Monday, 9 December 2019

Mubi Monday: The Palm Beach Story (1942)

This classic screwball comedy from writer-director Preston Sturges starts with a wedding before going on to show that it's not always a "happily ever after" for some. Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea are the central couple, Gerry and Tom Jeffers, and times are hard. They're behind on the rent payments, Tom cannot sell his latest idea (an invention that essentially allows for a city centre airport), and it seems to have been a while since the two of them could just let their hair down and enjoy themselves. That changes, temporarily, when a series of events leads to Gerry being given a bundle of money by the generous, and very rich, Mr. McKeewie (Victor Potel). After one big night out, Gerry makes up her mind to divorce her husband and sacrifice their time together for a greater good, hoping to find him the money he needs to raise for his big idea. She meets the very rich J. D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), which could solve all of their problems, but Tom pursues her, unsurprisingly unhappy with her plan.

Perhaps Sturges wanted to give himself a bit of a break after delivering the wonderful Sullivan's Travels the previous year, or perhaps he just liked the plot he came up with this time around, but there's no denying that this is a light, almost carefree, picture. It's also a strange one, when compared to the aforementioned film, in that every big problem here is solved by someone coming along at the right time with a large pile of money at their disposal.

McCrea and Colbert are both good enough in the main roles, with Colbert especially fitting as the loving and well-intentioned woman who comes up with a quite bonkers plan that somehow starts to fall into place. Vallee is a lot of fun as the super-rich gentleman who becomes smitten with Colbert, and Mary Astor is a ball of energy and machine-gun line delivery in the role of The Princess Centimillia, the sister of Hackensacker III. Potel only has a couple of scenes, but is a lot of fun as the old man with hearing problems and a big streak of philanthropy running through his nature.

The script is generally well put together, the direction is solid, and the cast seem to be having fun, but it's impossible to hold this one in the same high regard as other screwball comedies from this era, mainly because of how it relies on the same plot contrivance again and again, the provision of lots of money. Look, screwball comedies almost always use one or contrivances to either set the plot in motion, keep it going, or place the characters where they are needed, so I know complaining about it seems like missing the point of these films, but this just feels a little too . . . lazy, compared to the better examples. It would be okay if it happened once, perhaps even twice, but three times is a step too far.

I'd still recommend this, especially to those who have enjoyed other Sturges movies. It may not be one of his very best, but it's still very good. And it still has some scenes that hold up as real treats (all of them involving Colbert, showing how gifted she is with comedy). Just don't have it too high up on your list of prioritised viewings.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get it here.

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