Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How not to marry a millionaire

Preston Sturges was one of the most biting comedic directors, and it's no surprise that TCM have included him in their salute to directors month, with a night of movies tonight. Among those wild comedies is The Palm Beach Story, airing at midnight ET (that's 11:00 PM on June 10 in the Central Time Zone).

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert star as the Jefferses, a married couple who find out that "and they lived happily ever after" is the stuff of fairy tales, and not real life. He's an inventor with an idea for a new type of airport, that he could develop if only he had the funding. That lack of funding is causing all sorts of problems, including not being able to pay the rent, and eventually husband and wife get into a fight over money. She's got an idea: she'll head down to Palm Beach, Florida; get a quickie divorce; and then find a millionaire to marry who will fund his airport project. Sure, it's a daft plan, but this is a movie, not real life. Naturally, though, Mr. Jeffers isn't thrilled with the plan, and tries to stop his wife from carrying it out.

She runs away, though, taking a train down to Florida, where she meets John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), an obvious take-off on John D. Rockefeller. Hackensacker is one of America's richest men, but prefers to travel incognito, which is why Mrs. Jeffers is able to meet him on a train. Needless to say, he falls in love with her, and feels pity for her because she makes her husband sound worse than he really is. Re-enter Mr. Jeffers, who has followed his wife down to Florida. She passes him off as her brother, Captain McGlew, since she wants Hackensacker's money and knows that he'd never give it to Mr. Jeffers based on the stories she's told Hackensacker. Meanwhile, Hackensacker has a sister (Mary Astor) who goes through men like Nick and Nora Charles go through martinis, and she immediately falls in love with Mr. Jeffers, not knowing he's actually the husband of the woman claiming to be his sister. How are they going to resolve this conflict? Well, I won't say how, except to say that if anybody but Preston Sturges tried to solve the problem this way, audiences would have left the theater screaming in outrage.

As for The Palm Beach Story, it's a great deal of fun. Joel McCrea does quite well with comedy, even if he is mostly playing the straight man. Colbert is just as good as she was in It Happened One Night, while Vallee and Astor are suitably daffy. Vallee, more known as a radio star than an actor, even gets to serenade Colbert with a song. The minor characters add quite a bit to the story, as is common with a Preston Sturges movie. There's a hard-of-hearing "Weinie King" who appears at the beginning of the movie to give Mrs. Jeffers the money she needs to pay the rent and get to Florida, while Sturges stalwart William Demarest shows up as part of an overly rowdy hunt club with a private train car on the train to Florida.

Thankfully, it's also available on DVD.

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