Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, and Rudy Vallee in The Palm Beach Story (1942)


(director/writer: Preston Sturges; cinematographer: Victor Milner; editor: Stuart Gilmore; music: Victor Young; cast: Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers/’Capt. McGlew’), Mary Astor (Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (John D. Hackensacker III), William Demarest (Members of Ale & Quail Club), Robert Warwick (Mr. Hinch), Sig Arno (Toto), Robert Dudley (Wienie King), Franklin Pangborn (Manager), Jimmy Conlin (Mr. Asweld), Jack Norton (Second Member Ale and Quail Club); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul Jones; Paramount; 1942)
“Way before there was “Mamet talk” there was “Sturges talk,”–and his humor is sharper pronged and more scathing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Way before there was “Mamet talk” there was “Sturges talk,”–and his humor is sharper pronged and more scathing. The Palm Beach Story is a fine example of the auteur’s rapid-fire dialogue, sophisticated but absurd satire and witty screwball comedy antics. You can’t beat a film that has Rudy Vallee playing a John D. Rockefeller type of relation (but using another name), who is telling the striking Claudette Colbert in all earnestness one of those great double-entendre lines: “… that’s one of the tragedies of this life, that the men most in need of a beating up are always enormous.”

Preston Sturges (“The Great McGinty”) has made this into a satire of a woman’s best asset: her sex appeal. He aimed to show that a pretty woman doesn’t need anything but her good looks to get by in the world. Though filmed during the war, no mention of it is offered.

The film opens and closes with a marriage, as the prompting on the screen says “And so they lived happily ever after, … or did they?” After five years of marriage Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) and her ambitious flat-broke hubby architectural engineer Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea) are living in a Park Avenue duplex, but are being evicted because they can’t pay the rent. A Texas “Wienie King” (Robert Dudley) is being shown the apartment by the building manager, but when the more than slightly deaf man discovers Gerry hiding in the bathroom shower and finds her attractive–he lays the $700 needed to pay the back rent and and that’s enough to also buy her a dress, get a new hairdo and take hubby out to dinner. But the self-righteous hubby reacts jealously of the old man and a fight ensues, which prompts the flighty woman to tell hubby she’s going to Palm Beach, Florida, to file for a divorce. Though penniless she manages to attract all the members of a wacky millionaire’s club called the Ale & Quail Club, who get her a train ticket to stay in their stateroom. But the eccentrics get drunk, shoot up the train with their rifles and patrol the cars with their hunting dogs, which causes them to be removed from the train. After Gerry steps on a mild-mannered John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) as she climbs into an upper-berth sleeper, he becomes attracted to her and begins to woo her–buying her a full wardrobe, an expensive bracelet and taking her on his yacht to Palm Beach. In the meantime, the Wienie King moved into the building and when Tom told him about his wife’s divorce plans–lays on him airplane fare to fly to Palm Beach to try and win her back.

At Palm Beach Hackensacker meets his five time divorced sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), who has in tow her latest pet, Toto (Sig Arno), the fawning European of undetermined national origins introduced as a “refugee from his creditors.” There to greet Gerry is the ‘not too happy’ Tom, who is introduced as Gerry’s brother–Captain McGlew. The so-called siblings are given a room together in the Hackensacker’s fancy Palm Beach digs, where the comedy brilliantly becomes a case of mistaken identity. Though the gentle Hackensacker is generous and shows he loves Gerry greatly, she still loves her jealous and persistent hubby and maneuvers to get from Hackensacker the $99,000 he needs to support hubby’s idea for a new type of airport. While the sexually aggressive Princess is all over Captain McGlew, like ‘white on rice.’

This is Sturges at the top of his game, while working for Paramount in the 1940s. The Palm Beach Story has the wry wit to fuel the telling satire full steam ahead with enough one-liners to make the true film buff see this film over and over again. It’s an irresistible treat feasting on the ways sex and money dominate the relationships between men and women.