A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)

There are few scenes in movies that I cherish more than the encounter of Gerry (Claudette Colbert) and the Wienie King (Robert Dudley). Then again, The Palm Beach Story is filled with things I cherish: The wonderfully enigmatic opening credits, which must have had people sitting through the film twice to comprehend. The way William Demarest drawls out "bangbaang" when he's pretending to shoot targets on the train -- before the rest of the Ale and Quail Club arrives with loaded shotguns to blow the hell out of the club car. J.D. Hackensacker III's (Rudy Vallee) inexhaustible supply of pince-nez. The fetching outfit Gerry fashions from a pair of men's pajamas and a bath towel, using the pajama shirt as a blouse, the pants as a kind of snood, and the towel as a wraparound skirt -- as she remains blithely unconscious that the word "Pullman" is emblazoned on the backside. The way Sig Arno as Toto steals every scene he's in, even if he's only standing in the background. Mary Astor's giddy, horny Princess Centimillia. The sly fun poked at Vallee's past as a crooner. The way Sturges finds something funny for even bit players, like the cops on the street, to do or say. Joel McCrea and Colbert are of course peerless at this sort of comedy. I do have to admit that I'm a little distracted every time I watch Colbert on screen, tracking the way she always manages to get on the right side in every scene, the better to show off the preferred left side of her face. I wonder, though, if Sturges and cinematographer Victor Milner didn't pull a trick on Colbert in the scene in which Gerry is sitting at a dressing table: Though she's on the right side of the screen, the only view we get of her face is a reflection in the mirror of her supposedly inferior right profile. The Palm Beach Story is not as sexy as The Lady Eve (1941) or as satiric as Sullivan's Travels (1941), but it remains for me an inexhaustible delight.

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