The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The Palm Beach Story (1942) is a hilarious, zany, marital screwball comedy by writer/director Preston Sturges - it was his last romantic comedy and one of the last, classic screwball comedies. The witty, nonsensical film of mistaken identities and deception is a satire on sex as an asset. The farcical plot with cynical satire effectively skewers the idle rich (millionaires) and the pursuit of money, with its story of a penniless, separated couple. [Whether coincidence or not, the couple share the same names as MGM's squabbling cartoon characters Tom (cat) and Jerry (mouse).]
The film's premise is that a pretty, but penniless, fortune-hunting, scatter-brained wife, who is at odds with her inventor husband, may travel to Florida to obtain a divorce, and - with her beauty, ingenuity, luck and appealing charms - live the 'good life' in Florida and obtain monetary support ($99,000) from a multi-millionaire to advance the good of her husband's career. Sturges' original title for the film was Is Marriage Necessary? - to emphasize his challenge to the sacredness of marriage. Its title was a takeoff on the similar film title, The Philadelphia Story (1940).
It was the fifth of eight films that Sturges wrote and directed for Paramount Studios between his most prolific years, from 1940 and 1946:
- The Great McGinty (1940)
- Christmas in July (1940)
- The Lady Eve (1941)
- Sullivan's Travels (1942)
- The Palm Beach Story (1942)
- The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
- Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
- The Great Moment (1946)
The film is literally full of choice, timeless, quotable lines of dialogue, although a portion of the film is slightly dated (the character of the black train porter). As with many of Preston Sturges' other classic comedies, it lacked Academy Award nominations.The Story
Opening Titles Sequence:
The fast-paced, 'comedy-of-errors' film opens with a frenzied credit montage of confusing, mystifying vignettes without dialogue and interspersed with freeze frames - the strange prologue is only explained in the final moments of the film. To the accompaniment of the familiar William Tell Overture (and an inter-mixed Wedding March), a skinny, uniformed maid - who is excitedly talking on the telephone - screams, throws up her arms and faints when an off-screen shadow approaches and looms over her. The frame freezes briefly as it presents the credits: "Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea in". The minister waits impatiently at the altar. Dressed in his wedding tuxedo, a groom [McCrea 1] runs away from something and rushes out to a waiting taxi-cab. The frame freezes. Bound and gagged and only wearing a slip, a would-be bride [Colbert 1] struggles to get out of a closet. The maid faints again after finding another bride [Colbert 2] dressed in a wedding gown. When the bride [Colbert 2] leaves - the frame freezes - she trails her dress's long train over the maid's prostrate body. The would-be bride [Colbert 1] kicks her feet through the closet door, while the other bride [Colbert 2] with a bouquet in her hands hails a taxi out on the street. The frame freezes. The maid staggers into the hallway and faints a third time when she sees the would-be bride's [Colbert 1] legs breaking through the door. The groom [McCrea 1] is still dressing during his taxi ride and on his way down the aisle. He and the bride [Colbert 2] meet at the altar and smile lovingly at each other. There's another shot of the unconscious maid on the floor.
The camera pulls back. The marriage ceremony recedes into the background. The camera moves past two framed, clear-glass title cards with cloudy white letters, foretelling the expected romantic formula:
and they lived happily ever after...
or did they? (the music turns discordant)
Five years pass - each individual year recedes into the frame - 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942.
In Manhattan, New York:
The next scene is identified by another framed plaque - an address placard in Manhattan, the site of a duplex apartment for rent: "968 PARK AVE." The apartment building's solicitious, prissy manager (Franklin Pangborn) shows off the upscale rental apartment to a Texan couple. He escorts the rich millionaire (the first of many in the film) - an eccentric, bespectacled, hard of hearing man dubbed the "Wienie King" (Robert Dudley) and his wife (Esther Howard) down the hallway, while she apologizes about her husband's deafness. The hard-of-hearing Wienie King, who carries a cane and wears an oversized, broad-brimmed black hat and a long, non-descript tweed overcoat (with matching three-piece suit), raps on one of the corridor's doors as he passes, mentioning that he doesn't mind a noisy place: "I don't mind a little life. We'll be dead soon enough....." He has trouble carrying on a conversation and experiences frequent misunderstandings - he often yells back at them and at other tenants.
Even though the soon-to-be-vacant penthouse apartment is gleaming and bright, the Manager apologetically mentions why it isn't getting "service" and is dirty - the unit is up for rent because the former tenants are delinquent in their payments. The Wienie King isn't fazed: "Why, dirt's as natural in this world as sin, disease, storms, twisters, floods, and cyclones." While thoroughly inspecting the duplex, the Wienie King wanders up the curving staircase to the bedroom upstairs. Inquisitively, he picks through the cosmetics on a dressing table, squirts perfume, and smells (and licks) a toothpaste tube in the upstairs bathroom. Attempting to avoid the manager, the tenant Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) who wears only her silky pink bathrobe ("wrapper"), is hiding behind the shower curtain and finally reveals herself as he inspects the shower head. The zesty old gent is immediately smitten by the pretty young woman and disappointed that she doesn't "go with the flat."
Through his false teeth, he recites a poem to her in a nasal drawl about the approach of his old age:
Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone, our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years.
The Wienie King points to a bird embroidered on her wrap-around robe: "I love birds." He guesses that if she's the penniless tenant, she "must be broke." The elderly gentleman sympathetically and grimly remembers his own impoverished youth and his passing years, quickly ready to offer charitable support: "I was broke too when I was about your age, but I didn't have a figure like you've got. I had to use my brains. You'll get over it. You'll get over being young, too. Someday you'll wake up and find everything behind you. Gives you quite a turn. Makes you sorry for a few of the things you didn't do while you still could."
The millionaire (from the "sausage business" and the inventor of the Texas wienie) realizes her plight - the "varmint" manager will rent their abode out from under them. He advises Gerry to avoid eating his hot dogs: "Lay off of 'em, you'll live longer." To spite his bossy wife ("this will be a hot one on the wife - she's down there poking her snoot in everybody's business") and just because of his crusty, individualistic nature ("It makes me feel young again"), he removes a fat wad of bills from his pocket [a sly, Sturges sexual innuendo] and insistently offers to pay the "beautiful lady" her rental debt. He peels off bills, giving her seven hundred dollars cash - enough for the rent, a dress, and a new hat! She kisses him on the cheek as he gleefully departs, making his day. He waves his cane and exclaims: "Whoopee! Hot diggity!"
After a change of scene, Gerry's husband Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea), a poor, struggling inventor and visionary architect, is in his workshop pitching his plans to construct a futuristic city airport to an unenthusiastic, potential investor. The design reflects his own personality: "It's strong and safe. It's simple and practical." An enormous "steel mesh made of stretched cables" would be suspended above the city. His impractical and expensive device would enable planes to land "right in the middle of the city." His intentions are to first build a "working model in some field or village somewhere that small planes could actually land on - to prove that it was practical would only cost about ninety-nine thousand dollars."
When he arrives at the apartment that evening, the impoverished inventor is astonished to be told by the doorman that he doesn't have to avoid running into the building manager. The month's rent has been paid - by his wife from money given her by an old man! An overjoyed Gerry tells him that the rent and household bills are paid and she was able to afford a dress, a visit to the beauty salon, and new shoes and stockings - and with the leftover $14 cash, she'll take him out to dinner and the theater! He is naturally suspicious and jealous - Tom sarcastically objects to the attention she has received and is appalled by her shameless behavior, suspecting the worst. In turn, she explains how flaunting her sex appeal is blameless, innocent and nothing to be ashamed of:
Tom: ...I mean, sex didn't even enter into it!
Gerry: Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don't think he would have given it to me if I had hair like Excelsoir and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear...From the time you're about so big, and wondering why your girlfriends' fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden. Nothing wrong, just an overture to the opera that's coming...but from then on, you get it from cops, taxi drivers, bell boys, delicatessen dealers...
Tom: Got what?
Gerry: The Look! You know: (She mimics with a roll of her eyes.) 'How's about this evening, babe?'
Accustomed to living in materialistic luxury and spending extravagantly, she is relieved that the windfall has temporarily made them debt-free ("free and clean") and for a short while, they won't be concerned with petty squabbles from landlords, butchers and grocers. Dreading being in debt again the next month, however, she is considering separating from him. Like a milestone around his neck, she holds him back as a wife that must be supported. He and his impecunious career would be better off if they "bust-up." He has good ideas as an inventor, but no wherewithal to profitably finance them. Her attitude toward marriage can be summed up in utilitarian fashion - she lacks domestic skills (of cooking and sewing) as a homemaker, but is confident of providing for her own material well-being through a rich male provider:
Gerry: You see, by yourself, you could live so simply. I mean, just a little room anywhere, or maybe move in with your brother, or even use the couch in your office. And you wouldn't keep slipping back all the time. You could balance what you earned, and look the world in the eye, and maybe even get ahead a little.
Tom: Thanks. And what would you be doing?
Gerry: Oh, that's no problem. You can always find a good provider if you really want one. He may not look like a movie star, but then...
Tom: We'll get ahead someday.
Gerry: But I don't want it someday. I want it now while I can still enjoy it. Anyway, men don't get smarter as they grow older, they just lose their hair.
In the past, Gerry struggled to help Tom sell his ideas and become self-supporting with her self-confident, wily sexuality and other assets. But she only caused him to become more and more jealous and left herself feeling "helpless about having (her) hands tied." She observes that she can support herself by harmlessly manipulating a rich man with the allure and power of her feminine beauty - one of the film's major themes: "But that's what's so irritating. To know that I could get you someplace without doing any harm either. You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything. And instead of that, I have to watch you stamping around proudly, like Sitting Bull in a new blanket, breathing through your nose while we both starve to death." Gerry threatens divorce - walking out on her beleaguered husband after a five-year marriage. She claims to be altogether more practical and worldly than he is, predicting that she will soon find herself on a well-equipped yacht - a foreshadowing of her future:
Gerry: I may not even get married again. I might become an adventuress.
Tom: I can just see you starting for China on a twenty-six foot sail boat.
Gerry: You're thinking of an adventurer, dear. An adventuress never goes on anything under three hundred feet with a crew of eighty.
Tom: Well, you just let me catch you on a 300-foot yacht or even a 200-foot yacht.
Gerry: At least I wouldn't have to worry about the rent.
During dinner as they both become tipsy, Gerry suggests that they'd be better off as brother and sister - another foreshadowing of a ploy that she will use to help benefit their welfare. Maybe after their separation, he could find a more useful wife with traditional homemaking skills. And she could make him happy by finding a new, wealthy husband (pre-approved and in his "good graces") who might help him realize his ambitions - or offer him a business partnership. She is confident that enamoured men will 'faint at her feet'. Upon their return home from dinner, Gerry matter-of-factly states: "Well, you know we don't love each other anymore. We're just habits, bad habits...And when love's gone, there's nothing left but admiration and respect." When she cannot unzip the back of her dress, he assists and has her sit on his lap - and their love and fondness for each other is rekindled as he reminds her: "You don't think this is a little intimate, do you? Doesn't mean anything to you anymore to sit on my lap, huh?...What if I kiss you there?...Or there?" She shudders under the spell of his passionate kisses on her back, but denies any effect: "It's nothing."
However, she succumbs as he wraps his arms around her, and pulls her to himself on the couch; when he asks: "Doesn't mean anything to you anymore, huh?"; she breathlessly replies: "Almost nothing" (as her toes curl forward!). She allows herself to be limply carried upstairs to their bedroom - their kissing a prelude to lovemaking.
The next morning, as her husband smiles dreamily and languishes in bed, she pens a farewell note to him:
Just because you got me soused last night doesn't alter the logic of the situation. Good bye, Good luck. I love you.
When she pins the note to the bed quilt and accidentally pricks him, he awakens and finds her departing with her suitcase. After tumbling down the stairs, wearing only his slippers and pajama tops (and wrapped in the quilt), she explains her determined decision to him at the elevator - the time has come for them to separate: "It's best for both of us while we're still young enough to make other connections." After another tenant and an elevator full of people catch a glimpse of his naked backside, he throws on a pair of pants and pursues Gerry out onto the street, where he yells to an Irish policeman named O'Donnell (J. Farrell MacDonald) to detain her. Gerry is reprimanded for being an unlikely 'suitcase stealer': "It isn't how you look, it's how you behave that counts in this world." Tom struggles with her, arguing that it is impossible to get a divorce without money. An adventuress in the world, she counter-argues that she doesn't need any money. When she hails a taxi, the cabbie (Frank Faylen) recommends Palm Beach over Reno as a divorce and rich husband-hunting destination and haven: "This time of the year, you got the track, you got the ocean, you got palm trees. Three months - and you leave from Penn Station." The swiftly-compliant cabbie doesn't even hesitate to take her to Penn Station for free ("Oh sure. Hop in, babe"). When her suitcase opens and spills her possessions at her husband's feet, she leaves without money or clothing.