Because there is no romantic comedy less certain about the notion of lasting love than The Palm Beach Story (1942), there is no movie more comforting. About to get married and not sure you’re doing the right thing? Join the club. Still love the guy or gal you chose but recognizing that if you don’t call it quits, someone might end up dead? Get in line. The Palm Beach Story opens with a dozen question marks and ends with fifty more. Nothing about it is reassuring. Its writer and director, Preston Sturges, substitutes freewheeling candor for romantic bromides, yet the movie is the opposite of cynical: if love weren’t a leap of faith, it would be worth nothing. The Palm Beach Story is the diamond bracelet of romantic comedies: glittering, extravagant in feeling and in laughs, representative of all the things you might buy in the moonlight and come to regret the next day—but just look at the thing!
Sturges, perhaps like no other filmmaker, knew what money could buy and what it couldn’t. He grew up privileged—his mother was an international bon vivant, best friends with Isadora Duncan—but he understood the value of a buck and was attuned to the problems that having too few of them could cause, particularly in a marriage. And so in The Palm Beach Story, after one of the most exuberant and mystifying openings of any golden-era romantic comedy (more on that in a bit), we meet a young and troubled Park Avenue couple, Claudette Colbert’s Gerry Jeffers and her husband, Tom (Joel McCrea). They’re troubled because they’ve simply run out of dough. Tom is an inventor with a crackerjack idea for an airplane runway to be perched on invisible steel netting suspended in the sky over the city—an airport in the air—but he needs a hundred thousand dollars to build the prototype. Gerry, who, as we’ll see, is a woman with unapologetically expensive tastes, has just accepted a gift of charity from an eccentric millionaire—a pint-size geezer in a ten-gallon hat known as the Wienie King (Robert Dudley)—with which she has paid the couple’s back rent, purchased a few sundries, and picked up a new evening dress, a shimmery golden thing that, to her, is as sensible and essential as a housewife’s apron. Gerry and Tom are in love, but Gerry—both the more extravagant and the more pragmatic of the two—thinks they’d be better off apart. That way Tom can get on with his inventing without having to worry about her needs and wants, and she can strike out on her own—which is to say, she can find a rich man to take care of her, and pass along some dough to Tom as well.
Gerry leaves Tom, though it’s clear how reluctant she is to do it, and he chases after her, finally losing her at Penn Station. She has talked her way onto the 20th Century Limited, tagging along with a noisy and ebullient group of millionaire sportsmen—Gerry attracts money wherever she goes, and once you’ve seen her work those Bambi eyelashes, you don’t need to wonder why. With Sturges, mayhem doesn’t just ensue: mayhem is the whole ball game. And so, after the shotgun-happy Ale and Quail Club (whose members include Sturges favorites William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, and Roscoe Ates) is ejected by the train crew, Gerry is left without a protector, though not for long. As it turns out, she has already met, and charmed, yet another millionaire, the mild-mannered John D. Hackensacker III (played by a pince-nezed, and enormously appealing, Rudy Vallee), who’s headed for some perpetual R&R in Palm Beach. She wins him over not just by batting her eyelashes but also by stepping on his face.
Ladies, don’t try this at home—you have to be Claudette Colbert to get away with it. If Frank Capra made the best use of Colbert’s legs in It Happened One Night, the wittier, cannier Sturges knew just what to do with her timing. She gets most of the movie’s pinwheeling, brain-on-fire dialogue. McCrea, who manages to be both stolid and breezy, keeps up with her, but mostly, it’s his job to gawp in astonishment at the ever-flowing waterfall of half-cockeyed, half-brilliant observations and double entendres that tumble from her lips—some of the latter so direct that they’re closer to single entendres, though Sturges keeps them moving so fast that the censors clearly couldn’t catch them.
In some ways, Vallee’s Hackensacker, a naïf with a big heart and an ever-bigger pocketbook, is a better match for Gerry. Vallee, at that point on the downswing from more than a decade as a teen pop heartthrob, reinvents himself beautifully—with Sturges’s help—as a comic actor. His Hackensacker chuckles as he spends thousands on a new wardrobe for Gerry, noting the exact amount of each purchase—“6 Slips 96.00 . . . 2 Doz. Handkerchiefs 36.00 . . . 1 Doz. Pants (fancy) 60.00”—in a little notebook. He’s delighted by her loopy sophistication, gazing at her as if she were the Eighth Wonder of the World, on killer stems. What’s lovely about their almost-romance is that, even though Gerry doesn’t hesitate to accept Hackensacker’s gifts—and stops accepting them once she realizes she truly needs to be with Tom—it’s clear he isn’t striving to possess her; he seems to want only to reflect back some of the joy she gives him.
Carefree but also cheerfully neurotic, Hackensacker is practical in the way the conscientious rich always are, at least in Sturges’s vision. Unlike today’s one-percenters, most of whom seem to have no imagination and even less in the way of taste, Sturges’s Palm Beach Story millionaires—Hackensacker and the most wonderful Wienie King, a hard-of-hearing fairy godfather who reels out crackpot universal truths in a croaky monotone—use their money to live life, and to help ensure the happiness of others. And through them, Sturges upends another facile truism of romantic comedy: the assertion that money can’t buy love. Actually, it can’t—but having no money, or not nearly enough, can cause trouble in couplehood. Isn’t it better just to admit it? We can see how deeply Tom’s pride is hurt when Gerry magnanimously offers to cut him loose so he can finally achieve greatness. He’s anguished that he hasn’t been able to provide for her. Sturges doesn’t belabor that—he never slows down enough to belabor anything—but even so, the clarity of Tom’s feelings is piercing. Sometimes it takes a rich person to comprehend the importance of money.
Still, let’s not forget that, in Sturges’s world, money takes a backseat to joy—always. The Palm Beach Story was his fifth feature as director, coming just a year after his 1941 hit The Lady Eve. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948) were all yet to come, a litter of masterpieces that tumbled forth one after the other, like puppies chasing each other’s tails. Sturges’s heyday may have been relatively brief, but it was dazzling, and The Palm Beach Story sits at its glittering midpoint. Of all Sturges’s films, it’s the one most densely populated with brilliant second and third bananas, including the aforementioned Wienie King and the brotherhood of the Ale and Quail, accompanied by its fan club of speckled, howling hounds. Mary Astor is wonderful as the tootling Princess Centimillia, Hackensacker’s libidinous sister; so is Sig Arno as Toto, the English-challenged Euro-suitor who trots along at her heels like a willing lapdog. Sturges loved pratfalls, and in The Palm Beach Story, he gives them all to Arno, who at one point flips drunkenly out of a sports car as if his limbs—not to mention his cranium— were made of rubber.
But it’s Colbert, of course, who lights the movie from within, giving it so many of its colors. Through the thirties and forties, there were plenty of stars who equaled or perhaps even surpassed Colbert in physical beauty, but there were few who were so alight with life. Those apple cheekbones, so gorgeously prominent that they arrive on the scene a fraction of a second before the rest of her does, those quizzically arched eyebrows—if there’s such a thing as beauty that speaks of intelligence, Colbert has it. Her voice is the sound of laughter in waiting—you never know when it’s going to bubble up through the surface. And her physicality goes far beyond being a willowy hanger for gorgeous gowns: Gerry has to board that train without a suitcase, which means she has no sleepwear. A jovial Ale and Quail type lends her a pair of silk pajamas, five sizes too big and featuring jumbo circus stripes. Trekking from car to car, searching for a quiet place to sleep, she flops around in them, an haute couture Dopey. Her carriage is elegant even when she’s tripping over her pant legs.
Colbert is sensational from the minute we first see her, in Sturges’s wild, wordless opening sequence, set to the William Tell overture, which segues into a frenetic “Wedding March.” A fervently gesticulating maid, clearly employed by a very tony household that appears to be gearing up for a wedding, sees something we can’t see and promptly faints. A clergyman, standing at an altar bedecked with flowers, looks at his watch and waits. McCrea, in bridegroom gear, races out of a canopied building, yelling, his arms windmilling. Colbert, in a white slip and dainty satin shoes, is locked in a closet, bound and muffled with a scarf. No, wait—there she is in a bridal gown, madly making an adjustment to her tulle veil. The maid, having recovered, sees her and faints again.
What is going on here? Why is there one Claudette Colbert in a wedding dress and another tied up in a closet? Even the movie’s ending doesn’t entirely explain this detail, and it raises an unanswerable question: is it possible to marry the wrong person only to discover she was the right one all along?
Sturges, so very, very wicked, refuses to hand over easy answers. The movie’s prologue and its coda end with the same ominously honest words: “And they lived happily ever after. Or did they?” In Sturges’s world, love is an ill-advised adventure. He makes no promises: As a filmmaker—the same thing as being a seducer—he’s the most forthright of suitors, telling us not what we want to hear but what we need to know. In the body language of The Palm Beach Story, love is a pratfall, a tumble, a scrape. Whether you get up laughing or crying says everything about who you are.