Putting aside for a moment that they’re sophisticated, witty and breezy — some of the finest entries of Hollywood’s Golden Age — there’s something often forgotten about the films of Preston Sturges: They’re also totally ridiculous. That may seem pejorative, but, at his best, this writer-director understood that, done right, screwball comedy’s sheer silliness could access deep wells of emotion more powerfully than a straight drama could. Some of his established classics suffer from an unequal mixture of zing and grit, but 1942’s The Palm Beach Story gets the proportions just right, a preposterous lark about marriage and money that isn’t quite as funny as it is pointedly bittersweet. Married couple Tom and Gerry (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) are struggling financially, partly due to the lingering effects of the Great Depression, partly due to the fact that nobody will invest in Tom’s airport landing strip on top of the New York City skyline. In a moment of noble sacrifice or opportunistic self-interest — Sturges never reveals the exact percentage of each impulse — Gerry leaves him, and makes her way to Florida to seduce tycoon John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), hoping that her new husband will bail out her old one. But Tom foils the plan by chasing after her, disguising himself as her brother to avoid suspicion but only succeeding in attracting the fancy of Hackensacker’s sister (Mary Astor).
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The Palm Beach Story
Released in the midst of his extraordinarily fertile period in the early 1940s — seven films in less than four years — The Palm Beach Story is unmistakably Sturges: Characters fling one-liners like cream pies, the bit players are pure-grade dolts, and a surprisingly adult sexuality cuts through the slapstick’s childishness. But what’s more interesting is how the various ploys and disguised identities are balanced against a noticeable melancholy: pure-hearted Tom’s confusion at his scheming wife, sensible Gerry’s divided loyalties between love and economic stability, and, as their mark, Hackensacker, whose kindly properness makes him one exceptionally sympathetic patsy. For those who complain about The Palm Beach Story’s convenient deus ex machina finale, the uncertain looks on the characters’ faces suggest that Sturges knew sophisticated breeziness had its limits: Rarely has a happy ending felt so much like wishful thinking. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Fri., June 27, 7:30 p.m. www.silentmovietheatre.com.)
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes