The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Directed by Preston Sturges

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The characters of The Palm Beach Story are both practical and delusional.  They tirelessly seek various fortunes, both financial and spiritual, but do so through the most inane of means, which is a given for a comedy such as this.  The character, it seems, must be consumed by the task before them, as blinded to the broader world as a silent film comedian who can’t see what’s just over their shoulder.

They are admirable in their ambition, no matter how misled they may be.  These characters are defined by their spirit and a subconscious understanding that things will all work out, and they do.

Gerry and Tom Jeffers (Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea) seem to be a happily married couple, at least Tom thinks so.  Though he struggles to raise the $99,000 he needs to construct the airport of his dreams (on a tennis racket-like web suspended above the city), he lives a happy life with his happy wife.  She doesn’t agree and so announces her departure the next morning to head to Palm Beach where she can file for a divorce (this being the 40s you could only go to Palm Beach or Reno).

It’s not that she’s unhappy exactly, just that she thinks they can both do better.  In a well-reasoned but nevertheless delirious monologue she explains to Tom that should he live on his own he might have more time and drive to accomplish his other goals.  And for her own part she wants to live a certain luxurious lifestyle before it’s too late, one he can’t deliver for her.  There is no real ill will between them, just a frank conversation that things could be a little better.

Tom suggests that to be in love is enough, but that won’t stop her.  She heads to Penn Station and easily convinces a group of bumbling old hound dogs to let her sleep in their compartment.  When they get more than a little drunk and out of control that night (firing many shotgun rounds onboard the train), she flees to one of the, let’s say, middle-class compartments.  There she meets J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), who turns out to be one of the richest men in the world (a John D. Rockefeller type).

Hackensacker lavishes her with gifts and takes her with him to complete the rest of the journey on his yacht.  Soon after his sister, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), shows up to rock the boat and put ideas in his head.

After a few days Hackensacker, who’s weary of someone marrying him only for his money, decides he’s in love with Gerry.  This only complicates the matter, coming shortly after Tom arrives fresh off the plane, hoping to win Gerry back.  When he shows up unannounced, Gerry tells Hackensacker that he’s her brother.

All these misunderstandings and false identities seem to be the inevitable knots formed by characters who will do anything to get what they’re after.  In the end things will be revealed for what they truly are, but no one ever really responds with anger or disbelief. It is as if they know what is inside all of them, the shared spirit and ambition, so that they forgive in others what they know they themselves are capable of.

Up Next: The Legend of Cocaine Island (2018), 3 Faces (2018), Metropolis (1927)

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