Palm Beach Story [1942]

Among the earliest writers to set his sights on the director's chair, Preston Sturges brought a frank, unsentimental view of the war between the sexes to his mid-'40s features that exemplify his style, as demonstrated in this prescient 1942 gem. Architect Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea) and his wife, Gerry (Claudette Colbert), further refine the archetypal Sturges couple--the male embodying strength, idealism, and a certain naivete, the female ultimately stronger, smarter, and (as revealed early on in an astonishing speech by Colbert) clearer-eyed and more pragmatic about the subtext of sex. This giddy shaggy-dog story follows the couple's split, and Gerry's subsequent flight to Palm Beach. This head-snapping frolic is paced by double-entendres and lampooning looks at the very rich, with standout performances by the predatory Princess Centimillia (the delicious Mary Astor), who's more than ready to comfort Tom, and the wealthy, dim-witted John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee, staking out a new career, post-crooner, as comic foil), Gerry's new suitor. Even the predictable reunion of the star-crossed lovers is achieved with an antic surrealism. Sturges's strength in building strong character ensembles is matched by his affection for coupling screwball dialogue with physical slapstick, seldom to better effect than in the drunken target practice of the Ale and Quail Club, who make Colbert's train ride to Florida a different kind of shoot-'em-up. --Sam Sutherland

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