Rarely have I enjoyed a screw ball comedy more than Preston Sturges's classic look at the lives of the idle rich and those that aspire to be that way in 1942's "The Palm Beach Story". Taking over the reins as both writer and director here Sturges has produced a gem which came hot on the heels of his classic "The Lady Eve" of the previous year.
This gem of a feature boasts total excellence in all areas, sparkling performances from a top notch cast, superb writing, delicious one liners delivered with relish, rapid fire direction and a beautiful overall look to the proceedings. Indeed so rapid is the pace of this film that it almost requires repeated viewings to be able to fully appreciate the genius of the comic situations and dialogue.
To describle the plotline as being involved and complex is a definite understatement. Convoluted in an endearing way is the best way to describe it. It tells the story of young married couple Tom and Geraldine "Gerry" Jefferswho are struggling financially as Tom is an inventor who has difficulty in getting his original ideas to sell. Gerry being of a harder nature is fed up with being poor and when they are in danger of being evicted from their apartment Gerry decides to do the only thing that a girl like her knows; divorce Tom and find herself a rich husband who can keep her in the style she would like to become used to, while also helping Tom to obtain the financing for his new airport project. What develops from this point onwards adds up to one crazy comic situation after another. Gerry firstly encounters the unforgettable "Wienie King" (Robert Dudley in an absolutely scene stealing performance) an elderly gentleman who is hard of hearing and who gives Gerry a stack of money to get her out of her troubles because he likes her. Gerry heads for Palm Beach as that is "the second best place to get a divorce" according to the Taxi driver! What happens along the way is what classic comedies are made of as Gerry finds herself firstly "adapted" by the crazy members of a hunting club, the Ale and Quail Club that are travelling on the same train and who in a drunken state proceed to take over the train causing complete chaos for all concerned including the terrified barman who sees his whole workplace demolished around him. To escape them Gerry then slips into the sleeping compartment area where she then encounters John D. Hackensacker 111 (Rudy Vallee in a non crooner role) who just turns out to be one of the richest men in America and predictably falls instantly for Gerry. Once in Palm Beach pursued by an angry Tom Gerry is thrown into a whirlwind of deception and comic misunderstandings as she encounters the amazingly eccentric Countess Centimillia (Mary Astor in one of her most hilarious roles ever) John's man hungry, much married sister who takes an instant shine to Tom who is introduced to her as Gerry's brother Captain McGlue!! The comic goings one between the 4 main leads are a sight to behold and eventually end up with each person pairing off with the most suitable partner, Gerry with Tom, the Countess with Tom's identical brother and John with Gerry's twin sister!! Total madness indeed but so delightfully done that it almost takes on a logic of it's own!
Rarely have the cast here been in finer form. Under Sturges's sure direction each of them are outstanding. Claudette Colbert, a favourite actress of mine has rarely been better than here and she can say more with a sideways glance or a twinkle of her eyethan most actresses could do with 5 pages of dialogue. Her Geraldine is both calculating and refreshingly practical and cool headed in the bizzare situations she finds herself. Her scenes with the Ale and Quail club members are brilliant and real rib ticklers as her normally refined way of performing is put to the test with these loud and over the top performers. Joel McCrea has never been better than in his playing here as the harried husband who goes on a mad chase to reclaim his wife. His reactions to be dubbed "Captain McGlue" are priceless and his entanglement with the man hungry Countess who quickly earmarks him as her next husband will make you laugh out loud. Mary Astor, always an interesting actress literally steals the show as the Countess with her rapid hundred words to the minute type of delivery. Some of the most hilarious lines in the film belong to her and she delivers them with relish for example in a retort to Tom about the length of all her marriages she states "nothing is forever....except Roosevelt!!" In her memoirs Astor stated how she did not enjoy working for Preston Sturges in "The Palm Beach Story" and felt she never really got her characterisation right in this film. Interesting really as I think she has never been better than here and is the comic centre of the whole crazy proceedings with her playing. Rudy Vallee as the hapless millionaire is also a revelation in his playing of the fumbling man besotted with the much more world wise Geraldine. His different style of playing contrasts beautifully with the more over the top playing of Mary Astor. His scenes on the train with Colbert are classic where she continues to break his sets of glasses as he tries to give her a boost up into the top bunk of the sleeping compartment.
"The Palm Beach Story" is what classic screwball comedy is all about.The pace of the film is like a rocket and the one liners which hold many perceptive views on the rich and on our money consious society are a clever reflection of societies values at the time. Like all Sturges vechicles under the comic nonsense there is actually alot being said that can be applied to any age or time. Enjoy "The Palm Beach Story" and definately treat yourself to repeat viewings of this 1942 masterpiece as you will, like me, find new things to admire, laugh at, and reflect on with each visit.