In my mind, I imagine that is this is the joke that inspired Preston Sturges to start making screwball comedies 80 years ago . He had the mix down to an art and we have him to thank for bringing “romance” and “comedy” together. There are many things I love about his movies, like the the witty dialogue, the strong female characters and the use of satire. The Palm Beach Story, released in 1942, is one of my absolute favorite movies. This film is very entertaining and checks off every item on the screwball “to do” list. I saw this film on TCM growing up but didn’t know the title until I was reunited with it in a classic film class in college.
The basics of the movie are that McCrea is a destitute architect married to Colbert. They are in such a dire financial situation that Colbert decides she’s going to Palm Beach to get a divorce and find a rich man to marry so she can fund McCrea’s project. Colbert states matter of factly that this is how she will solve the problem of their dwindling finances and her inability to be a good homemaker. She leaves him and, as he chases after her, she asks a taxi driver where to get a quick divorce. He responds, "For my money, this time of year, Palm Beach." Colbert ends up on a train to Palm Beach, where hijinks and millionaires ensue.
The comedy in the film comes directly from the dialogue, like the interaction between Colbert and the “Wienie King” (Robert Dudley) in an early scene as he is touring her apartment that the landlord is renting out from under them. Vallee’s seriousness versus Colbert’s joviality leads to some very funny conversations about the difference between men and women. The parts that don’t hold up for me are the antics of the Quail hunting club on the train, mainly because we’ve all had enough of rich, old men getting away with unacceptable behavior. The racial portrayals are also hard to watch, especially the lover who accompanies Vallee’s sister “Princess” (Mary Astor), Toto (Sig Arno), who is some kind of hybrid of European cultures. His inability to speak English or walk in a straight line, played for laughs, were some of the biggest ick moments for me. Vallee is really more prevalent in the film than McCrea, whom we jump back to from time to time as he tracks down Colbert down to Palm Beach. McCrea is great at playing a stern looking, jilted husband, but he is kind of a secondary character to Colbert, the focal point. Vallee creates an endearing, calm, millionaire that can match wits with Colbert as she throws curve balls at him. His weird quirk of keeping tabs of all the expenses she accumulates without totalling it up isn’t necessarily needed but appreciated.
At the end, McCrea and Colbert fall back in love despite it “costing them millions,” as she exclaims during their final embrace. It seems to fit because McCrea doesn’t want her to marry someone else to fund his project. He is OK with being poor and going into deeper debt as long as he has Colbert. She realizes she loves him and couldn’t marry someone just for the money, despite her good intentions. We don’t get a scene where he “claims” Colbert, or shakes her into submission or smacks her around. He really wants her back and she truly wants to be with him.