Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Goofy but Great: The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Bad times do not prompt most people to reach for a soul-scalding drama. If, for example, you are the Siren, and you hear that the judge who cast a swing vote in the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey has decided now is the perfect freaking time to retire to Arizona, you do not glance at the calendar and say, "That reminds me, I have been meaning to rent Vera Drake." No, the Siren reached instead for her copy of The Palm Beach Story, 88 minutes of a woman making it in a man's world with nothing but her wits and a pair of fabulously long legs to carry her through.

The first time I saw this Preston Sturges comedy was the night I rented it and brought it over to the apartment of a longtime pal who was in the dumps, I forget why. Probably a woman. He was as low as I had ever seen him. Usually he's making wisecracks all over the place; that night it was like dinner with Boris Karloff in The Mummy. We popped in the tape. Here's a tip: Do not try to understand what is going on during the credit sequence. Think of it as the screwball equivalent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or The Sound and the Fury. You don't understand the openings of those novels until you have read to the end, and you won't understand the opening of Palm Beach Story until the final five minutes.

So we're watching the movie, and after the credits the plot is clear enough. Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) have been married for five years, and their finances are a catastrophe. They owe an ungodly amount of back rent and Tom needs money to finance his airplane-landing device that will revolutionize aviation. They are still in love, but Gerry has decided to parlay her slinky allure into some cash that will bail them both out. She charms an elderly wiener magnate ("Lay off 'em. You'll live longer") into giving her rent money and decamps to Florida for a quickie divorce. On the train to Palm Beach she hooks up with the millionaire members of the Ale and Quail Club, but after the club decides a railcar is the perfect place for target practice (a funny sequence marred by a sadly stereotypical porter), Gerry meets a saner millionaire prospect, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). They arrive at Palm Beach, take the yacht out for a spin and Hackensacker falls for Gerry. Tom arrives, itching to get Gerry back, and finds himself being pursued by Hackensacker's sister (Mary Astor). All these loose ends are tied up in a neat knot that finally explains just what was up during that credit sequence.

So, anyway, sometime around when the Wienie King arrived and gave Claudette Colbert $700 to pay her rent, my friend sat up a little straighter and said, "Hey. She's cute." About two minutes more passed, and he added, "Really cute."

When the movie ended, Boris Karloff hit rewind, slapped me on the back and declared he was buying us both a drink.

According to the book Hollywood Goes to War, the Office of War Information was irked by the nonessential travel in Palm Beach Story. That, plus the pleasure cruise on a 300-foot yacht, the "destruction of a war essential" (that railcar), and concern that the relaxed attitude toward marriage vows might strike viewers abroad as typical American morals. After this movie's release, OWI started pressing for a tighter, more patriotic wartime censorship code.

They should have given Preston Sturges a medal instead. Can we agree that 1942 was a terrible year to be alive? I know it's fashionable to romanticize the war years, but we Americans had just entered a global bloodbath and it wasn't going all that well. If the Siren had opened the paper and there's Guadalcanal, Midway, Stalingrad, Rommel taking Tobruk, she'd have been happy to watch a movie with lines like:

Tom: Just like that, seven hundred dollars. Sex didn't even enter into it, I suppose?
Gerry: Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don't think he would have given it to me if I had hair like Excelsior and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear.

Gerry: Anyway, men don't get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.

John D. Hackensacker III: That's one of the tragedies of this life, that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous.

The Wienie King: 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. Heh. That's hard to say with false teeth.

In Sturges' autobiography (cobbled together by his widow, who went through his journals), he says he conceived Palm Beach Story "as an illustration of my theory of the aristocracy of beauty." Just a few lines later he observes, "Millionaires are funny." I know which analysis of this goofy movie I prefer.


mireille said...

i LOVE this.

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie, do not remember where, and I loved it. The shower scene was hilarious. One time I tried to ask you whether you knew this film, but I do not suppose my description was accurate enough. Now, I know the title, and I can finally rent it again, as I have been meaning too for ages.