I recognized the greatness of Preston Sturges when I first saw The Lady Eve (1941). Sturges realizes the absurdity of his stories and he owns those absurdities for the sake of entertainment rather than attempting to twist them into something they aren’t. In the case of romantic comedies, today’s attempts at the genre find filmmakers over looking their absurdity and to do so, as a filmmaker, is to make a movie that’s too heavy-handed, ignoring the necessary tone of such a film.
How many times have you been watching a romantic comedy and things are bouncing along — a joke here, a sexual escapade there — all leading up to the inevitable misunderstanding or break-up of the central characters you knew was coming? At this point our minds have pretty much been trained to expect these moments and all that comes after them. We know the characters are going to get back together as much as we know all the fun of the film’s first three-quarters won’t be had from this point forward. Now it’s time to get serious. Time to get dramatic. Time to tug at those tears before our final rimshot leading to the opening credits. It’s filmmaking that kills movies and it’s a style of storytelling Sturges doesn’t adhere to, not in The Lady Eve and not in The Palm Beach Story, available now on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.
[amz asin=”B00ON0JQEO” size=”small”]The one major thing The Palm Beach Story has going for it is that while it’s characters service romantic comedy cliches, they are (or at least Sturges is) well aware they represent those cliches as much as the audience is. From the opening sequence, as confusing as it may be at first glance, Sturges readies the audience for a story wherein anything can happen, will happen, does happen and, by the end, leaves you smiling rather than attempting to turn a slapstick, wacky romantic comedy into some sort of dramatic romance.
If there’s anything I took away from The Palm Beach Story in terms of a message it would be exactly what Stephanie Zacharek gets at in her essay included with this new Criterion release, “[I]s it possible to marry the wrong person only to discover [he/she] was the right one all along?” That, right there, is a storytelling cliche, but with this movie Sturges owns it and turns it into a physical reality. As improbable and impossible as the scenario laid before us in Palm Beach Story may be, within the confines of this narrative not only is it possible, but it’s equally amusing at the same time.
The film stars Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert as, yes, Tom and Gerry in this cat and mouse story, telling of their troubled marriage, a marriage fizzling as a result of financial and romantic roadblocks. Offering up a turning point in their marriage (and the story) is a man I’ll refer to only as the Weenie King (Robert Dudley) so as to increase your interest, who helps the couple get out of financial straights, a moment Gerry sees as an opportunity for the two to go their separate ways, suggesting a divorce and ultimately running to a cabbie outside their New York apartment. “Where’s the best place to get a divorce?” she asks… Palm Beach is the answer and she’s off.
A billionaire played by Rudy Vallee, his sister, The Princess Centimillia, played by Mary Astor and Sig Arno as the princess’ boy toy, Toto, all enter the picture along with the rowdy, gun-toting, hard-drinking Ale and Quail Club as yachts, planes and trains bring Tom and Gerry back together in sunny Palm Beach.
Along with a new 4K digital restoration of the film, this new Criterion Blu-ray release includes an interview with writer and film historian James Harvey discussing Sturges’ meteoric rise and subsequent fall in Hollywood and an interview with Bill Hader speaking about his love for Sturges and specifically his love for this movie. Also included is Sturges’ short propaganda film “Safeguarding Military Information” (watch here), created during World War II as well as the Screen Guild Theater‘s radio adaptation of the film (included here as well) and the aforementioned essay by Stephanie Zacharek.
Criterion has already announced Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels for an April release and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see them release an upgrade of The Lady Eve by the end of the year. Palm Beach Story was only the second of Sturges’ films I’ve seen as he is just one more of Hollywood’s golden greats of which I need to become more acquainted, but I can promise you if you’re in the same boat, and interested in seeing a movie that gets the idea of the romantic comedy right, Palm Beach Story is a great place to start.
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