The Divorce Caper-Preston Sturgis’ Palm Beach Story
By Lester Lannon
Palm Beach Story, starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, directed by Preston Sturges, 1943
No question, as I have mentioned before in reviewing a series of screwball romantic comedies from the 1930s and 1940s Preston Sturgis was the king of the hill, especially after he started to direct the story lines that he had previous been doing as a screen-writer. (That king of the hill might be changed to one of the kings of the hill if you include George Cukor and Howard Hawks in the mix and that could very easily be argued for.) Certainly, although my favorite is Sullivan’s Travels, in the film under review, Palm Beach Story, Sturges pulls out all the stops in presenting the question of divorce in a very funny but provocative way.
Here is how it played out to show Sturges knew what was what in making screwball comedies with a wry social twist. Geraldine, played by Claudette Colbert last seen in this space NOT being an American showgirl gold-digger in Paris in the film Midnight and Tom her husband of five years played by Joel McCrea last seen in this space in the aforementioned Sullivan’s Travels trying to get out for under directing silly comedies and doing some social commentary films while chasing lovely hair over the eyebrow Veronica Lake around the country side, are having, well marital difficulties or at least Geraldine is. A classic tale of woe about being promised the moon when love first bloomed and all she got for it was dunning notices and eviction threats.
She is righteously fed up, tired of stringing along with a big idea guy but with no real ambition, and no dough. She was made for better stuff, still had the ability to have guys eating out of her hand, and liking it. So she is off to Palm Beach to get a quick divorce and step up in class. Now for those who thought that Reno, maybe Mexico or places like that were the divorce capitals of the world it turned out that back then Palm Beach held its own, especially among the Mayfair swells. Naturally she has no dough, and no prospects for dough but she does have that winning witty way about her and she is able to get there via the train. A train ride from hell until she meets Hackensacker III, obviously a rich guy played by Rudy Vallee who has never previously been mentioned in this space but who has dough and a yacht which he gets her to go on. And Rudy has a sister, Maud, a sister from hell played by Mary Astor who was last seen in this space leading Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade through many, many hoops looking for some damned jeweled bird in The Maltese Falcon.
So Geraldine and Hackensacker go off and live happily ever after. Well not quite because see this whole divorce thing was a little unusual then even among the upper crust, maybe especially among the upper crust, and so husband Tom might not have been much as a business man but he loved his Geraldine and so he grabbed a flight to Palm Beach (courtesy of an old geezer) to try to woe his honey back. That is where the all play is. Maud is wild for Tom, Rudy is wild for Geraldine and the mix and match play out that way until Geraldine figured out she still loved her Tom. Go figure. That’s the plotline, and thems the characters but what really drives this one is the dialogue, the repartee especially by Ms. Colbert on the frailties of marriage. Kudos Preston.