Saturday, June 21, 2008

Film Ignorance #2: The Palm Beach Story

Film: The Palm Beach Story
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Preston Sturges
Stars: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea
Year: 1942
Reason for Ignorance: I have no idea. Embarrassing

Ignorance Rating: 25

Just like It's a Wonderful Life, The Palm Beach Story is one of the acknowledged masterpieces by one of my favorite directors, in this case writer-director Preston Sturges, which for some reason I had not seen. And just like It's a Wonderful Life, I'm kicking myself now: The Palm Beach Story is one of the fastest, funniest, sexiest, and all-around best movies I've ever seen. If this whole Film Ignorance project is like this, I am really going to enjoy myself.

To give you an idea of how crazy this movie is: its opening sequence, a series of silent scenes set to music, is the climax to some other film we haven't seen. A maid faints. A groom (Joel McCrea) dashs out of a hotel into a taxi, struggling into his tux as he goes. The pastor looks anxious at the church. A bride (Claudette Colbert) rushes over the fallen maid, while another woman, her hands bound and her mouth gagged, struggles to free herself. Eventually, the bound woman kicks her way out of the closet, causing the maid to faint again, but it's too late; the bride and groom, both visibly relieved, have made it to the alter and gotten married. The title card reads "And they lived happily ever after...Or did they?" Years pass.

This sequence is never explained, although the final scene of the film, which is absolutely as ridiculous and as inexplicable, references it. It's as though Sturges is saying: "Crazy stuff happens. I can't make sense of it. Neither will you. Just have fun."

The movie itself is a classic screwball comedy, of the fast-paced, slapstick kind. After the Wienie King who is mistakenly in her apartment gives Gerry (Colbert) enough money to pay off the rent, she leaves Tom (McCrea) so she can divorce him and finagle the $99,000 he needs for his get-rich scheme - a mesh airport suspended over a city - from a rich bachelor. The bachelor shows up on the train to Palm Beach: John D. Hackensack (Rudy Vallee), oil tycoon. Gerry steps on John D.'s face, but that's ok - he liked it. The Wienie King is once again in their apartment, and this time he gives Tom money to fly to Florida and win Gerry back; he ends up being courted by John D.'s sister, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor).

I can't make any more sense of the film than that, but that's not what matters. Only two things matter in this film: comedy and sex. The first is provided in buckets, as broadly as possible. The Wienie King is deaf and misunderstands everything, but learns enough to give them money. Hackensack breaks more than a pair of glasses per scene. The millionaire Ale-and-Quail Club, led by Sturges regular William Demarest, gets drunk and shoots up their private train car. The princess' companion, Toto, speaks some language no one understands and takes a pratfall more than once per scene. I shouldn't say anymore; I know these things might not sound funny on the page, but on the screen they're literally hysterical.

The Production Code keeps Gerry's dress on, but that's ok - we can tell what we're supposed to look at

The sex is a different matter. The Hays Production code was being enforced, so innuendo is the rule. Almost every single piece of dialogue in the entire film could be interpreted sexually, but none of it is stated openly. As I said before, Gerry steps on Hackensack's face - and he likes it. The Wienie King advises people not to eat his wienies - and won't reveal where he gets his meat.

I think I'm going to stop writing now, because I simply can't do justice to this film. Most of the comedy is so broad that it sounds preposterous; most of the sex is so subtle that there's no way to explain it. So I'll end with this: In The Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges has crammed more sight gags and double entendres into 88 minutes that many comedic directors manage in their entire careers. I can't imagine a better introduction to his filmmaking magic.

Allmovie Entry:


Cinexcellence said...

I don't think I've ever heard about this one. But I do like Preston Sturges. I recently watched Sullivan's Travels, which is brilliant.

sushant said...

just saw THE PALM BEACH STORY today....really one of the best comedies i have ever seen. not a single dull moment.