Seeing it in its cinematic context
31 December 2008
One element of this film that shouldn't be ignored is that it, like "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," is a conscious lampooning of earlier movies from the 1930s. It takes a standard, conventional plot from those movies and turns it on its ear. The same plot can be seen for example in the Paramount movie from 1931, "Up Pops the Devil," with Carole Lombard and Norman Foster (who coincidentally was Claudette Colbert's first husband). In that movie, a wife who still loves her husband wants to divorce him for his own good; she thinks she's just a noose around his neck, and once rid of her, he'll become a success. It's set in the same upper crust of society as "The Palm Beach Story," with a millionaire suitor for the wife and a nymphomaniac girl for the husband. Here, everything is played straight, with as much pathos and melodrama being milked out of the situation as can be. In "The Palm Beach Story" though, the same basic plot and characters are used, but it's the comedic potential and wackiness of the situation that's emphasized, to marvelous effect.

The subplot with the twins, glanced at in the beginning and end of the picture, is another conscious lampooning of conventional movies, here a lampooning of the structure of movies themselves, of their conventional beginnings and endings. It's not meant to be taken seriously; as McCrea's character casually says at the end, it's all stuff "for another movie."

No words can be found to adequately praise Claudette Colbert's performance. Joel McCrea is good too, as the prototypical wooden 1930s leading man. Rudy Vallee is absolutely hilarious as a "momma's boy" version of John D. Rockefeller, as is Mary Astor as his rich nymphomaniac sister. Her eunuch, Toto, played by Sig Arno, seems straight out of an Ernst Lubitch picture, perhaps a Sturges nod to the master. Quite a few scenes of the film, in their settings and atmosphere, pay homage to Lubitsch. Sturges does the "Lubitsch touch" proud, especially in those two scenes when Colbert sits on McCrea's lap so that he can undo the back of her dress, with the two of them both times melting into a kiss, and the scene ending with a fade out, leaving little doubt as to what will happen next. The second scene is particularly romantic, done as Rudy Vallee sings "Good Night Sweet Heart," itself a standard of the 1930s. Vallee also sings a line of "Isn't It Romantic," a song introduced in the luminous 1932 film "Love Me Tonight," directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The music in the film itself hearkens back to those great romantic comedies of the 1930s.

It's nice to see Sturges's stock company of actors popping up here as well. I noticed William Demarest say his name was "Bill Docker," the same name his character had in Preston Sturges's "Christmas in July."

In short, "The Palm Beach Story" is a wonderful film, whose richness can really be appreciated when seen in context, in the context of those old 1930s Paramount films, both the melodramatic ones like "Up Pops the Devil," that it lampoons, and the comedic, romantic ones like "Love Me Tonight" and "One Hour with You," that it pays homage to.
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