THE PALM BEACH STORY is perhaps my favourite Preston Sturges film, beating THE LADY EVE, and just like THE LADY EVE, it's a wonderfully quick-witted, sophisticated comedy featuring a strong, charismatic female character dabbling with the emotions of men who can barely keep up. Claudette Colbert excels as the beautiful Gerry Jeffers, who manages to be world-wise without appearing cynical. Frustrated by her loser-husband Tom (Sturges' regular Joel McCrea) she decides to take off to Palm Beach for a divorce, while simultaneously squirrelling a fortune out of a millionaire to give her ex a start in business. As she so wryly tells him, "You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything." Having charmed her way into a free train ticket, Gerry manages to get "picked up" by J. D. Hackensacker III, a chivalrous millionaire who falls for the straight-talking beauty. Conveniently, his much-married sister falls for Tom, who has, by now, made it to Palm Beach too and, as this is a screwball comedy, is introduced as Gerry's brother. Whip-smart dialogue and shenanigans ensue, and they all live happily ever after, or, famously "do they?!"
What I love about this film is how much more modern, frank and wise it seems compared to contemporary romatic-comedies. Most of us would view the 1940s as a far more sexually repressed and simpler world, but here we have the battle of the sexes fought with far more elegance and savoir-faire than you see in the average chick flick. There's something wonderfully grown-up about THE PALM BEACH STORY despite the zany plotting. And most wonderfully, it still seems fresh and full of verve today.
If I prefer THE PALM BEACH STORY to THE LADY EVE it's simply because Tom and Gerry's foil is so much more charismatic and surprising than Henry Fonda's Charlie Pike. Indeed, John D Hackensacker III is one of the all-time great comic creations. Consider lines like "Chivalry is not only dead, it's decomposed," or "That's one of the tragedies of this life - that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous." Or his catch-phrase - that state-rooms and tipping are "un-American". It's shocking to discover that Rudy Vallee didn't merit an Oscar nom for his performance. Then again, is there anything more heart-breaking than watching Tom and Gerry fall in love again while JDH sings "Goodnight Sweetheart"? Only Sturges can pull off that wonderful combination of clever and genuinely heartfelt.
THE PALM BEACH STORY was released in 1942.