Monday, December 31, 2007

The Palm Beach Story

“The Palm Beach Story” (1942) is another delightful piece of cinema courtesy of the great writer/director Preston Sturges. Eccentricity is the norm here, and the film boasts so many delightful sequences, actors and quotable lines that I barely know where to begin. (Word of caution: I’ll be using the word eccentric a lot in this review.)

Geraldine Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) is love with her inventor husband Tom (Joel McCrea), but he cant’ find financing for his inventions, they are behind in their rent, and she yearns for the finer things in life. Showing up to look at their apartment is a bizarre little man with a big hat and a walking stick who calls himself The Wienie King (Robert Dudley, pictured), an eccentric millionaire who takes a great liking to Geraldine and pays off their back rent and gives her some money to get them back on their feet.

Tom is suspicious of their unforeseen windfall and fights with Geraldine. Even though they are still very much in love, they decide to divorce. Geraldine takes off for Palm Beach by train where she is made mascot of a group of eccentric men called the Ale and Quail Club, who think nothing of using their private railroad car as target practice. Ale and Quail Club members include many familiar faces including William Demarest, Jack Norton, Robert Greig, Roscoe Ates, Dewey Robinson and Chester Conklin (contemporary audiences know him as the old-time fire chief who refuses to give up his horse-drawn fire wagons in the Three Stooges short “Flat Foot Stooges” (1938).

Escaping the insanity of the Ale and Quail Club, she meets John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), one of the world’s richest men, when she breaks his glasses (twice) after stepping on his face to climb into an upper berth of the railroad car.

Vallee is hilarious as Hackensacker and it ushered in a whole new career for him after his popularity waned from strong popularity in the early 1930s. (He initiated the singing into the megaphone gimmick). Seemingly oblivious to the insanity around him, he takes Geraldine to Palm Beach where he introduces her to his sister, the five-times divorced Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) and her latest conquest Toto (Sig Arno), who doesn’t speak a word of English.

Even though Geraldine is seeking a divorce, she still believes in Tom and his inventions and seeks to have Hackensacker loan her $99,000 for his inventions.

In the meantime, Tom has met the Wienie King who convinces him he is still in love with his wife and gives him the funds to fly down to Palm Beach and bring her back. He meets her in Palm Beach while she is with Hackensacker and Centimillia, and shocked to see him, introduces him to them as her brother. Of course Centimillia is smitten with Tom and more complications until the most satisfying, and clever wrap-up.

“The Palm Beach Story” is one of the great pieces of screwball comedy. The opening sequence, which I won’t go into, is very clever, and the Wienie King is a classic character. The Ale and Quail Club sequence is comedy gold.

For me, the one drawback is McCrea. I like McCrea in westerns and even in other dramas, but here he’s Mr. Glum and Gloomy to the point where I never understood what Geraldine saw in Tom. McCrea and Sturges had enjoyed a big success a year earlier with “Sullivan’s Travels” and Sturges liked to work with people he liked, but I’ve always felt McCrea was miscast here.

I can see why he was hired, as both he and Colbert are the models of normalcy while all the insanity ranges about him, but he’s too grouchy. Perhaps Fred MacMurray would have been a better choice here.

“The Palm Beach Story” would normally rate four stars, but because of McCrea’s portrayal, it only gets a still more than respectable three and a half stars.

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