One can only envy those who'll experience The Palm Beach Story for the first time on Blu-ray, ideally a big roomful of first-timers ready to laugh. The movie epitomizes everything that's great about Sturges's best films, first and foremost his dialogue. No one wrote, before or since, funnier lines of dialogue than Preston Sturges. Billy Wilder, in various collaborations with others (such as I.A.L. Diamond and Charles Brackett) was Sturges's only equal, but where Wilder had a sharp, acidic tongue, Sturges's dialogue was playful and unpretentious, yet at the same time exquisitely amusing. He wrote funny dialogue with the perfection of great poetry.
The term "[fill on the blank] on steroids" is a gratingly overused phrase but to call The Palm Beach Story "a screwball comedy on steroids" is entirely apt in this case. As with other Sturges films The Palm Beach Story plays fast and loose with the conventions of narrative storytelling circa early-forties Hollywood, the movie opening with a deliberately confusing free-for-all prologue under the credits, a wedding sequence that doesn't make sense until the movie is almost over, where another, even crazier wedding ceremony bookends the story. As others have suggested, Sturges was a genius at taking the already humming screwball comedy genre and upping its game, stretching it to even greater heights.
Criterion's new Blu-ray, licensed from Universal (inheritors of the pre-1948 Paramount library) offers a good 4K transfer derived from a 35mm nitrate fine grain and safety duplicate negative. Worthwhile extras supplement the feature.
The Palm Beach Story is chockfull of surprises, and big part of the fun for first-time viewers is experiencing the movie cold. Those in that position may want to stop reading here and come back after seeing the movie.
The story revolves around appealing married couple Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert), overextended New Yorkers up to their necks in debt. A minor miracle occurs when the "Wienie King" (Robert Dudley), an eccentric, deaf-as-a-post sausage magnate/fairy godfather wanders into their posh apartment and, smitten by Gerry, simply gives her a big wad of cash, which she uses to pay the bills and buy clothes with what's left over. Tom, jealous of the Wienie King's generosity - and Gerry's willingness to use her sex appeal to help them out of a jam - becomes angry. In response to his wounded pride, Gerry decides they'd be better off financially if they split up. Broke again, she further uses her feminine wiles to talk her way aboard a train heading for Palm Beach, where Gerry plans to file for divorce.
Aboard the train she meets mild-mannered billionaire John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallée), who like every other man in the film is utterly charmed by intended divorcée. She hopes to convince Hackensacker to invest in architect Tom's latest design, a suspended airstrip. When Tom, hot on Gerry's tail, meets up with them in Florida, Gerry introduces Tom to Hackensacker as her brother, "Captain McGloo." Tom/McGloo then attracts the amorous attentions of Hackensacker's thrice-divorced sister, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). How long can Gerry keep this wildly implausible ruse up?
A brief plot synopsis of The Palm Beach Story can hardly do the film justice. It's all profoundly silly yet made credible by Colbert's and McCrea's marvelous performances, and by Sturges's impossible-to-dislike screenplay, filled to the rafters with memorable characters, extending from its leads to even the most bittish of its bit players. Colbert is effervescently charming and sexy, and thus entirely believable as a woman who's like a money magnet and for whom men stand in line to help.
But the foundation for The Palm Beach Story's success is McCrea, whose handsome but humorless, passively irritable Tom is as funny as everyone else, even though he's basically playing straight man to a wild assortment of eccentrics. (He's clearly an antecedent to Eddie Albert's character on Green Acres, a Sturges-esque sitcom if ever there was one.) Always an underrated actor, McCrea is as brilliant as he was in all of his other collaborations with the director.
Equally fine are Mary Astor and Rudy Vallée, the former's hitherto untapped talents in screwball comedy a delightful surprise; her frivolity is uniquely witty, and Sturges, who grew up among wealthy socialites, clearly knows this idle class well. Rudy Vallée is equally revelatory; Sturges indirectly seems to be spoofing Vallée's has-been crooner superstar status while also taking advantage of Vallée's stiff, limited acting ability. One can't help but wonder if Vallée was in on the joke.
Fans of The Palm Beach Story tend to adore the "Ale and Quail Hunting Club," the raucous, rowdy and shotgun blasting millionaires who share their private train car with Gerry. Populated by Sturges regulars including William Demarest, Jack Norton, Robert Greig, Jimmy Conlin, and Torben Meyer, each is uniquely eccentric and memorable, an impressive accomplishment. But I'd argue that Sturges's handling of these scenes are The Palm Beach Story's only weakness. He doesn't slowly build up to their gleeful mayhem and belabors it a bit too long. Sturges liked physical humor but that was never really his strong suit (a long sequence with Rex Harrison fooling with a recording device in Unfaithfully Yours similarly goes on too long), though in this case Colbert's reaction shots to the Ale and Quail Club's revelry compensates considerably.
Further, even if this set piece is overdone the movie is still so full of the same carefree fun, even joy, The Palm Beach Story remains delightfully funny.
Video & Audio
A Paramount production now owned and licensed to Criterion by Universal, The Palm Beach Story looks quite good on Blu-ray, with Paramount's sparkling house style coming through quite nicely. The LPCM mono audio, English only with optional SDH subtitles, is likewise fine on this region A disc.
Supplements include an excellent interview-overview of Sturges by film historian James Harvey, and a less enlightening appreciation by actor-comedian Bill Hader. Safeguarding Military Information is a Signal Corps production co-written by Sturges that was shot just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor but released after. It's not much but does have a brief if very Sturges-esque scene with Eddie Bracken several years before Bracken starred in Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Walter Huston is also featured.
A nice inclusion is a 1943 radio adaptation of The Palm Beach Story, trimmed to just 30 minutes and featuring Colbert and Vallée. Amusingly, Arthur Q. Bryan, the voice of Elmer Fudd, plays the Wienie King in this, while Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea's co-star in the later Ride the High Country, ably plays Tom.
One of the all-time great comedies, The Palm Beach Story has never looked better, while Criterion's supplements help put the picture and writer-director Preston Sturges's achievements into context. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.