February is the month of romance, so I thought it would be fun to pick a classic romantic comedy for my blind spot selection. There aren’t many romcoms I haven’t seen but one I hadn’t gotten around to is The Palm Beach Story by director Preston Sturges- the king of the 1940s romantic comedy! Fortunately, it proved to be not only romantic but also somewhat shocking (for the day) in its themes and story.
The first thing to keep in mind with The Palm Beach Story is to watch the opening credits! There is a montage throughout them that comes into play later in the movie. It’s a neat touch that starts things off feeling fresh and inventive.
Claudette Colbert is amazing as Gerry, a woman struggling with a marriage that can’t seem to get above water financially. Her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) has grand ideas but can never make a steady paycheck. Through various contrivances Gerry ends up on a train down to Palm Beach where she hopes to meet a rich man who can be her second husband.
To her great fortune she meets a man named John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) who becomes smitten and insists on showering her with all kinds of clothing and gifts. Of course when Tom hears about this he is furious and goes to Palm Beach to try and stop it.
Things get further complicated when Hackensacker’s sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) becomes interested in Tom (who Gerry says is her brother Captain McGlue!). With so many half truths it gets pretty nutty and even a little surprising. It’s also very easy to see how this film influenced movies like White Christmas and Some Like It Hot in many ways.
As with all of Preston Sturges’ movies the true star is the terrific script. He was so great at crafting frank and honest dialogue spoken from compelling characters. The banter between McCrea and Colbert is snappy and very fast paced but thankfully the actors are up for the task. Colbert is as good here as she is in It Happened One Night, and she has good chemistry with McCrea. They even manage to keep her likable despite her taking advantage of Hackensacker and not being very honest. Not an easy task!
I was impressed with how modern the script was in both tone and candor. Sex, marriage, divorce, infidelity, loneliness and depression are all discussed in ways that must have made the censors blush back then. Sturges even asks the question ‘is marriage necessary or a good thing?’. Of course, the answer is yes but it’s still a bold question for 1942. Later on in Unfaithfully Yours he will explore these themes even more, but I appreciated there was nothing cloying about the relationships in this script.
The only real downside is not all the physical comedy worked for me. All the actors are up for it but I preferred the more dialogue-based humor. Also, I don’t know that I completely buy the ending, but I don’t know that we are supposed to. I think it is meant to be a little bit of a poke at traditional romances with perfect happily ever afters. He even adds an ‘or not’ at the end to reinforce his point.
I definitely recommend checking The Palm Beach Story out if you like classic romances with great dialogue. It’s a wonderful choice for Valentine’s Day and a whole lot of fun! Also, studios should take a look at this film and consider remaking it or paying homage to it. The story and script is definitely still relevant and it would be interesting to see the themes of marriage explored even more so with modern characters.
Overall Grade- A–