The Palm Beach Story

I’d finally got round to writing my Eden Lake review (promised only eons ago) when I found the news on DV that someone else was going to put something on DV’s frontpage. So in order to give Neko’s Fritt Vilt the attention it deserves (by the way, you can find that review here), let’s go for a brand new review of an older movie. The Eden Lake review will appear on these pages this Tuesday.

In 1942 Preston Sturges released the screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story. I first learnt about the movie in 1995, the year cinema celebrated its first 100 years. The BBC had collected the BBC 100, a diverse selection of only the finest movies from that first century. It was broadcast on an early Saturday afternoon and I probably would’ve missed it had it not been for the director’s name. Director Hal Hartley had mentioned Sturges as one of his biggest influences and this made me quite curious.

The movie is quite something else: rather than boring you with what happened before, the credits tell the backstory while the actors’ names appear on the screen. Anyway, near the time the director’s name appears on the screen, we’ve seen Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert marry. What’d happened before isn’t exactly clear, but all that will be revealed before the end of the movie. McCrea and Colbert exchange rings and a title informs us “and they lived happily ever after”, interrupted only by the more ominous addition “or did they?”.
Well, did they? Not really. McCrea’s character may have had many ideas, but he was never able to get them sold. The couple is bitterly overdue with their rent and it doesn’t help much when their landlord  decides to show the flat to possible new tenants…

Colbert decides the only way out of this situation is to get a divorce. She hails a cab and is off to Palm Beach. Despite shaking McCrea off, he’s on her trail and is quite upset to hear how Colbert has managed to get to Palm Beach. I won’t spoil the fun for you by telling you how she got there, but it’s quite funny. Sturges had a wonderful talent for screwball comedy. The Palm Beach Story is one of his easiest comedies, some of his movies have more heart-breaking drama than comedic scenes. The man seemed to be the specialist of movies that made you cry rather than laugh. Which doesn’t mean they don’t make you laugh.

When McCrea tracks his wife down in Palm Beach, she’s courted by one of the richest men in the world. She’s partly there because of love and partly to get money for his soon-to-be-ex-husband’s ambitious plan. Earlier the movie, there is a wonderful dialogue between Colbert and McCrea about how important ‘looks’ are in the world (which you can watch below), but there’s also a wonderful moment just after the scene you’re about to watch where Colbert, unable to get out of dress, asks McCrea for assistance to unzip her. “It doesn’t mean anything to you anymore when I touch you, does it?” he asks. “No,” she lies. He kisses his back to prove her wrong. Like many of his other movies, The Palm Beach Story is comedy walking on the line between love and despair.

The Palm Beach Story is not a perfect movie, which – reluctantly – makes me rate it 9/10, but it’s one of those imperfect movies you’ll cherish more than some perfectly made movies which don’t have this much soul. Some of Sturges’ comedies (incl. Christmas in July and Sullivan’s Travels – starring Veronica Lake and the inspiration for O Brother Where Are Thou?) are now available on DVD in a boxset (both in the US and the UK). You’d be silly not to buy them.

(thanks to countrygirltori for the clips from the movie)

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One thought on “The Palm Beach Story

  1. Hutchens May 4, 2009 / 21:15

    I can’t remember the last time I saw something like that…bookmark ftw =)

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