The film career of Preston Sturges is neatly and succinctly summarized by the title of James Curtis’s biography of the director and screenwriter, “Between Flops.” Though the development of the auteur theory in the late ’50s long since resurrected his reputation, Sturges was the bane of ’40s Paramount big shots who resented his independence and general orneriness (except, of course, when he delivered the infrequent hit).
Sturges died in 1959, and — thanks in part to the efforts of appreciative critics such as André Bazin — is as well regarded today as any Tinsel Town director this side of Alfred Hitchcock. His films return to Pacific Film Archive in the current series Preston Sturges: More Than Comedy, with the 1942 classic The Palm Beach Story screening at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19.
Beginning with an unusual credit sequence reminiscent of the cliffhanger serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, The Palm Beach Story introduces primary characters Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) via brief freeze-framed sequences of their wedding day, accompanied by the stirring strains of Rossini’s familiar William Tell Overture. It’s followed by an intertitle suggestive of Shakespeare’s maxim about the course of true love never running smooth: “and they lived happily ever after … or did they?”.
Sturges often drew from an unofficial stock company of players to round out a cast, and The Palm Beach Story is no exception to the rule — we immediately meet three of them in the immediate wake of the credits. Fey Franklin Pangborn (who appeared in five other Sturges pictures) plays the manager of a Big Apple apartment building showing a flat to the wealthy but stone-deaf “Texas wienie king” (Robert Dudley, five further collaborations) and his unctuous spouse (Esther Howard, who bested them both with six).
It’s the same apartment in which the struggling Tom and Gerry are currently behind on the rent thanks to Tom’s going-nowhere-fast career as an airport designer. The sequence sets up the story to come: the wienie king meets cute with Gerry, gives her $700 in cash, and sets in motion her decision to divorce Tom and find a wealthy Floridian to wed whose deep pockets will allow her to live comfortably and fund her ex-husband’s architectural business.
Ridiculous premise aside, the most remarkable thing about The Palm Beach Story (and indeed, Sturges’ output in general) is the director’s preternatural ability to persuade the Breen Office that his stories didn’t breach the Hays Code. Indeed, much of Palm Beach hearkens back to the pre-code era — from the presence of Jazz Age crooner Rudy Vallée as guileless millionaire John D. Hackensack III to the film’s snappy, rapid-fire dialogue, more reminiscent of a Lee Tracy-Joan Blondell second feature than an A-list production. And who but Sturges would have thought to cast serious dramatic actress Mary Astor in a comic role as Vallée’s sister?
So how did Sturges get his way? An excellent essay by Matthew Bernstein suggests the director simply wore Joseph Breen down by overloading his films with questionable material. Sturges knew some of it would be cut, but he willingly sacrificed the raciest bits so that lines such as “sex didn’t enter even into it?” and the scene where Tom and Gerry sleep in the same bed were saved for posterity. At the end of the day, there was simply too much naughtiness for Breen to excise: One imagines him throwing his hands up in despair while giving the film his office’s seal of approval.
Eighty years later, The Palm Beach Story is that rarest of beasts: a Golden Age comedy that still gets laughs. Thank Sturges — but save a kindly thought for Breen, too.