THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) – I live for movies like this


The following is my contribution to the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon, hosted by the blog Classic Film & TV Cafe in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16). Click on the above banner to view the schedule of all the great posts in this blogathon!

Writer-director Preston Sturges (center) and cast.

Writer-director Preston Sturges (center) and cast.

The Palm Beach Story posits that people are so unused to good fortune that when it’s dropped right into their laps, they have no idea what to do with it. And those people include the movie’s audience.


The movie begins with a whirlwind sequence of exposition (set to a cockeyed version of “The William Tell Overture”) which seems to explain absolutely nothing. It’s writer-director Preston Sturges’ nose-thumbing at movies which have nothing but exposition. He seems to be saying, “Must we explain everything from the get-go? Have some patience on this trip, and I’ll get you there.”

Soon enough, we meet Tom (Joel McCrea), a frustrated construction designer, and Gerry (Claudette Colbert), his equally frustrated wife. They live in a posh apartment but are constantly dodging bill collectors, until Gerry’s chance run-in with a meat mogul known as “The Weenie King.” (You think that’s flouting the censors? Wait until you see Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [1944].)

Gerry tells The Weenie King of her financial plight, and he gives her a wad of money to help her, just because she’s so darned cute. (Once you see Claudette Colbert, this will seem a little more plausible.)

Far from feeling relieved, Tom is displeased that Gerry can solve their financial woes with only a little flirting. Gerry counters that everything in life is “about sex” (Note to censors: Flout-flout), and eventually she leaves Tom to set out on her own, solely to prove that she can get whatever she needs whatever she needs in life just by being a woman.

It’s never shown whether Gerry proves this to herself or not. But along the way, she meets some memorable characters: the members of The Ale and Quail Club (headed by Sturges veteran William Demarest); an oft-married millionairess (delightful Mary Astor) and her foreign-speaking boyfriend of the moment; and a soft-spoken yachtsman (Rudy Vallee), who patiently endures Gerry’s systematic breaking of his every pair of pince-nez’s. All of these people love to talk, and Sturges obliges them with enough epigrams for a swank New Year’s bash.


And for those who think Sturges couldn’t direct as well as he wrote, I recommend the scene where a tipsy Tom and Gerry discuss their impending divorce. The scene begins with Tom trying to unzip the back of Gerry’s dress for her, and it ends as one of the swooniest love scenes it has ever been my pleasure to witness. (I’ve written a completely separate blog entry devoted to this kissing scene alone — read it here.)

And just when you think the movie has run out of steam, Sturges pulls a happy ending out of his hat that has you laughing through the closing credits. Smart and smarter — now, there’s a trend Hollywood should have pursued.

(If you too love this movie and are a member of Facebook, please click here to join my Facebook page devoted to this glorious movie.)

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) – Hitch a ride on this fabulous movie


Movie legend has it that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, as punishment from their studios’ bosses, were forced into doing It Happened One Night (1934). All movie stars should be punished so rewardingly.

Colbert plays Ellie, a rich kid on the run from her father, who is trying to prevent her from a disastrous marriage to a similarly well-off snob. En route in Miami, she runs into Peter (Gable), an out-of-work reporter who immediately recognizes her as the wanted rich fugitive. Peter blackmails Ellie into staying with him so that he can turn her in and get the scoop of a lifetime. No prizes for guessing whether this odd couple will eventually get under each other’s skin.

From such simple stuff are movie legends made. This winning romantic comedy is practically a blueprint for decades of movie romances to follow, from Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (also starring Colbert) to 1990’s Pretty Woman. Gable and Colbert seem to be having a rollicking good time. The PC police will sneer at the scene where Ellie eventually begs Peter to stay with her; the rest of the audience will be sniffling in their hankies.

This is also a movie that often ends the sentence “This is the movie where…” First, there’s the iconic scene where Ellie hitches a ride for her and Peter by uncovering a well-turned leg (shown below). There’s the famous “Wall of Jericho” bedtime scene where Clark Gable takes off his shirt, displays nothing underneath, and immediately sends national sales of T-shirts plummeting. Lastly, there’s the fact that It Happened One Night was the first (and for four decades, the only) movie to sweep all five major Oscars — Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Director (a guy named Frank Capra).

Alternately hilarious and touching, It Happened One Night hasn’t dated a bit in 80 years.