identity, a woman in a bridal gown locked in a closet, and general fast-paced madcappery, all done with music only -- it's an abbreviated précis of what could have made an entirely separate film. Then it's largely forgotten: The whole story is only alluded to near the end of the film, with one character referencing it only to say, "Well, that's a whole other plot."

The plot is not the thing here, it's the people, and the dialogue. After all, what else could one say about a film where Colbert abandons her increasingly pauperish inventor husband McCrea, ostensibly because he can't afford to keep her in the lifestyle she deserves but really because she's going to try and raise the money he needs for a career-making project. Fortunately for the viewers, the plot device involves sticking Colbert -- a deadly combination of hilarity and beauty -- on a train to Palm Beach that just happens to be filled with millionaires who take a shine to her. As a sour-faced McCrea chases the relentlessly optimistic Colbert (charmingly convinced her beauty will be enough to win bags of money from unsuspecting men) from New York to Florida, she is wooed by another man on the train (Rudy Vallee), who just so happens to be wealthier than all the rest of the millionaires put together. He's slightly less fun, though, as they're all drunk and wielding shotguns which they don't mind using while still on the train.

Given that Colbert has just given McCrea a speech about how he's better off without her, and what's the real fun of being married anyway, her extended flirtation with Vallee (a stiff but utterly guileless Steve Forbes-type) begins to seem like more than just a gambit to get her husband's money. Once McCrea shows up, and Vallee introduces Colbert to Mary Astor, his many-times-marred sister (another slight dig the film makes at the hallowed institution), who's quite impressed with McCrea's looks, one wouldn't be surprised if the film ended with a double-divorce and double-wedding.

But, again, The Palm Beach Story is less about taking potshots at marriage than it is with giving its actors the perfect vehicle to display their verbal dexterity. Sturges' trademark dialogue is delivered with snappy intensity, with most of the best lines going to the women, whom he obviously adores, either the motor-mouthed Astor ("Nothing is permanent in this world... except for Roosevelt.") or the impatient, proto-feminist Colbert ("Sex always has something to do with it, my dear."). Somehow in the end, Sturges concocts a rare thing: the smart and utterly unsentimental comedy that still finds room for romance and slapstick.

Cast & Crew

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Comments

The Palm Beach Story Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: NR, 1942

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