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

FINAL

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.

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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.

LOVE

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.)

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W.C. Fields in THE BANK DICK (1940) – Don’t be a jabbernowl, watch this comedy classic!

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Trying to review W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick in cinematic terms is like trying to watch Christina Hendricks act while she’s wearing a string bikini — the talent is obviously there, but other distracting factors are also at hand.

Suffice to say that if you’re familiar with the Fields persona — a bellicose and verbose man, trying to make a name in the world while in a constant alcoholic haze — The Bank Dick will be just your pick-me-up. Here, Fields is Egbert Souse’ (“Accent grave over the ‘e’,” as an opening bit of exposition helpfully tells us). Souse’s sole goal in life is to make his timely daily visit to his favorite saloon, The Black Pussy Cat Cafe. (Souse and his cohorts helpfully say the saloon’s name over and over, leaving us to wonder if the censor was on a bender as well.) Souse is constantly thwarted in this goal by his extremely unloving family (all female), who vigorously demonstrate why Souse is always so eager to leave the house.

By turns, Souse becomes a robbery-thwarting hero, a movie director, a bank guard (the movie’s title has to have been another one-up on the censors), and a robbery-thwarting hero again. Along the way, Fields exchanges verbal gems with his regular bartender Joe (future Stooge Shemp Howard, as great a straight man as anyone ever had), drops non sequitors at every chance, and ends the movie with one of the movies’ funniest-ever chases, not to mention Souse getting rewarded far beyond his due. (Preston Sturges seemed to absorb this lesson two years later for The Palm Beach Story: If the studio wants a happy ending, give it to ’em in spades.)

Besides starring, Fields also wrote the movie’s, er, screenplay (under the pseudonym “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”), and the movie was directed by Fields’ good friend and drinking buddy Eddie Cline (whose resume included Buster Keaton’s early two-reelers), so this movie is about as close to auteurism as Fields ever got. One gets the impression that Fields’ idea of writing a screenplay was to tour the Universal lot with a continuity person, saying, “There’s a set for a bank — let’s have most of the action here. There, that thing’ll pass for a saloon — let’s give it a dirty name and I’ll do a lot of physical business there.”

But from such ramshackle origins, a great comedy is made. It’s Fields’ last great movie (though he had one more starring role, in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and a few cameos before his sad death from alcoholism). And The Bank Dick obviously had some great stuff in it. Its finale was bodily lifted, 43 years later, for Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. And Fields himself re-did the chase motif (and re-used BD‘s opening and closing theme music) in Never….

At one point, Souse leans back in his director’s chair and yells, “Quiet…we’re making cinema history here!” Nearly 75 years later, one is hard-pressed to argue with him.

Here’s a 17-second clip that tells you all you need to know about the movie: