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Movie Crash Course: The Palm Beach Story

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(Editors’ Note: this is THE LAST WEEK of reviews at this site.  After April 5th, the Movie Crash Course will appear exclusively at movecrashcourse.com .)

This one was weird, y’all.

Not unpleasantly so, mind.  At least not to the point I actively disliked it – and I do realize that that’s damning with faint praise.  But so many elements of this film are just so baffling that I can’t say it worked for me. Which is a shame, because there are other elements that were intriguing – a candid approach to how money can impact a marriage, some pointed commentary on how a woman’s attractiveness impacts her opportunities for her success, and even some physical affection that was surprisingly intimate for the Hays era.

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert are Tom and Gerry, a couple who have been married for five years and are struggling a bit. Tom is an architect who’s been trying – unsuccessfully – to pitch a new design for an airport, and Gerry is starting to lose hope and is a bit over their frugal lifestyle. Even though she still loves Tom, she asks for a divorce – he’ll have only himself to take care of, and he’ll be better able to hang in there while waiting for his ship to come in.  She declares she’ll find a rich man to take care of her expensive tastes; but secretly, she’s hoping that if she marries a rich man, she can invest in Tom’s airport herself, ensuring he makes his big break at last.  They go out on one last night on the town, Tom getting Gerry drunk to make her forget her plan – but she’s sobered up by the next morning, and slips out leaving only a farewell note.  A plane ticket to Reno is too expensive, so Gerry instead opts to seek a divorce in Palm Springs, conning her way onto the next southbound train out of Penn Station.

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After figuring out her plan, Tom flies to meet her there – only to find that en route, she’s caught the eye of an eccentric billionaire named John D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee).  Hackensacker is taking Gerry to meet his wordly sister Centimilla (Mary Astor); Hackensacker plans to propose, but wants Centimilla to pass judgement first.  When Tom runs into them, Gerry passes him off as her brother – prompting Hackensacker and Centimilla to invite him along to their mansion as well, where Centimilla gets busy on wooing Tom just as ardently as Hackensacker is pursuing Gerry.  All of which threatens to throw a monkey wrench into Gerry’s scheme.

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….So, yeah, it’s a screwball comedy with a remarriage plot (even though technically Tom and Gerry don’t complete their divorce by film’s end).  That’s not the part that baffled me – what baffled me is some of the “funny” things the script throws in, which really puts the “screwball” in “screwball comedy” in this instance:

  • There’s a lengthy sequence with the group of men Gerry befriends on the train, a hunting and drinking club called “The Ale and Quail Society” who’ve commissioned a private car on the train.  At first they gallantly let her alone in a spare cabin in their private car, but then they get utterly plastered, and soon half of them are serenading Gerry, accompanied by their hounds, while the other half start taking pot-shots at the windows in their dining cabin before the whole crew decides to go snipe hunting throughout the rest of the train.
  • The catalyst for Gerry’s divorce request is an unexpected windfall from a hard-of-hearing sausage manufacturer calling himself “The Wienie King” (Robert Dudley), a new neighbor who spontaneously decides to give Gerry some money for no reason whatsoever other than the fact that she’s pretty.  (But it’s okay – the Wienie King also gives Tom the money to fly to Palm Springs to win her back.)
  • Centimilla may be chasing Tom, but there’s someone already chasing her – Toto (Sig Arno), a fellow from a generically European country who speaks an unrecognizable language that bears no resemblance to English.
  • There is a twist in the last two minutes of the film that fans of Shakespeare’s comedies may find very familiar (and that’s all I’m saying about that).

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The wacky stuff felt a little thrown-in, kind of like Sturges was trying to up the stakes on the crazy to fit audience demand.  I suspected – rightly so – that this was towards the end of the screwball era, when directors were probably trying to out-do each other for laughs and decided to just pile on the crazy.  And while the crazy did get chuckles out of me, it was equally as likely to get a furrowed brow and a “….huh?”

Which is a shame because the non-crazy bits were pretty intriguing.  Tom is initially scandalized by Gerry’s having gotten money out of nowhere from the Wienie King, and understandably thinks that she’d done a little sumpin-sumpin in return, and outright asks her if sex had anything to do with it.  “Oh, but of course it did,” Gerry replies.  It’s a shocking admission at first – but then she goes on to explain what she means by that.  “I don’t think he’d have given it to me if I had hair like excelsior and little short legs like an alligator.  Sex always has something to do with it, from the time you’re about so big and wondering why your girlfriend’s fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden.”  It’s a surprisingly frank statement for the 1940s – Gerry knows that the only reason that people are giving her things is because she’s an attractive woman, and men like to give attractive women money and gifts because they hope she’ll return the favor with….favors.  The fact that she doesn’t plan on doing so is their problem, not hers.

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There’s also a surprisingly intimate moment the night before Gerry’s departure for Palm Springs – she’s having trouble unzipping her dress, and asks Tom for help, and while he’s back there she quips that the situation seems “unusually intimate.”  “…You want intimate?” Tom retorts, and then kisses the middle of her back.  It leaves Gerry flustered – and I have to admit, it did me, too.  For the Hays era, this was pretty hot.

However, it felt like every moment of witty repartee or seductive physicality was followed up with a wocka-wocka sight gag or a baffling plot twist, and I just ended up confused.

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