This wild tale of wacky wedlock from Preston Sturges takes off like a rocket and never lets up. Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert play Tom and Gerry, a married New York couple on the skids, financially and romantically. With Tom hot on her trail, Gerry takes off for Florida on a mission to solve the pair’s money troubles, which she accomplishes in a highly unorthodox manner. A mix of the witty and the utterly absurd, 'The Palm Beach Story' is a high watermark of Sturges's brand of physical comedy and verbal repartee, featuring sparkling performances from its leads as well as hilarious supporting turns from Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor as a brother and a sister ensnared in Tom and Gerry's high jinks.
'The Palm Beach Story' is Preston Struges' fifth outing as writer/director. He made it during his impressive run from 1940 through 1944, which saw him create classic films, such as 'The Lady Eve' and 'Sullivan's Travels', both of which are also a part of The Criterion Collection. 'The Palm Beach Story' is another film in the screwball comedy tradition, a genre in which the talented Sturges thrived. In fact, 'The Palm Beach Story' could count as one film plus a fraction of another.
During its opening credits, the audience is witness to what seems like the end an earlier film where Tom (Joel McRae) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are married. They are both seen rushing to the altar with Gerry somehow involved in another woman being tied up and locked in a closet. Showing Sturges' creativity as a writer and requiring the talents of cinematographer Victor Milner to pull it off, a grill the camera had been shooting through moves forward into frame to reveal the words "and they lived happily ever after" written on it. That is quickly followed by the reveal of another grill asking the question “Or did they?”
The story jumps ahead, from 1937 to '42, where we find Tom and Gerry struggling financially. He is an architect looking to raise $99,000 to patent his idea for a mesh airfield that would be used above a city. Their Park Avenue apartment is being shown because they owe so much back rent. An old man (Robert Dudley), who made his fortune as the Weenie King, though he recommends "lay off 'em, you'll live longer," is brought through and he finds Gerry hiding and learns her story. He has so much money and remembers when he was poor so he gives her the rent money just because she's a pretty face.
While this seems like a deus ex machina, a screenwriter cheat, to magically solve the couple's problems, it actually complicates them. Now that they are paid up, Gerry feels no guilt about seeking a divorce in Palm Beach, Florida. Tom doesn't want her to leave and Gerry still has feelings for Tom, but she thinks like it's the best plan for both of them moving forward. She meets other wealthy men who help her on her journey, from the rowdy members of the Ale and Quail shooting club to John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallée), who falls for her, but in the end it's not money that brings her happiness.
The real star of the film is Sturges' writing. The dialogue runs at a fast clip, packed with so many jokes it’s easy to see how some of the more suggestive dialogue was overlooked and got through. But his sense of comedy wasn't just the exchange of urbane witticisms. He also enjoyed slapstick, which is on display in a scene that runs much longer than required to further the plot as two drunk Ale and Quail members show off their skills and shoot up the club car. The plot resolves with a clever bit of writing that in other hands would again seem like a cheat if Sturges hadn't planted the seeds early on.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Palm Beach Story' (#742 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a eight-page fold-out booklet containing "Love in a Warmer Climate," an essay by Stephanie Zacharek.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.37:1. The liner notes state “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain and a safety duplicate negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Vision's Phoenix and Pixel Farm's PFClean were used for small dirt, grain, noise management, flicker, and jitter.”
The image looks very clean and a satisfying amount of film grain is evident. There's a great range of shades across the gray spectrum, from black to white. The blacks don't crush and help anchor the strong contrast. The apparent sharpness contributes to wonderful texture details on display as see in Gerry's fancy gown and the stitching of the bed cover Tom wears in the apartment hallway.
The video appears free from digital artifacts. For example, no aliasing occurs when it could in scenes where Tom looks out the window of a brick building or when Gerry wears striped pajamas.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio Mono and "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from 35 mm magnetic soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. AudioCube's integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4."
Dialogue is clear, even if the Weenie King can't make it out. Except for when the Ale and Quail members sing, though at times it's more like shouting. This can trigger the dogs to howl, leads to gunfire, and piano accompaniment. Too many loud elements blended together become distorted, though it appears to be a source issue. The softer sounds are better executed, such as the hushed noise of the train on the heard within the sleeping car. The mono track limits the breadth of Victor Young's score, as is expected.
'The Palm Bach Story' is a delightful romantic comedy by a writer so in command of the form he plays with the structure of the story and catches first-time watchers off guard. Criterion's high-definition presentation makes the most of the source and deliver a worthy addition to any classic film fan's library. Recommended.