Today, my blog is for the Funny Lady Blogathon, hosted by Movies,Silently which is a wonderful blog that I enjoy reading and it’s helped me learn a lot about the silent films era. If you visit that site, you will find links to other bloggers’ works featuring funny ladies in the movies.
Sturges’s film opens with a prologue of sorts: we see a lot of fast action happening set to the tune of Giacomo Rossini’s The William Tell Overture(The Lone Ranger theme song)-Joel McCrea rushing around an apartment, taking off his suit and putting on a tux and being hustled out of the building to get into a waiting car that hurriedly drives him across NYC to a church. This is all interspersed with Claudette Colbert locked in a closet, wrists bound and mouth gagged, dressed in a slip and high heels and then another Claudette dressed in a wedding gown! A maid sees one Claudette, shrieks and faints! The Claudette in the closet manages to kick her way through the door and get out, and the other has run down the aisle of the church and is marrying Joel. We next see the years go by, 1937, 1938, 1939 and on until the present year, 1942.
Joel McCrea is Tom Jeffers, an inventor who hasn’t managed to make it big with any of his inventions yet. Claudette Colbert is his wife, Geraldine, called Gerry for short. She is tired of the bills not being paid and one morning we find her running around their apartment in her bathrobe looking for a place to hide as the landlord is going to be kicking them out and has a new couple coming to see the place. Gerry decides to hide in the tub of the master bathroom, pulling the tub’s curtain around herself but she is found by the prospective new renter, The Wienie King! The Wienie King(Robert Dudley), a funny, little bespectacled man with lots of riches due to his popular hot dog business, is impressed by Gerry’s good looks. He pries into her financial troubles, tells her his opinion of her no-good husband, and then gives her enough money to pay off their debts and their rent. The generosity of a rich, older man gets Gerry to think of how she could help her husband. She’ll get Tom to divorce her, then she’ll find a rich, old man and get him to fall for her, give her money, and then she can give some of that money to Tom so he can get his latest invention, a suspended airport, up and running!
Gerry delightedly tells Tom about The Wienie King and the money but the news does nothing but make Tom grumpy and he gets even grumpier when Gerry tells him of her plan. Tom loves Gerry and he refuses to listen to any talk of a divorce. After an evening on the town Gerry has trouble with the zipper on her dress and asks Tom to help her unzip it, which leads to a major kiss and the safety of the marriage is ensured, or so we think! In the morning as Tom is sleeping, Gerry has packed her suitcase and is trying to pin a “Goodbye Tom” note to the comforter and she accidentally stabs Tom! He awakens and realizes what she is about to do and hilarity ensues as Tom stumbles and trips and falls down the stairs in his attempt to stop Gerry at the elevator of their apartment building. Tom kept tripping on his pajama bottoms so we see him kick them off in disgust with an appropriately placed comforter wrapped around his person and then his running attempt to get to Gerry, but alas, he forgets to cover his backside and now we have a fainting neighbor lady in the hall and laughing elevator patrons!
As Gerry tries to hail a cab in front of the apartment building, Tom has caught up to her, wearing a ridiculous get up of mis-matched clothes. Gerry refuses to listen to his pleas of staying with him, and in a tug of war on the suitcase, it opens up and spills Gerry’s clothes and toiletries everywhere. In exasperation, Gerry asks the taxi driver(Frank Faylen) where is a good place to get a quick divorce and he replies that Palm Beach is the place to go and he adds that it is full of rich people. Gerry successfully gets to the train station and now has to find a way to get a ticket to Palm Beach. She decides to plant herself next to the ticket agent for the Palm Beach-bound train and look sort of sad. Presently, the Ale and Quail Club arrive with their tickets and as they check in with the ticket agent, this group of rich, older men all notice Gerry and soon take a vote to buy her a ticket to Palm Beach! Watching this part of the film reminded me of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a group of backwards men, helping out a pretty lady. William Demarest(Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons fame) is the “Grumpy” character in the club who doesn’t like the way his fellow club members are all going soft around Gerry, and when they serenade her to sleep, he has an unusual way to break up that party!
Due to the Ale and Quail Club’s antics, Gerry decides to hide out in another part of the train and get some sleep. She unknowingly meets John D. Hackensacker III( Rudy Vallee), one of the richest men in the world-this character was an obvious zing at John D. Rockefeller on writer/director Sturges’s part. John D. helps Gerry attempt to get into an upper berth and each time the efforts are fraught with mishaps and broken eyewear, but John D. is ever the gentleman and Gerry does get some sleep. While she’s asleep, the train’s porters have decided to unhitch the Ale and Quail Club’s private car because of their antics and as the train continues for Palm Beach, Gerry’s clothes and purse are left behind in the private train car. For breakfast, Gerry comes up with an amusing outfit made from the train’s towel sets-the phrase Pullman across her rump catches the eye of traveling businessmen! John D. gallantly takes her on a shopping spree and at the store Gerry realizes who this nice fellow train traveler really is.
John D. offers to take Gerry to his family’s Palm Beach estate via his yacht, The Erl King. As the yacht pulls up to dock, we see Tom with a bunch of roses in his hand, waiting to meet Gerry. Tom had also run into The Wienie King who had stopped by the apartment to tell Gerry that they were going to be neighbors and upon meeting Tom, The Wienie King scolds Tom for losing Gerry, and gives him money to get to Palm Beach and to get Gerry back. En route by plane, Tom finds out upon landing that Gerry is with Tom D. and that they’re heading to the docks. Also embarking is John D.’s man-hungry sister, Princess Centimilia(Mary Astor), and she speaks about 1000 words a minute! She is accompanied by her latest boyfriend, Toto(Sig Arno), who is a foreigner who’s accent no one understands except for Centimilia. The Princess sees Tom and she dumps poor Toto on the spot, determined to win Tom for herself. Gerry, not wanting John D. to know who Tom is, introduces him as her brother, Captain McGlue!
Off they go to the Hackensacker estate and out to dinner at a swanky restaurant. With dancing as part of the evening, John D. realizes he loves Gerry and wants to marry her and Princess Centimilia has decided that Captain McGlue/Tom will be her newest husband. Tom and Gerry do get to dance with each other but Gerry is still determined to go through with her crazy divorce plan to aid Tom’s invention. Back at the estate, Gerry has zipper trouble with her dress again and asks Tom for help. Once again, it leads to a major kiss and both decide that they love one another, neither wants a divorce, and that in the morning they’ll tell John D. and the Princess the truth about who they really are.
When the truth comes out, John D. is sad, but he still wants to help Tom with his invention financially. Another happy ending is going to happen, but I don’t want to reveal it because it has Sturges’s trademark zany twist to get us there, and if you haven’t seen this funny movie, rush out and rent it or buy it or tivo it off of TCM the next time they air it!
The Palm Beach Story fits the definition of a Screwball Comedy to a T. The dialogue is fast-paced, there is a lot of slapstick action, and the situations that the characters find themselves in happen at breakneck speed. The two leads are at odds with each other, but do love each other immensely. Claudette Colbert is a delight in this film. With her expressive eyes she is adept at getting across to the audience her reactions to the ridiculous events that her character gets caught in. She also has her own slapstick scenes, trying to run and hide on the train from the Ale and Quail Club with pajama pants tripping her up at every step, much like Joel McCrea’s earlier pajama tripping scenes. The attempts to get into that upper berth are more slapstick moments that Colbert shines in. She delivers her lines fast and doesn’t miss a beat when reacting to other characters lines when they are directed back at her. In reading about Colbert’s long career, she could sing, she could dance, she could perform in comedies and dramas. She once said,”I’m a very good comedienne, but I was always fighting that image, too.” From that statement, I would assume that Colbert didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into only doing one kind of movie. Looking at her body of work, it is evident that she was a very talented actress and she didn’t get pigeon-holed. Please try and find The Palm Beach Story for a fast and funny romantic-comedy, done in the Screwball Style.