Claudette Colbert made a series of romantic comedies throughout her storied career. She is most well known for her Oscar-winning role in It Happened One Night (1934). She also made a series of romantic comedies with frequent co-star Fred MacMurray. However, my favorite film of Claudette’s is The Palm Beach Story, co-starring Joel McCrea and directed by Preston Sturges.
The Palm Beach Story starts off with a series of manic images showing a bride and groom racing to get to the church and random objects crashing around them. From the beginning scenes, we really have no idea what’s happening, only that Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea marry at the end of the sequence and that the year of the marriage was 1937. Fast forward five years, 1942, and we meet Geraldine “Gerry” Jeffers (Colbert) who is dealing with back bills and possibly losing her apartment. I am unsure exactly what Tom Jeffers’ (McCrea) occupation is, but when we meet him in 1942, he is meeting with an investor about funding is idea to build an airport that is suspended over a city.
Meanwhile, back at the Jeffers’ apartment, Gerry is watching “The Wienie King” (aka the greatest character in the film) touring the apartment. The Jeffers owe back rent and their landlord is thisclose to evicting them. The Wienie King is hard of hearing, which makes his two scenes even funnier. He also makes sure everyone knows that he’s The Wienie King and that’s how he made his wealth:
THE WIENIE KING: I’m The Wienie King! Invented the Texas wienie. Lay off ’em, you’ll live longerThe Wienie King, “The Palm Beach Story” (1942)
Gerry ends up sharing her’s and Tom’s financial troubles and how they’re about to lose their home. The Wienie King, not interested in her apartment anyway, pulls a thick roll of bills out of his pocket and hands Gerry $700 ($11,560 in 2021 dollars). She accepts it and uses the money to pay their back bills and buy herself a new outfit. When Tom arrives home, Gerry lets him know that their financial troubles are alleviated for now. Tom is suspicious of The Wienie King’s financial gift and also his pride is wounded that another man had to pay his bills. Gerry then admits that she fully used her womanly wiles to get money from The Wienie King.
TOM: Oh, is that so? He just–seven hundred dollars? Just like that?
GERRY: Just like that.
TOM: I mean, sex didn’t even enter into it?
GERRY: Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don’t think he’d have given it to me if I had hair like excelsior and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear…you have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything.Joel McCrea (Tom) and Claudette Colbert (Gerry) in “The Palm Beach Story” (1942)
The next day, Gerry packs her bags and leaves Tom. She believes that she and Tom are better off separately and they’re just holding each other back. She plans to take a train from New York to Palm Beach, FL. She ends up getting onto a train with the craziest passengers I’ve seen in a movie. Gerry ends up onboard with “The Ale and Quail Club,” a boisterous hunting (and drinking) club led by William Demarest (aka Uncle Charlie in “My Three Sons” and Ann-Margret’s father in “Viva Las Vegas”). The Ale and Quail Club is absolutely insane. Every member is drunk and partying heavily. They are even having a shooting contest IN THE TRAIN. When the members meet Gerry, they declare her their mascot. Eventually, the noise gets to be too much for Gerry. She borrows a pair of pajamas from one of the members and tries to sleep. The party then gets really out of hand, and Gerry leaves, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire.
The Ale and Quail Club traincar, now riddled with bullets and missing all of its windows, is disconnected from the rest of the train and abandoned. Gerry finds an empty upper berth and crawls in, while standing on millionaire John D. Hackensacker III’s (Rudy Vallee) face, breaking his glasses in his eyes (yikes). But Hackensacker doesn’t mind and quickly takes a shine to Gerry. The next day, Gerry fashions herself the greatest dress made from men’s pajamas and a Pullman blanket. She and Hackensacker order two .75 ($12.39 in 2021) breakfasts.
When Gerry and Hackensacker finally arrive in Palm Beach, Hackensacker offers to buy Gerry some clothing due to Gerry’s suitcase disappearing. Gerry accepts, thinking that he’ll buy her an outfit. Hackensacker has other ideas. We are next treated to a Pretty Woman-esque (once she goes to the store with Richard Gere’s credit card) montage with Claudette modeling one fancy dress after another. Close-ups of Hackensacker painstakingly marking each and every purchase in his small notebook are also amazing. Who knows what the final bill ends up being, but I’m sure it’s in the tens of thousands. Gerry and Hackensacker then go out on his yacht.
Meanwhile, Tom has arrived in Palm Beach and somehow knows that Gerry is at the yacht club. He’s waiting for her on the dock. Also arriving on a yacht is Hackensacker’s sister, Princess Maud Centimillia (Mary Astor). Her companion is her latest protegee, Toto, who barely speaks English and really has no idea what is going on. However, once the Princess spots Tom, she drops Toto–who unfortunately doesn’t understand that the Princess has no interest in him. He keeps showing up and the Princess sends him away. When Gerry introduces Tom to Hackensacker, she introduces him as her brother, “Captain McGlue,” much to Tom’s chagrin.
PRINCESS CENTIMILLIA: Who is McGlue?
GERRY: There is no McGlue.
PRINCESS CENTIMILLIA: Well thank heavens for something. That name!Mary Astor (Princess Centimillia) and Claudette Colbert (Gerry) in “The Palm Beach Story.”
Soon, Hackensacker falls in love with Gerry. The Princess falls in love with “Captain McGlue” (Tom). And Tom and Gerry wonder if their marriage is worth saving.
This movie is absolutely hilarious especially “Captain McGlue” and Princess Centimillia. Joel McCrea is such an underrated star in Hollywood. He was adept at delivering lines with a dry, sarcastic humor. Such as in The More the Merrier when Charles Coburn asks McCrea what he does for a living. McCrea asks Coburn what his occupation is. Coburn says: “retired millionaire.” McCrea then answers Coburn’s occupation question by saying, “Same.” I love the scene of Rudy Vallee serenading Claudette Colbert with “Goodnight Sweetheart.” Every scene with the Princess’ protegee, Toto, is hilarious.
I know that Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve are more revered as director Preston Sturges’ best film; but for me, The Palm Beach Story is his best. This film is perfect from start to finish.