Monday, 13 September 2010

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Much has been said on Preston Sturges’ amazing run of films at Paramount during the early 1940s. While I could not finish “Christmas in July” and “The Great Moment” is an awkward thing that was reassembled by the studio, the other six are astonishing satires (I am still in awe that “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” ever passed the censors), although I confess that I never have completely fallen for “Sullivan’s Travels”’.

“The Palm Beach Story” is the fifth in the run, and my second favourite after “The Lady Eve”. It stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea as a married couple. The film starts with their wedding over the opening credits and then forwards five years – by now they are flooded by debts. When by chance they clear them, Colbert decides to get a divorce to give her husband a chance in life and to find a millionaire than can take care of her. Of course, he doesn’t really agree with his plan, so she goes to Palm Beach meeting millionaire Rudy Vallee and his sister Mary Astor.

Colbert is a tour de force and it’s a pity that Sturges didn’t use her again. She was so at ease in the sophisticated romantic comedy Paramount made into an art form that she doesn’t get enough credit for it. What I hadn’t fully noticed before was Mary Astor’s exquisite performance as the man eater Princess Centimillia. Obsessed with men, and finding Joel McCrea ideally suitable to be her next husband, she desperately tries to get rid of her current “entertainment” who insists he should stick around. While McCrea and Vallee are good, they really can't compete.

An interesting aspect of the film is that Colbert and McCrea clearly have a healthy sex life. Since they are married and never actually divorce, Sturges got away with far more than he otherwise would. Although apparently he had to tone down Mary Astor’s character lust, reducing the number of her marriages from eight to three, plus two annulments. As if that would make that much difference.

The very end is a bit frustrating and feels a bit of an easy solution out – the opening sequence that helps explain is, probably purposely, not very clear. If had to point out a fault in the film, that would be my choice.

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