#17 — The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
By all evidence, Preston Sturges despised being confined, either by studio meddling or expectations. His distinctive comic voice, as bold as any ever committed to cinema, didn’t fit cleanly into the polished, reticent refinements of his era, when every last movie had to run through a clumsy, inconsistent official approval process. The filmmaker’s embedded cynicism was challenge enough to the dainty norms, but his rambunctious playfulness with the rigors of narrative structure could set his work teetering on the precipice of blissful mayhem. The Palm Beach Story exemplifies that clownishly caustic dynamic. Sturges demonstrates his mastery of the strictures of screwball comedy while simultaneously calling attention to all the contrivances he leans upon. He’s a magician taking devilish delight in explaining the secrets of a trick even as he performs it.
The film follows a married couple named Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert, respectively). They’re on the brink of financial ruin, which is causing enough stress in the relationship that a divorce seems imminent. However, the motivations aren’t as simple as all that. Gerry instigates the break in part so she can head to Florida with the intent of snagging a rich new husband who can be bamboozled into providing monetary assistance to Tom. From there, the film spins off into routes that seem somewhat familiar from other films with surface similarity, but everything is just a touch askew. While the prevailing sentiment is that the Jeffers partnership will endure despite this odd test, the film does allow for the notion that love may be a crock, a transactional relationship that society has collectively decided to pretend is far deeper and more meaningful. Sturges takes a particularly withering view of the wealthier class, which is strikingly different from the ultimately affectionate japery that was (and is) far more common when the rich folks are introduced into the comic landscape.
The opening and close of the film are where the sprightly, deconstructionist impulse of Sturges is most explicit. The film’s opening credit run over a loopy montage of fragmentary scenes of the lead actors, basically offered with little to no explanation of what’s going on. Similarly, the film ends with the message “they lived happily ever after — or did they?” It’s as if Sturges is taking a shot at the every notion of films presented simple, self-contained stories. Instead, The Palm Beach Story settles in as it’s part of some larger comedic saga, catching these characters at one step in their development, arguably no more or less important that the incidents that receive a faux recap at the beginning or those hinted at in their unseen future. Sturges has the capability to build a wild ride, doing so with ease, in fact. He’s also brash enough to call attention to the inherent phoniness of the ride’s different segments. There’s a goofiness to the blueprint he has to follow and a arbitrary quality to the very idea of beginnings and endings. Sometimes the ride has been going on from well before every rider decided to join, and it will rampage on long after many have grow weary enough to disembark.