Classic Film Club: 'The Palm Beach Story' (1942)

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Preston Sturges's 'The Palm Beach Story'

There are two facts most modern moviegoers know about Preston Sturges: firstly, that his 1941 masterpiece ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ provided both inspiration and title for the Coen brothers’ ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, and secondly that he was the first Hollywood filmmaker ever to earn the credit ‘written and directed by…’. The first of these is largely irrelevant: beyond the title, the Coen’s movie bears very little similarity to Sturges’ work, though his love of fast-talking mountebanks, heroic dimwits and steely dames with a heart of gold has informed much of their work, from ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ to ‘Burn After Reading’, albeit filtered through their own arched-eyebrow art school aesthetic.

But the second is vital to any understanding of Sturges’s life and movies. Here is a man who, through sheer force of will, put his personal stamp on a body of work which might otherwise have become lost in the teeming vastness of the Hollywood studio system. More than perhaps any other filmmaker of the period, Sturges’s work forms a single, cohesive worldview: while other filmmakers, from John Ford to Frank Capra, were content with a comedy here, a drama there, a western followed by a war picture, Sturges’s films almost exclusively focus on modern American class warfare, a relatively narrow field of social conflict: rich v poor, art v commerce, marriage v freedom, romance v practicality.

And yet, somehow, it never becomes repetitive, as ‘The Palm Beach Story’ attests. In many ways this is a core Sturges film, restating his central themes without straying too far off the path. Connections with his wider body of work abound: there’s the idealistic lug from ‘Sullivan’s Travels’, the aristocratic voyage of discovery from ‘The Lady Eve’, the gaggle of middle-American alcoholics from ‘The Great McGinty’. And in many ways it’s also a retrenchment, eschewing the heartfelt politics of ‘McGinty’ or ‘Sullivan’, and largely avoiding the battle between romance and cynicism that characterised ‘Eve’.

The story is simple, and a little fractured: Gerry (Claudette Colbert) and Tom (Joel McCrea) have been married for a few years, and it’s all starting to fall apart. They’re broke, and Tom’s idea for a suspended metropolitan airport is receiving zero interest from the bigwigs. And so Gerry embarks upon a crafty scheme: to divorce Tom, marry a rich man and pay for the airport. The fact that the couple are still very much in love, despite protestations to the contrary on both sides, does not seem to enter her mind.

Heading for Florida, playground of the rich, Gerry first finds herself on board a train loaded with alcoholic gun-wielding lunatics, and then in the company of John D Hackensacker III, the richest man in Christendom, and single to boot. And when Tom comes calling to track her down, he falls into the ditsy, inescapable clutches of Hackensacker’s sister, the Princess Centimilia, who is determined to have him for her fifth husband.

With its narrative rambling wilfully from comedy to romance and back again, it’s up to the dialogue to hold this crumbling edifice together. Luckily, Sturges’s pen has never been sharper, combining witty asides (‘you have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything’) with tragic home truths (‘that's one of the tragedies of this life – that the men most in need of a beating-up are always enormous’). It’s a cliché to remark to Hollywood in the ’40s had the edge on dialogue, but Sturges's work here really does throw the abject laziness of much modern screenwriting into sharp relief.

The only sour note in the proceedings is struck by Sturges’s surprisingly old-world attitude to his few black characters: the prison scene in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’, in which a parade of mostly black detainees march to the tune of ‘Let My People Go’ sung by a gospel choir, can be viewed as one of the earliest civil rights messages in Hollywood. Here, we’re treated to a grimacing, eye-rolling bartender and an officious train porter, both characterised by a cowardly, servile attitude and a stream of mispronounced ‘yessuh, boss’ dialogue.

But these are relatively minor complaints in a film which gets just about everything else right. Sturges’s star may be on the wane right now, despite the release of an excellent retrospective box last year, and the success of Sturges-lite familial farces like ‘Burn After Reading’ and even ‘Mamma Mia!’. His films can seem, at first, off-putting to modern audiences; that marriage of the sarcastically brittle and the swooningly romantic, of slapstick pratfalls and sparkling wit, can pose a challenge to audiences unused to the sort of tonal instability Sturges pioneered. But perseverance pays off: the Princess Centimilia could almost be speaking for her director when she remarks to the hapless Tom, ‘You will care for me. I grow on people. Like moss.’

Author: Tom Huddleston



Users say

1 comments
Val Peart
Val Peart

I loved the film, it was fast paced and hilarious - Is it out in DVD yet? I so want to share the experience with others. I was lucky enough to see a recording of it as part of my degree and have never forgotten it - leave all the deep observations to others, excellent example of screwball - I repeat I loved it. Val



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