Saturday, March 14, 2015

THE PALM BEACH STORY: Blu-ray (Paramount 1942) Criterion Collection

Cast off lovers have always been popular in American cinema. During Hollywood’s golden age they were, in essence, rife for parody – particularly in the screwball romantic comedy. Such ‘I love you/I hate you’ scenarios evidently always led to a reconciliation at the altar. But along the way they provided some badly needed light-hearted hilarity for Depression-plagued and war torn audiences. Infectiously silly and scintillatingly madcap, the formula usually portrayed the man as a bumbling popinjay; the woman, the one with superior intuition and intellect, eventually muddied in notions of romantic tranquility with her significant other. Ah me, the reckless innocence of full-grown adults behaving like children; Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) being a prime example. In Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea we have a superb pair of idiotically mismatched misfits, nevertheless fated to be mated after some initial consternation and residual romantic fallout. She’s an aspiring gold digger whose heart just isn’t in on the con; he’s the faithful as a birddog type, prone to mild bouts of jealousy. Together, they’ll make beautiful (or at least, riotous) music together; if only she lets her tiara slip just a little and he allows his pride to ride down below the knee.
Sturges’ lightly devious, deliciously obtuse romantic screwball is pretty much par for the course, except that it has Sturges crafty charm to recommend it. Preston Sturges is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily forgotten genius of early 20th century cinema. Yet, in these intervening decades his reputation has been grotesquely misplaced. At a time when writers in Hollywood were expected to ‘know their place’ as the dime a dozen wordsmiths, churning it out like sausages in a gristmill, this Chicago-born zeitgeist did the almost unthinkable, taking over the director’s seat to manage his own sense of literary wit and style. By the mid-1930s, Sturges had plenty of eccentricities to crib from; an unorthodox upbringing by his flighty mother, who annulled her marriage to his father, Solomon, when Pres’ was a mere child, the pair embarking upon her failed singing career in bohemian Paris, circa 1902. Sturges’ childhood was spent in the company of artists like famed dancer, Isadora Duncan and occultist/novelist, Aleister Crowley (with whom Sturges’ mother briefly had an affair); Preston toggling between these artsy free-spirits and a more rooted ambition ingrained in him by his stern father to become ‘respectable’.
Respectability is keenly provoked and made off kilter in The Palm Beach Story as middle-class gal, Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) striving to divest herself of an equally middle-class hubby, Tom (McCrea), while ingratiating herself to the more superficial, devil-may-care and flighty, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), at present, nursing her own castoff – the millionaire, Toto (deftly handled as almost pantomime by Sig Arno). The Princess’ brother, J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) has eyes for Gerry, of course leading to all sorts of jealous outbursts and friction between Gerry and Tom – whom Gerry masquerades about these moneyed playgrounds as her affluent brother, Capt. McGloo. In fact, they’re still married – thus, putting a definitely cramp in Gerry’s plans to marry J.D. Actually, Gerry doesn’t really want Centimillia’s brother. He’s a stuffed shirt, dull as paint and (wait for it) – ‘respectable’ to boot; the black sheep of this otherwise ‘throw caution to the wind’ clan.
As in the movie, achieving – and then, maintaining ‘respectability’ seemed to clash with Sturges’ own family bloodline. Although Sturges diligently committed to various professions in his youth and even served in the U.S. Army Air Service, his private life would eerily parallel his mother’s more avant-garde lifestyle. Both were married and divorced four times, as example. Sturges was also bitten by the artistic bug at an early age, becoming a noted playwright with back to back hits, his second, Strictly Dishonorable, written in just six days. Ultimately, this property would provide the necessary springboard for Sturges other career, earning him an astronomical $300,000.00 in the process and attracting interest from Paramount Pictures, the studio Sturges would call his home for most of the 1930s and early 40s. But first, he was to make a Cook’s tour of the rest of Hollywood and have modest success selling another screenplay to 2oth Century-Fox. Paramount made the first profit-sharing percentage deal ever to this screenwriter, the notion a young upstart calling his own shots proving irksome to the status quo. Even writers of some stature on the literary scene had suffered the slings and arrows of being considered second and third class citizens in an industry built upon superficial glamor, star power and the omnipotent dominion of the director. Yet, for Sturges – practically an unknown quantity – the gates were flung open and the red carpet lain out.     
For the remainder of the 1930s, Sturges was steadily employed as a ‘grunt’ writer; albeit, at $2,500 a week, one of the highest paid – occasionally without screen credit. This, however, did not irritate him as much as the way other directors were handling his dialogue. So, in 1939, Sturges made a deal with Paramount, selling his script for The Great McGinty (written six years earlier) for a mere dollar, on the consent he could direct the picture too. Behind closed doors, the more envious bristled in anticipation of Sturges’ self-created demise. Instead, the picture was a smash hit. In fact, it won Sturges the very first Original Screenplay Academy Award, solidifying his reputation in Hollywood.  It also paved the way for other audacious writers like Billy Wilder and John Huston to take up the gauntlet.  Asked to quantify his success, Sturges had no quam about celebrating, “It's taken me eight years…but now, if I don't run out of ideas – and I won't – we'll have some fun. There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing, I will make some of them!”
Indeed, Struges’ criterion for razorback repartee, delivered by his central protagonists with lightning speed and a modicum of wicked triviality, is what sets his movies apart; the ingeniousness of economy as he manages to make grandiloquence less ‘grand’ than ‘eloquent’; his characters locked in a verbal sparring match; the vernacular seasoned with infectious Euro-trash utterances and inappropriately salacious odes to the ugly American. In The Palm Beach Story, Mary Astor’s princess is hardly regal. Instead, she’s a boorish sex kitten whose witchery derives from Astor’s own ability to be a notorious flirt, dismissive of any man who would presume he could satisfy her needs, while remaining pleasurably above it all.  Astor knew something of this in her own life; the particulars of a private diary, stolen and later published in the tabloids, reading like an incendiary who’s who of Hollywood sex-capades. In the context of the film, Astor is quite simply the delicious and worldly maven, who prefers red hot lovers to husbands and great sex with smooth operators to a lifetime of respectability with even the right man.
The Palm Beach Story opens with an age-old marital quandary – lack of money.  Tom and Gerry (get it?) are a pair of bickering marrieds so right for one another it hurts. Or are they? The prologue under the credits reveals more of the truth than we’re initially led to believe; both Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea playing twins who are in love with the other twin in this complicated equation. As both Gerry’s sister and Tom’s brother are determined to marry the other, they inadvertently tie up their beloved and lock them in a closet, thereby thwarting the wedding that was to be, but also marrying the wrong twin with who neither is actually in love: result – fiasco. Except now they are husband and wife, attempting to make the very best of things.
Eventually, Gerry decides to divorce Tom. Alas, she plays along with his insistent pleas to stay together, leading to the first of many hilarious vignettes. While Tom rushes off to procure a loan to save them – at least, financially – Gerry hides out while their fashionable New York apartment is being shown by a realtor to the Wienie King (Robert Dudley); a lovably obtuse old coot, he cannot resist playing Sir Galahad to Gerry’s maiden in distress. He’s free and easy with his millions and why not? It’s about the only thing he possesses to procure a likely interest in a handsome young woman.  Interestingly, the Wienie King is the benevolent sort without any strings attached. Not that Tom would believe that, returning to the apartment sometime later to find Gerry ecstatically counting out the $700 ‘loan’. “Sex never entered into it?” Tom begrudgingly inquires. “Oh, but of course it did, darling,” Gerry replies, “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. From the time you're about so big and wondering why your girlfriends’ fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden…nothing wrong - just an overture to the opera that’s coming!”
It’s no use. Tom could never understand. So, in the dead of night, Gerry decides to make off with the money for a new life in Palm Beach, Florida; a likely spot to land herself just the sort of rich husband she’s always wanted. Sturges’ motivation for Gerry herein gets a little muddled. She’s actually trying to marry wealth so her rich second husband can give Tom a leg up with his ambitions and career. Huh?!? Exactly, what sort of big fish is she looking to catch? Big and stupid? Could Gerry ever be truly satisfied with someone like that? Pragmatically, she finds neither, rather a congenial sort in John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallée), one of the richest men in the world, whom she inadvertently meets on the train bound for Florida, after a night of drunken carousing with millionaires of the Ale and Quail Hunt Club who cause Gerry to lose all her luggage – including the Wienie King’s $700 dollars! Hackensacker is the altruistic sort – his extraordinary philanthropy affording Gerry an entirely new wardrobe, from hose to lingerie and jewelry too. Sturges hints Hackensacker is a tightwad; his fastidious book-keeping (he writes down all expenses accrued in Gerry’s glamorous makeover, but ironically never tabulates the full amount for remuneration) actually, an idiosyncratic behavior.
As traveling by train is just too drab for his nibs, Hackensacker entices Gerry to a more recherché mode of transportation aboard his yacht, ‘The ‘Erl’ King (Struges in-joke on Hackensacker’s family biz – oil).  In Palm Beach, Hackensaker introduces Gerry to his sister; the oft-married/forever madcap, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). In the meantime, Tom has befriended The Wienie King who, upon learning of his predicament and enduring love for Gerry, affords Tom travelling expenses to pursue her to Palm Beach. Uh, oh…trouble in paradise! From here, Sturges takes us on a more conventional tour of the typical American screwball. Tom pitches his failed idea, building an airport suspended over the city by wires, to Hackensacker, who believes it a solid business investment. As with just about everything else, Hackensacker can afford such magnanimity.  In the meantime, Gerry attempts to put distance between her lingering feelings for her husband. But Tom desperately wants some quiet time alone with his wife. Alas, when and where? Hackensacker is always lurking about. Even when he is preoccupied, Tom has to contest with Centimillia’s unwanted advances. She really is a notorious sexpot/mantrap. 
Having been fed a line by Gerry about her first husband’s abusiveness, and quite unaware Tom and ‘that man’ are one in the same, Hackensacker is empathetic to a fault, reasoning, one of the tragedies in life is the men most in need of being beaten to a pulp are always the biggest physical specimens. In the meantime, Centimillia confides in her brother she is contemplating marriage to Captain McGloo…if only he’d propose. What could that man be thinking?!? It all ends neatly enough, in a whirl and a blur; Tom pursuing and successfully wooing Gerry back into his arms; she reluctantly realizing he is the only man for her. Relatively unaffected by his loss, Hackensacker decides to invest in Tom’s airport scheme anyway. Learning Tom and Gerry are identical twins, Hackensacker and Centimillia hurry off to wed their counterparts; the final moments picking up exactly where the opening credits began, with a marriage and title card reading “…and they all lived happily ever after…or, did they?”
The Palm Beach Story catches Preston Sturges at the heady heights of his film-making career; a furious five-year explosion of breakneck creative energies expended on an uninterrupted string of hits: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July (both made and released in 1940), The Lady Eve, and, Sullivan's Travels (both in 1941). There were still hits after The Palm Beach Story, including Struges most risqué, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), about an immaculate conception in a small town. But by the end of that year, Sturges’ prowess had run its course; a three year hiatus somehow allowing his lowbrow aristocratic style to fall out of fashion with public tastes. Indeed, postwar American audiences were not as easily amused by the classy screwball; neither by Sturges’ flawed foray into ‘serious’ melodrama with The Great Moment (1947) – a tale about William Thomas Green Morton (also played by McCrea); the man who discovers and perfects medical anesthesia.
What is richly satisfying about The Palm Beach Story is how deftly it manages to capture the essence of this badly bungled love affair, making even tired old gags crackle with a crisp air of scalding originality for our general amusement. In an era when sex was considered highly taboo in the movies, Sturges manages to be frank, occasionally overt, and remarkably erotic – if, flippantly so - with his innuendoes. He does everything but have this mis-mated foursome drop to the mat for some sweat-soaked scenes of lust gone awry. And Colbert and McCrea have divine romantic chemistry. Again, Sturges’ dialogue makes this pair hot to trot and so incredibly right for one another; Sturges, playing off Colbert’s ever so slight austerity and, McCrea’s sublime sternness, occasionally tempered with doe-eyed primal urges to possess her completely – even, perhaps, against her will, by keep this love wagon with one flat tire on course. It’s the perfect ménage à trois; Sturges happily prodding and poking at the couple from every conceivable narrative angle, much like a malicious child all too eager to see what will happen if this attenuated balloon in their grand amour pops.
Mary Astor plays her perpetually aroused princess with a thirsty zest to ring every last drop of double entendre from Struges’ plum offerings. Even when she sulks, she does it while oozing man-crazy sex appeal. Good ‘dirty’ fun too from Robert Dudley’s eyebrow-raised and ‘wrinkled like a Shar Pei puppy’ curmudgeon; the withered physical antithesis of McCrea’s robustly athletic and virile masculinity. The brief exchange afforded Tom and the Wienie King is loaded with tawdry hints from an old man who knows damn well what he would do in Tom’s place, particularly if he looked half as good. The one disappointment is Rudy Vallee. Fair enough, he’s Sturges’ idea of ‘the straight man’. Every solid romantic screwball needs at least one. And we certainly cannot count on McCrea’s slightly pixilated young stud for that. But Vallee is a real stick in the mud; a fun-killer at every turn; more deadly serious than seriously romantic. He’s also the wrong type for our Gerry – a gal who could eat him alive if only he’d let her.
Ultimately, The Palm Beach Story succeeds because it has Preston Sturges’ sure-footed wickedness for testing Hollywood’s code of censorship to its limits, to recommend it. Interestingly too, his shifting point of view is never in service of the forthright morality usually ingrained in our protagonists – particularly from this vintage in American screwball comedies. No, Sturges repeatedly gives us men and women at their lowest common denominator – frantic over finances and out to greedily get what they can for themselves; unsatisfactorily settling for whatever’s left over once the dust clouds have settled from their catfights, endured with bruises to ego incurred along these very bumpy roads eventually leading to…um… love? – or, perhaps, merely a level of tolerance for each other’s all too human foibles and frailties. As example: the only reason Gerry goes back to Tom is because he’s found an investor in Hackensacker; thereby achieving her own goal as well – to be married to a wealthy man. The ‘man’ isn’t especially important in this equation; only the wealth. Why divorce a rich husband simply to marry another? And Tom stays with Gerry, not so much because she’s the only woman he can fathom spending the rest of his life with, but rather, because he stubbornly refuses to allow her poisoning of his blood to be purged from his system on her terms. If she wants a divorce, he’ll be the one to grant it when he decides, and not a moment before his own satisfaction in their marriage has irrevocably cooled past the point of no return.       
Anyone suggesting less than cold-blooded antagonism at play in The Palm Beach Story is really denying Sturges his own perceptions of the capriciousness in this marriage-go-round. Like most every movie from this period in Sturges’ career, The Palm Beach Story derives a modicum of its acidity from the writer/director’s own frequent clashes at home and with Paramount’s executive brain trust; particularly executive producer, Buddy DeSylva, who begrudgingly stood behind Sturges.  Despite Sturges’ incontrovertible clairvoyance to produce one hit movie after the next, DeSylva despised Sturges’ carte blanche autonomy. He was also more than mildly jealous of the infallible friendships Sturges had fostered within Paramount’s stock company. In the end, their stalemate resulted in Sturges capping off his studio contract with two hits (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and, Hail the Conquering Hero) and a miss (The Great Moment). Hail the Conquering Hero nearly missing the mark too after DeSylva delayed its release, tinkered with the final edit, and suffered a disastrous preview. In a rather fascinating postscript to his Paramount Years, the studio recalled Sturges to ‘fix’ this movie. By this time, Sturges’ Paramount contract had expired. Sturges, generally temperamental and knowing the strength of his own self-worth in the industry, ultimately re-edited, rewrote and reshot portions of Hail the Conquering Hero. For this, he was never compensated.
In the end, bad timing, tragic personal investments and a string of commercial flops conspired to undo Preston Sturges’ reputation; their debacles fostering an epic implosion of this one-time indestructible talent. As the 1940’s came to an end, too many of Sturges’ creative projects were left under-financed or entirely aborted. A move to Broadway was no more satisfying or profit-building. Overdue taxes forced Sturges to sell off his assets and retreat to Europe where he made a half-heated attempt to resurrect his movie career. In the end, he turned to writing his memoirs with the sort of clear-eyed summary of his life’s work that, ironically, seems apropos for a man once driven by ego and raw talent.
“Between flops,” Sturges began, “…it is true, I have come up with an occasional hit, but compared to a good boxer’s record my percentage has been lamentable. I fought a draw in my first fight, stupified everyone by winning the championship in my second, got a couple of wins with picture rights, then was knocked out three times in a row. Dragging my weary carcass to Hollywood, I was immediately knocked out again, won a big fight some six months later, then marked time for six years as an ordinary ham-and-beaner, picking up what I could. Suddenly, I saw a chance and offered to fight for the world championship for a dollar. To everyone's astonishment, I won that championship and defended it successfully for a number of years, winning nine times by knockout, fighting three draws, losing twice and getting one no-decision in Europe. I have just come over to America for a fight, but it was called off at the last moment. Why I'm not walking on my heels after all this, I don't know. Maybe I am walking on my heels. It would be surprising if I weren't.”
Criterion’s Blu-ray is advertised as a new digital transfer in 4K from surviving 35mm nitrate fine-grain and a safety duplicate negatives. Bottom line: it looks fabulous; organically grainy and very stable with oodles of depth and clarity to boot. Contrast is significantly brighter than before, revealing more fine detail in hair, fabric and background details. No untoward DNR to moan about either and a really effective use of the various digital stabilization tool available the film restorationist to ensure optimal video quality is preserved and consistently maintained throughout. A handful of shots exhibit negligible density fluctuations and some sporadic variations in grain Forget about it. As we all know, source materials can wildly fluctuate. Criterion’s given this one the ole Joe College try and admirably succeeded. Prepare to be impressed and enjoy. Pluses: no frame jumps, flicker, damage or debris. This is very nice looking indeed. So, bravo, thank you and keep more of the same coming – please.
Criterion’s in love with LPCM audio as opposed to DTS. In any case, this is mono with good solid clarity and depth, music and dialogue exceptionally well balanced, alas, with occasional light background hiss. Again, source – not transfer.  Extras are a little light on this outing. I would like to see Criterion get back in the habit of giving us comprehensive extras rather than just a few choice video essays and vintage junkets. Herein, we have new interviews with writer/historian, James Harvey and actor/ comedian, Bill Hader. We also get a 1941 U.S. military propaganda short, Safeguarding Military Information, written by Sturges. Criterion loves its radio adaptations too. I can think of only a handful of vintage titles to lack this extra. Personally, I haven’t listened to a whole lot of these and would have easily preferred a running commentary track for the movie in its stead. Again, not reviewing what’s not here. Last, but not least, critic, Stephanie Zacharek weighs in on her impressions of Sturges and this masterpiece in a written essay. Good read. More please. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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