The Palm Beach Story

Five years into their marriage, Gerry and Tom Jeffers (Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea) are having difficulties making their financial ends meet, and are soon to be evicted from their duplex for owing too much rent. Despite a sudden burst of unexpected riches, Gerry believes they will have more success separately and plans to divorce Tom so he can continue with his business developing a new airport built above a city (just don’t even think about it) whilst she finds and marries a millionaire who will give her the money to finance it.
dinnerForewarning, I’ll be spoiling pretty much the entirety of this film in this review, because the plot is so ludicrous that it really must be discussed in full. The film begins with a scene told in tiny segments under the opening credits that detail the ending of another film set immediately before this one (but which doesn’t exist, though for a while I thought this was a sequel) and which don’t make a whole heap of sense until the very last few moments of the film overall, but which help to explain fairly integral elements of the plot and motivations of the main characters, making this an extremely odd way to structure a film. I’ll explain: As the film opens we see various snippets of a wedding in disarray due to the lack of either a bride or a groom. The bride, Colbert, is just finishing getting ready and for some reason causing her maid to faint several times, whilst a very similar looking woman to Colbert is tied up and trying to escape from a locked room. Meanwhile the groom, McCrea, is seen already in his wedding suit, then in the back of a car getting changed into his wedding suit, before he and Colbert arrive at the church. Confusing? Well it turns out that both characters have identical twin siblings and, though this is never fully explained even at the end, it was their respective sister and brother that were due to marry one another that day, but their twins had a crush on their siblings’ intended partner, so attempted to steal them at the alter, only to become married to the wrong one. Presumably this is something that would all have been cleared up fairly straightforwardly mere moments after the ceremony – especially given they’d have had to get married using the wrong name – but apparently this is not the case, and five years later they are both still married to the wrong person, making the fact that they are supposedly no longer in love with one another completely understandable, because they never were in the first place. And as I said, this is never fully explained – it feels like something written in perfectly for the days of the same film playing immediately after it had finished in the cinema, so audiences would get to re-watch the opening sequence again to clear things up a bit – but for me it began the film on an odd and unsettling note that remained unsatisfying throughout.
Similarly unsatisfying was how the struggles Tom and Gerry encountered were so easily overcome. Now I understand that this is a comedy, and therefore some leaps can be made with regards to logistics and plausibility for the sake of humour, but still the luck these characters encounter goes well beyond anything that could possibly be accepted. When Gerry and Tom can’t afford their rent and are about to be evicted, their realtor shows round a prospective new tenant, who just so happens to be a sausage magnate, or Weenie King (Robert Dudley), who gladly gives Gerry more than enough money to cover their debts just because she is attractive and he has enjoyed talking to her. Why someone so wealthy, walking around with literally thousands of dollars in his pocket, is looking to rent a duplex currently inhabited by a relatively unsuccessful couple is never quite explained. It gets even more implausible later on when, after Gerry has run away to get a divorce and find a new rich husband (convincing a club full of rich old millionaires to pay for her travel and lodgings in a private train carriage, of course), the same Weenie King (who I like to think was called Abe Froman) returns to the duplex in the hope of seeing Gerry again, only to find a morose Tom, at which point the man gives him enough money to fly down to Florida to patch things up with his wife.
Worst of all though occurs when Gerry is on the train. She abandons her carriage in the middle of the night due to the old millionaires getting too rowdy, so she searches for an empty berth in the standard class carriages, finding one above a kind gentleman by the name of John D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee) who helps her into the upper bunk, despite she stepping on his face multiple times, whilst he is wearing those perch-on-the-nose kind of glasses. As in, she forces broken glass into his eyes multiple times. Somehow he doesn’t end up blinded and, come the morning, once the rowdy club’s carriage has been stranded along with Gerry’s ticket and belongings, leaving her with just some borrowed pyjamas, Hackensacker takes her in and cares for her, even disembarking the train at Jacksonville to buy her an entire new wardrobe, luggage, lingerie and even jewellery. It turns out, you see, that John D. Hackensacker is one of the wealthiest men in the entire world, so spending a few thousand dollars on some random stranger on the train is but a drop in the ocean to his monumental wealth. Every single person that Gerry and Tom run into in the entire film is utterly filthy rich beyond the contemplation of you or I, so it’s a wonder Gerry didn’t set out to solve their financial dilemma simply by walking around the block a few times and asking every fellow she bumped into if he could spare a grand or two. She have raised enough money for Tom’s airport by afternoon tea!
There is much to be said for the of-the-era sexism in the film – Gerry considers herself utterly useless because she is unable to cook or sew, she apparently is only really good for looking at but the Weenie King tells her that won’t last forever either – so many elements of the story would have to be altered were this to be made today. If it were though, I feel it’d probably be a Happy Madison production starring Adam Sandler in the Tom role, Drew Barrymore as Gerry, Kevin James as Hackensacker and Rob Schneider as Toto (Sig Arno), the vaguely European lover of Hackensacker’s amorous sister. The jokes here are just as painfully unfunny as Sandler’s worst, with much of it coming from Toto’s inability to speak English (or indeed make any noises that aren’t a kind of guttural squawking), and the Ale and Quail Club on the train getting drunk and shooting up their carriage. Sure sometimes the dialogue isn’t entirely terrible and the performances are game if a little bland, but the ridiculous nature of the plot and the general unlikeability of the leads – Gerry is seemingly offended and put-out by the selection of clothes very kindly donated by the bunch of strangers she ends up sharing a train carriage with – made this a very hard film to enjoy.

Choose Life 4/10

10 thoughts on “The Palm Beach Story

  1. I liked the film, especially how ridiculous it is. But I enjoyed your take on it and you’re actually right about all the weird things going on. The swapping partner thing at the start was amusing and yes the names would have been the hint at their mistakes. Its also strange how the sibling just agree to marry the millionaires no questions asked. But still, enjoyable, as long as you don’t take it seriously. I mean, the shooting party on the train is a huge sign that the film is completely off.

    • Fair enough. I don’t think I was in the right mindset to just go with the silliness, I think I was expecting something closer to It Happened One Night, which was a little more believable in terms of the plot, and the opening scene to Palm Beach just threw me off completely. Thanks for commenting!

      • I just watched The Palm Beach Story and then googled it to look for some reviews. It was a ridiculous movie from start to finish and not funny at all. If you are going to make a ridiculous plot and have the screwball comedy label attached to it at least make it funny and clever. This movie wasn’t either.

        The best screwball comedy films I’ve seen thus far are Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Those are both zany and intelligent and have engaging characters who have real chemistry between them (unlike in The Palm Beach Story.) .

        Another thing is, Claudette Colbert was a decent actress but to think this woman would be able to have multi-millionaires fall at her feet and hand her money as her character in The Palm Beach Story does is absurd. IMO Colbert was quite unattractive for an actress. Elizabeth Taylor(a beauty) she wasn’t.

  2. I hated this movie. In the opening couple of sentences of my review of this beast I called it a combination of unbridled conspicuous consumption, racism, multiple deus ex machinae, and high levels of egotism and entitlement. That’s about half a dozen reasons to hate it. To make the full half dozen, I’d suggest that at this point in her career, Claudette Colbert was no longer able to really fill the role of being universally desirable to men. That’s not her fault, but it is a problem with casting and with expectations and with screenplay. Colbert was certainly an attractive woman, but by this time, she just couldn’t pull of being the embodiment of womanhood.

    I think it’s the ending that bothers me the most, since it suggests that all of these people are completely interchangeable with each other. None of that personality stuff matters, right? We end with multiple weddings instead of the multiple homicides I wanted.

    • I agree completely. With regards to your remarks about Colbert, I initially expected for her to fail completely at her attempts to find people willing to provide for her, forcing her to settle for some boorish oaf instead of a genuinely nice chap. And I can see this being a potentially far more enjoyable and satisfying climax had the ending been as you desired.

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