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Late in the 1960s both Fox and Paramount donated their vast vaults of studio screening prints to the newly-formed UCLA Film Archive. This made possible constant screenings of original nitrate prints of films un-seeable in any other way. Long before restorations became the norm we students had access to perfect original prints of big-screen wonders like Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here and Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls. As these were nitrate prints, we became familiar with the shimmering 'silver screen' effect. The original IB Technicolor of the Berkelely picture soaked the viewer in colors brighter than anything in reality.
The new archive also made it easy for associate professor Robert Epstein to float a class about writer-director Preston Sturges, and screen practically everything the man filmed in brand-new condition. The result was that UCLA made permanent Sturges fans of hundreds of students like myself. At age twenty I had never heard of him.
Both Arrow Video (UK, so far) and Criterion have been issuing classy Blu-ray editions of Sturges' core comedies from the early 1940s, often with interesting unique extras. This Criterion The Palm Beach Story is an excellent choice to begin with the director. It may not be his most sophisticated or wildest screenplay, but it's the most consistently funny and it makes the best use of his sprawling stock company of character actors, many of whom look like cartoon characters. See 'em pop up two or three times speaking Sturges' witty dialogue, and they'll be friends for life.
A screwball romantic comedy, The Palm Beach Story stays funny by keeping itself ridiculously off balance. Married New York couple Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea & Claudette Colbert) break up due to money issues. He can't find a buyer for his revolutionary airport idea. As she has no intention of being poor, she simply decides to take the train South in search of a rich man to solve both their problems. An eccentric millionaire called "The Weenie King" (Robert Dudley) gives Gerry the last rent money just because he likes her. Her train ride becomes an affectionate kidnapping by the drunken, carousing and adorable "Ale and Quail Club", a group of revelers so rowdy that the railroad men abandon their car on a side rail. Gerry continues but finds that she's lost her baggage and has only a pair of pajamas. But that's perfectly fine. She's almost immediately scooped up by J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a nearsighted, fussy but endearingly polite kazillionaire who immediately takes a shine to her. One expensive shopping trip and yacht journey later, Gerry is the guest of J.D. and his sister The Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), a randy playgirl with an admiring European 'houseguest' she can't get rid of, a fellow she dismissively calls Toto (Sig Arno). Hoping to score the investment for Tom's experimental airport concept, Gerry is upset when Tom shows up to retrieve her. She passes him off as a brother, with the silly name Mister Mc Glue. The Princess immediately tries to seduce the sober Tom. To keep Tom from ruining her plans, Gerry makes him promise to keep up the 'Mc Glue' act -- at least until something goes wrong and she succumbs to J.D.'s advances. But the punctilious Hackensacker heir courts her as if it were the previous century -- even hiring an orchestra so he can sing below her balcony.
Unless you're some kind of movie Scrooge, The Palm Beach Story will definitely put a smile on your face. Sturges invents so many original and funny characters, and his cast brings them to life with such gusto, that one can't help be infected by their madness. As a delivery system for the director's (sometimes belittled) slapstick, Sturges' Ale and Quail Club can't be bettered. It matters not that the comedy premise is so thin -- "I love you so I have to leave you". The movie seems nailed to its time (1942) while remaining completely frivolous -- there's no mention of the war whatsoever. At one point we study a long shopping list of luxury clothing items... just reading the prices from that year is funny. Rudy Vallee had been an idol fifteen years or so earlier, but Sturges gives him a comedy comeback persona that lasted him the rest of his life. Even when crooning one of his old megaphone tunes, Vallee is utterly charming. Mary Astor's earlier sex scandals were perhaps meant to influence our reading of her refreshingly morals-free Princess, who makes being an insufferable snob seem wholly attractive. The Princess laughs at her own decadence in a way that makes us laugh too, and she gets funnier every time she dismisses her lapdog consort, Toto.
Claudette Colbert was pushing 40 but as seen on screen could hold her own physically with any 19 year-old. She's the one carrying most of Sturges' story concept, which is really a character attitude. Everything's crucial and yet nothing is. As Gerry puts it, everything's about sex and she isn't afraid to let her attractiveness make things a little easier. Her big achievement is avoiding being completely bowled over by all the things Sturges' plot throws at her. Straight man / frustrated husband Joel McCrea anchors the comedy in reality. He's the only character who doesn't talk incessantly, yet he's never left out of the proceedings. Tom and Gerry obviously belong together, and we know everything's going to work out fine. The movie is too silly to be otherwise.
So that's a rundown of The Palm Beach Story that doesn't give examples of specific jokes -- the level of wit here is unequalled, and the double-entendres are so clever that they come very close to being direct sex talk. I'm also refraining from repeating any of the choice dialogue bits, that come direct from the writer's joke book yet seem to have sprung exclusively to the characters he's invented. Sturges begins his movie with a title sequence of total unexplained chaos because he needs it to set up a finale for his story. It's a case of desperate invention -- as I said, stories that lurch several times into completely unexpected situations often paint themselves into a corner. Sturges escapes by jumping to a new level of silliness.
This time around we marvel at Sturges' use of the swanky Paramount sets - the Jeffers' art deco apartment, the ridiculously luxurious Palm Beach mansion -- and also at Paramount's impressive special effects. The final shot 'multiplies' the characters (don't ask how) and performs a camera pullback through several layers of superimposed text -- yet reveals no extra grain whatsoever. That, and we realize how much we love The Weenie King. Wouldn't be great if a half-deaf, insultingly opinionated but lavishly generous benefactor wandered into our lives whenever things got tough? For him I'll break my no-dialogue rule: "I'm the Wienie King! Invented the Texas Wienie! Lay off 'em, you'll live longer."
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The Palm Beach Story gives us a polished HD B&W scan of this great show. The fine granularity is a good representation of the film, although original prints were even smoother. The beefy audio is the equal of the theatrical prints. Those Ale and Quail jokers get good and loud with their shotguns and baying hounds.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy doesn't repeat extras from previous Criterion editions, which leaves her with a new interview essay by historian James Harvey. He splits his approach between thoughtful insights and pure affection. We learn that not all the Sturges pictures did well, and he suggests that even this priceless gem may have been aimed at too sophisticated an audience -- was the slapstick an effort to compensate? A change in the Paramount head of production apparently would have lost Sturges his catbird seat no matter what. Looking at the movies now we say Hollywood was insane for letting this great talent slide.
A new interview with the engaging comedian-writer Bill Hader aims to instill an appreciation of Preston Sturges with a younger crowd... TCM would seem to use Hader in the same way. He was okay for the first thirty seconds until he likened Sturges to John Hughes, proposing Ferris Bueller's Day Off as Hughes' Palm Beach Story. Sorry, I don't follow.
A radio show adaptation is included along with an extra we first saw on Arrow's disc of Sullivan's Travels, 1942's Safeguarding Military Information. A home front propaganda short subject with Walter Huston lecturing on the importance of keeping mum about war secrets, it carries no Sturges credit but was reportedly written and maybe directed by him. Huston gets across the stern message while efficient vignettes show blabbermouths giving saboteurs just what they want. A foolish sailor talking about a ship's sailing time is played by none other than Eddie Bracken, who would soon figure big in Sturges comedies.
Stephanie Zacharek's liner essay is breezy but also insightful. The insert is a fold-out that folds one-way. It's better than the others we've been getting lately, which unfurl like old highway maps. Did Criterion ixnay the old stapled booklets?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Palm Beach Story Blu-ray
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