Review: Preston Sturges’ “The Palm Beach Story,” Starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, and Rudy Vallee in
Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, and Rudy Vallee in "The Palm Beach Story"

During his peak filmmaking period of the early 1940s, writer/director Preston Sturges pumped out his madcap genre-defining screwball comedies for Paramount at a breakneck pace. When his classic Hollywood satire Sullivan’s Travels hit theaters in January 1942, the poor box office returns could have put a dent in the director’s career. But Sturges worked so fast that even before the film hit theaters he had already wrapped shooting on his next, The Palm Beach Story. Although not as poignant or unique as Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges’ fifth feature was still just as wryly autobiographical and consistently hilarious.

Claudette Colbert—having specifically asked to work with Struges after seeing a preview of Sullivan’s Travels1—stars as the wife of a failing businessman, played with a typical stoicism by Sullivan’s Travels star Joel McCrea. With the couple drowning in debt, Colbert decides to do the best thing for the both of them and get a divorce. She hightails it for Palm Beach—which a cabbie suggests as an alternative to the regular divorce-hotspot of Reno—rapidly pursued by an unconvinced McCrea. Along the way the two get caught up in a whole host of crazy antics, including a bunch of drunken gun-toting members of “The Ale and Quail Hunting Club,” and a wealthy brother and sister (Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor) that take a liking to the couple.

Like in Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges took inspiration directly from his own life; he had married an heiress in the early thirties and wrote in his autobiography how “The few weeks I spent as Eleanor’s house guest at Mar-a-Lago were not unuseful to the story . . . Millionaires are funny.”2 It does feel somewhat light and airy in comparison to the way Sturges seemingly probed his own purpose as a filmmaker in Sullivan’s Travels, mixing comedy with drama in a way rarely seen at the time. The Palm Beach Story could be viewed as a regression from that emotional maturity, but it simply has other targets. He wrote how the film “was conceived as an illustration of my theory of the aristocracy of beauty, or, as Claudette Colbert expressed it to Joel McCrea, ‘You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything.”3 The way his characters talk frankly about the relationship between sex, money, and love is often shocking for the time—it’s a wonder he got some of it past the production code.

Mary Astor in "The Palm Beach Story"
Mary Astor in “The Palm Beach Story”

As always, Sturges assembled a cast full of his favorite character actors (William Demarest, Robert Dudley, and Robert Greig, to name just a few) while subverting expectations with higher-billed players. Colbert and McCrea aren’t stretching themselves much; in most situations they are straight-men for the crazier characters to bounce off of, especially McCrea who spends most of the film with the same irritated look on his face. It’s Mary Astor who steals the whole film out from under them with a rare stab at comedy, spitting out Sturges’ dialogue so fast you almost can’t keep up and giving one of the most delightful performances of the year. “It was not my thing,” Astor would surprisingly say later. “I couldn’t talk in a high fluty voice and run my words together as he thought high society women did, or at least mad high society women who’d had six husbands and six million dollars.”4 As Astor’s square brother, musician Rudy Vallee subverts his desirable crooner image amusingly enough—Sturges had written the part specifically for the musician after seeing him in Time Out for Rhythm and finding him unintentionally hilarious.5

Certain elements of the film come off today much uglier than they could have been seen at the time; it’s hard to laugh when a black bartender is terrorized with rifles by the Ale and Quail club or Astor’s boy-toy Toto (Sig Arno) is dismissed endlessly for not speaking English. Though it also doesn’t always manage to keep up its wild pace, the way characters are able to frankly discuss the practicalities of money and marriage is so refreshing that The Palm Beach Story still feels leagues above most other Hollywood comedies of the era.

Where to Watch

Buy it on Blu-ray (Criterion) / DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

For More on The Palm Beach Story

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Bernard Dick, Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 113.
2, 3. Preston Sturges, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 296.
4. Diane Jacobs, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 274.
5. Diane Jacobs, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 272.