Classic Film Club: 'The Palm Beach Story' (1942)
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'
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
Director Tom Hooper and his cast tell us how they turned the super-musical into movie blockbuster.
The Time Out film team weighs in on the nominees for the 2013 Academy Awards
Get ready for the big guns… Spielberg, Tarantino and Bigelow
Daniel Craig’s 007 comeback, a genius indie romcom and all the mysteries behind ‘The Shining’ unravelled.
The results of our study on the state of films and filmgoing in 2012.
Read 'Time Out film debate 2012 highlights'
'The Hobbit' actor tells us why he wouldn't have a pint with Bilbo Baggins.
Dave Calhoun speaks to the director of 'Skyfall' about the latest film in the Bond franchise.
The genre-hopping director tells us how he invented a new genre with 'Life of Pi'
The twice Palme d'Or-winning director discusses 'Amour'.
Read our interview with Michael Haneke
The Danish director talks about his powerful new drama 'The Hunt'.
Read our interview with Thomas Vinterberg'
Time Out looks back at the impact of the 'Twilight' saga.
Discover what 'Twilight' has done for us
Time Out heads to the Lake District to visit director Ben Wheatley on set.
Read about our visit to the 'Sightseers' set
The director talks about 'Frankenweenie', which he describes as 'the ultimate memory piece'.
Read our interview with Tim burton
Our pick of the best films showing over the festive period.
Read 'The top ten Christmas films of 2012'
Mean Girls? Dirty Dancing? Tell us your favourite film guilty pleasure.
Read 'Film guilty pleasures'
What will Disney do to 'Star Wars'?
Read about the new 'Star Wars' trilogy
Ten young actors come of age on the silver screen.
Read 'When teen stars turn serious'
From Connery to Craig, we revisit all 22 Bond films.
Read '50 years of James Bond'
The director talks Scientology and working with Joaquin Phoenix.
Read the interview
Ten funny horror movies which went spectacularly off the rails.
Read 'Hilarious horror films'
The director talks psychopaths and theatre – 'my least favourite artform'.
Read the interview
We round-up the five best horror movies of Autumn 2012.
Read about this Autumn's best horror movies
Time Out visits Istanbul to see the latest Bond movie being made.
Read 'On the set of Skyfall'
Does Skyfall refresh or rehash the James Bond franchise?
The British director explains why 'Ginger and Rosa' is her most mainstream film yet.
'I’m almost as in demand as Brad Pitt’