The Heroine’s Journey in “The Palm Beach Story”

Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story opens with a daringly avant-garde montage that almost provokes open rebellion from the audience, as what seems to be the culmination of another movie entirely seems to crumble into mirror shards before our eyes. A maid panics while trying to call in an emergency; a shadow looms; a man (Joel McCrea) runs around trying to resolve a crisis that seems to concern a wedding; a woman (Claudette Colbert), presumed to be a kidnapping victim, kicks out a closet door; a surreal moment later, the maid discovers a second Claudette Colbert (or is the movie projector busted?) in a wedding dress. While one key mystery of the almost cryptographic shambles will be solved no sooner than the movie’s final few seconds, the spiritual format of what follows is ensured: lapping waves of spinning, delirious chaos.

A kind of mad scientist of movie storytelling, Sturges also knew when and how to take a breather, and The Palm Beach Story’s intro proper puts the preceding bedlam on hold for a little while. We’re slid somewhat through the side door into the crumbling marriage of Gerry and Tom Jeffers (Colbert and McCrea), a young couple struggling to subsist on the fumes of their failed dreams. In other words, The Palm Beach Story begins with the Manhattan story. Temporary relief, in the form of a cash infusion from a funny old man who wants nothing in return but a peck on the cheek from the pretty lady, grants Gerry and Tom salvation from their creditors, but animal jealousy pushes their already simmering marital discord to a boil. Before long, Gerry has boarded a Penn Station express to the title city, the better to secure a fast and bloodless divorce. Tom, who doesn’t share her vision, pursues her by airplane.

The plot device of the false breakup, wherein a screenwriter contrives to separate an ideal couple in order to create the necessary suspense to fuel a story’s forward momentum, only to restore the union at the point of maximum satisfaction, ought to render the film’s ultimate conclusion foregone. But we hardly know Gerry and Tom when we meet them, and Tom proves a suitable enough “villain” (insofar as, despite being an irreducibly softhearted hunk played by McCrea, he threatens the heroine’s plans for happiness, and so qualifies as the villain on a technicality) to at least hypothesize that an alternative life plan. Ideally, one spent in the sensitive, attentive, and slightly daffy care of billionaire J.D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee, in one of those roles that seems inconceivable outside Sturges-topia, but crucial to its integrity). With the uncertainty of what is and isn’t the Natural Order of Things, in which a husband is obliged to pretend to be a brother, and a billionaire is seen as a sweetheart, a madman, or a heartless skinflint, depending on who you ask, the resolving structure of The Palm Beach Story resembles a maze of increasingly narrowing paths and diminishing options. The rate of compression is matched by the speed with which Sturges piles on color and detail to the lies and deception wrought by the quarrelling Tom and Gerry Jeffers.

Sturges’s broadest masterstroke ensures that, even as the clock runs out, the dramatic stakes melt away just as quickly. Who but Sturges could conceive of The Palm Beach Story without a seriocomic courtroom climax, or a mad scheme to halt a wedding already in progress, or some other timeworn mechanism? The Sturges alternative: a gentle implosion of expectations, as if the rug could be pulled out from under us merely by tugging on a stray thread.

Conceptual genius aside, at the heart of The Palm Beach Story is Gerry’s very personal journey, as she’s borne on the tides of farce and comic violence, and twice serenaded. If speech creates thought, Sturges creates in Gerry a brilliantly articulate (as well as humanely confused) heroine, a Penelope at the center of an inside-out retelling of The Odyssey. Gerry uses improvisation and a long string of opportune misunderstandings to vault headlong into the prospect of a marriage that would probably be happy, and certainly secure, financially speaking. She’s sabotaged when, in the first tranquil moment with Tom since they split the scene in New York City, the virus of her true heart’s desire is reintroduced by a sweet lullaby and a zipper that refuses to come undone. Sturges’s wish that everybody get a piece of happiness reigns supreme, even if he has to use special effects to get the job done.