'The Palm Beach Story' and the Comedy of Patriarchy

by Brice Ezell

20 February 2015

In pure madcap fashion, Preston Sturges' wartime comedy depicts just how absurd the constraints on women are in a patriarchal society.
 
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The Palm Beach Story

Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno, Robert Warwick

US DVD: 20 Jan 2015

Tom: Oh, is that so? He just—seven hundred dollars? Just like that?
Gerry: Just like that.
Tom: I mean, sex didn’t even enter into it.
Gerry: Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don’t think he’d have given it to me if I had hair like excelsior and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear.
—Gerry (Claudette Colbert) and Tom (Joel McRea) Jeffers in The Palm Beach Story

Preston Sturges’ 1942 screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story opens with a case of stolen identity. These opening antics take place on the day of a wedding. A woman (Claudette Colbert) is bound and gagged in a closet, while another woman, her double (also Colbert), puts on a wedding dress and readies herself in a frenzy. At the same time, a man (Joel McRea) switches from one suit to another as he heads to the wedding. What exactly is happening here is not explained—if one could use that word—until later in the film. For now, the audience is left with a foreboding title card: “And they lived happily ever after. Or did they?”

After this opening montage and title sequence ends, the story centers on the couple that resulted from that wedding, Tom (McRea) and Gerry (Colbert). Although there’s no indication that those names are an homage to the cornerstone cartoon Tom and Jerry, Sturges’ zippy pacing and silly comedy certainly do align neatly with that classic duo.

However, while The Palm Beach Story sets a mostly straighforward plot in motion from that point on, things don’t follow a sensical path. Beginning with Gerry’s attempt at an amicable divorce, the film then goes on to involve a train car full of men shooting guns, a lavish shopping spree, and a randomly appearing orchestra. As one would expect from Sturges, the master of the screwball form, this movie maintains a core momentum while spiraling off in all sorts of delightful tangents. In addition to the main story, wherein Tom chases Gerry as she runs away to Palm Springs, Florida, to get a divorce, one other key current runs throughout this most wild goose of chases. This issue begins right from the outset with the framing institution of the film: marriage.

As Gerry, Colbert is undoubtedly the best aspect of the The Palm Beach Story. Her pace and razor-sharp line readings make her a natural fit for the Sturges style. She gets much of the choice dialogue here: “Don’t you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them? Didn’t you ever hear of a campaign promise?” Yet despite being the crux of the action and attention, Gerry is also the most disempowered figure in The Palm Beach Story. When at the beginning of the film she decides that she and Tom would be better off divorced, following troubles related both to personalities and finances, she is quickly thrown into a madcap world of patriarchal limitations. No matter where she moves, she is subject to the impositions of men. Even when the men seemingly help her on her quest to make it to Palm Springs, it’s easy to see the strings attached.

At the beginning of the movie, it appears that Tom and Gerry will have to sell their expensive New York apartment due to lack of funds. (Of course, given their ritzy Park Avenue locale, it’s hard to really sympathize with the duo as a case of true financial hardship.) Fortunately, Gerry is bailed out at the last minute by a prospective buyer, “the Wienie King”, a man responsible for inventing a certain kind of hot dog. (“Lay off ‘em, you’ll live longer,” he tells Gerry.)

This money, however, proves to be a reprieve rather than a fix-all. Dissatisfied, Gerry takes off for Palm Springs—but not before Tom tries to stop her as she runs away with a suitcase, flagging a police officer by accusing her of stealing his suitcase. When she asks the officer, “Do I look like a suitcase stealer?”, his reply is telling: “It’s not how you look but how you act that counts in this world.” To any reasonable passerby, Gerry would appear to be nothing more than a woman with a suitcase. But the world of The Palm Beach Story, like the world it itself was forged from, is not a woman’s world.

This becomes even more obvious when Gerry arrives at Central Station without any money to pay for a train ticket. Through a clever bit of misdirection, she finds a way to join the luxury train car of the Quail Club, a group of middle-aged to elderly men with a penchant for hunting. At first this seems an act of generosity, but not long into the train ride it becomes clear that the men expect Gerry to entertain them, and be entertained by them, at the drop of a hat. One scene involves a large group of the men waking Gerry in her sleep so they can sing a song to her. Although none of these men inappropriately touch her, the extent to which they feel entitled to encroach on her space is nonetheless creepy to watch unfold.

This behavior is given a dark edge when two of the men begin firing their guns in the train car, shattering windows throughout. (No real reason is given other than “just because”.) As comedian and Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader observes in an interview included in The Palm Beach Story‘s Criterion edition, this totally bizarre scene is a case of Sturges “finding out the scene as it happens”. Once the scene has concluded, it’s easy to feel disoriented; Gerry went from looking for a train to hitch, to finding herself amidst a volley of shotgun shells. Yet while it’s undeniably zany fun, it’s also unsettling given the way in which the Quail Club “playfully” domineered over the wayward would-be divorcee.

Her escape from the bullet-riddled train comes in the form of J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), an affable millionaire also en route to Palm Beach. He takes kindly to Gerry. After she loses all of her luggage when the conductor disconnects the train car of the gun-toting Quail Clubb, Hackensacker offers to buy her new clothes, which results in a shopping spree of staggering proportions, even when measured by today’s inflated dollar. From there, the duo takes off on Hackensacker’s yacht, The Erl King, where Gerry meets his sister, the Princess Centimilla (Mary Astor). Also called Maud, she is best described as a Sex and the City character that did a time warp back to the ‘40s; her playful banter and man-crazy antics make her an ace player for Sturges’ dialogue. (“Of course I’m crazy, I’ll marry anybody,” she admits.)

The irony of Gerry’s journey from New York to Palm Beach is obvious: in an attempt to escape her man, she found herself pushed back and forth between more men. Even though her rationale for wanting to part from Tom is entirely sensible, the world will not let her. Ping-ponging back and forth between the patriarchy, Gerry finds that every out she is presented with comes with strings—strings that, invariably, are being puppeteered by a man.

This doesn’t just apply to Gerry, either: in the end, the fatalism of patriarchal standards becomes the primary undercurrent of the film. After following Gerry to Palm Beach in the hopes of winning her back, Tom finds himself at the whims of the Princess, who fancies him right from the minute she sees him. Ultimately, though, Tom and Gerry decide that getting back together is the best choice, as they still are in love after all that’s happened. When they confess to Hackensacker and the Princess who they really are (Gerry initially lied and said Tom was her brother), they reveal to the disheartened siblings that they both have twins.

The Palm Beach Story then concludes where it began, with the aforementioned wedding scene mentioned at the beginning of this review. This time, however, the camera makes it into the chapel, where we (ostensibly) see Tom and Gerry being remarried, Hackensacker marrying Gerry’s twin, and the Princess marrying Tom’s twin. The movie then takes its bow with the same title placard from the opening: “And they lived happily ever after. Or did they?”

As Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek argues in her Criterion essay on The Palm Beach Story, the more likely answer is that they didn’t. “In Sturges’s world,” she argues, “love is an ill-advised adventure… Whether you get up laughing or crying says everything about who you are.” Moreover, as she points out, taking the ending of the film at face value is an easy mistake:

What is going on here? Why is there one Claudette Colbert in a wedding dress and another tied up in a closet? Even the movie’s ending doesn’t entirely explain this detail, and it raises an unanswerable question: is it possible to marry the wrong person only to discover she was the right one all along?

A yes or no answer to Zacharek’s last question cannot be known for sure. Of the many things one could glean from The Palm Beach Story, chief among them is the idea that one could run thousands of miles away from someone only to find that the architecture of society will only funnel her back to where she started. But then again, upon attempting to flee her marriage, Gerry could well have realized that she is meant to be with Tom. Of course it’s equally plausible that she goes back to Tom out of a need for safety, after being tossed back and forth between the competing interests of various male suitors.

The greatest success of Sturges’ script is how it depicts the falsity of the construct that Gerry has in her mind when she tries to leave Tom. It’s not that by leaving Tom she becomes free to do what she feels is right; rather, in leaving him she trades his limitations for those belonging to other men. After taking off from her husband, she must succumb to the whims of a maniacal hunting club. When she escapes alive from their ill-aimed weaponry, she must submit herself to the endless checkbook of Hackensacker, lest she try to get around without any money. Finally, in order to brush off her new love interest, she must return to her old one. In illustrating how truly absurd the impositions of a patriarchal society are, Colbert is radiant as Gerry, who is truly the linchpin of this astute and sharp comedy. Bound as she is by the restrictions of her male-dominated society, she’s sharper than all of her fellow players, male or otherwise. The men have the power, but she has the smarts; as she puts it, “You have no idea what a long-legged girl can do without doing anything.”

The Palm Beach Story

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