Random Film of the Week(end): The Palm Beach Story

You’ll probably need to watch Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story at least twice if you’ve never seen it before. The second time will be to catch some of the rapid-fire dialog you missed the first time out from laughing so hard as your brain attempts to keep up with the wild setups and payoffs the movie hits you with. Sturges’ gift for well-timed comedy direction comes through excellently in yet another gem he also wrote and you have to give the man major credit for letting his actors fly through scenes (and sometimes the scenery) as if they were tossed around sets by small cyclones. Of course, having some great actors throwing those lines around helps quite a bit…

Sure, this romantic comedy isn’t for all tastes, but don’t even TRY to stack it up to the endlessly recycled “feel good” crap that’s tossed into today’s theaters seemingly on a weekly basis. If you’re felling good while or after watching this film, it’s because you got the laughs you came for and more, not some by the book template of an already tired sub-genre. Today’s overpaid actors can learn a hell of a lot from a handful of scenes in this flick and if you don’t even crack a smile during this one, I’d say the person next to you on the sofa needs to ring up an undertaker…

Like a few of his other screwball comedies, telling the plot from the beginning can ruin the ending, as there’s a gloriously funny opening scene that lays out some important “pay attention!” stuff that the rest of the movie sets to resolving. Briefly, Joel McCrea (Tom) and Claudette Colbert (Gerry) play a married couple with some major financial trouble that, after Jerry actually has the chance to make a bit of money from another character, changes into another type of (and much more offbeat set of) martial woes. the film actually flashes forward a few years as the pair plan to separate, but there’s a lot more going on (as you’ll soon discover). I’m being a bit coy here because there’s a nice set of running gags that might induce a double-take as things are peeled back and the laughs get more outlandish.

Like Sturges’ other great comedy classics of the period (more particularly The Lady Eve, The Great McGinty and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) there are enough warm moments here that you could effectively alter the script and make this a blazing drama for the ages with a bit of murder on the side (to lure in the mystery fans). But that manner of his of turning potentially serious situations into moments for pratfalls and snappy dialog is exactly what’s so funny about watching the director’s comedies. Using a bunch of his go-to character actors, the movie zips along from situation to situation, some surprisingly eye-popping for 1942. Then again, Sturges was no stranger to movie studio suits tampering with his films because some content was considered to “racy” for the censors of the era.

By the time Tom and Gerry’s issues are resolved, you’ll probably have e big enough (and potentially confused) grin on your face as you’re setting things up to watch this again. Even if you only see it once, it’ll stick in your mind for a bit afterwards and you just might find yourself recommending this one to that friend who wants to see a film that’s actually funny and bizarre in that classic way that will leave them laughing just like you were. By the way, I’m not sure if the Tom and Gerry names are an in-joke on the MGM cartoons, but it’s a nice additional layer of fun considering the stuff McCrea and Colbert go through during the film… you’ll see.

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