Now That’s What I Call Quite Good: The Palm Beach Story

the palm beach story indexThe fifth film that Preston Sturges both wrote and directed this is considered by many to be one of his finest works, but it’s a movie I only quite liked. This is partially due to having an issue with one of the central performances, as Joel McCrea’s moany old husband was a character I struggled to enjoy, but also because the pacing is very uneven, it starts strongly but sags very badly in the middle, before rallying round for a rousing ending.

A fast talking rom-com cantered around married couple Gerry (Claudette Colbert) and Tom (Joel McCrea), they look like they’re about to split up as they’re so poor, and Gerry blames herself for Tom’s lack of success believing that he’ll find it if he doesn’t have to pay for her upkeep, though it’s hinted that she’s unhappy for other reasons. He’s not overjoyed about this either but she ignores him and heads off to California to get a quick divorce, along the way meeting the riotous Ale and Quail Hunting Club and losing her luggage. Fortunately the millionaire J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) helps her out, and upon reaching California she hangs out with him and his crazy sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), the latter easily being the best character in the movie.

It starts very strongly and the verbal sparring between Gerry and Tom contains many a funny moment, and the quite frankly insane Ale and Quail Hunting Club (consisting of a good few Sturges regulars like William Demarest and Robert Warwick) make up some of the most memorable characters Sturges ever created. But the film becomes blander when Gerry first meets J.D. Hackensacker, and whenever Tom is on screen after his first appearance the film lurches in to tedious territory.

With a more likeable male lead this could and should have been an absolute classic but McCrea plays Tom as a surly, moany shit and it’s easy to see why Gerry was so unhappy with him, though harder to understand why she contemplates taking him back. Once they’re reunited down in California there’s some amusing enough farce as Gerry introduces Tom to Hackensacker as her brother, and the princess does her absolute best to seduce Tom despite her former lover Toto (Sig Arno) all but stalking her, and it’s entertaining despite McCrea as Astor plays the role so beautifully over the top.

There’s a happy ending for all involved of course, one which is something of a stretch and rather convenient even by Sturges standards, but it does at least hint that everything might not be perfect forever more. It’s frustrating that it is such an uneven film as there are sequences which are among the best Sturges committed to celluloid, it has nice observations on the nature of wealth and class, and if you don’t have the issues that I did with McCrea (who thankfully is far better elsewhere) than you might feel it’s one of Sturges best, but for me it’s not quite up there with his wittiest work.

★★★1/2

Alex Finch.
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