The Palm Beach Story (1942)


“My wife and I were happy for 20 years. Then we met.” –Rodney Dangerfield, comedian

During a group discussion in college, one of my professors commented on the progression of young relationships: “First all your friends will get married, then they’ll start having kids, and one day you’ll realize many of them got divorced.” Heartbreaking, but probably true.

The Palm Beach Story could be summed up by the question, “Is the grass really greener on the other side?” Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) wants to divorce her husband Tom because of his financial woes. If they end on good terms, Gerry suggests she could even help Tom finance his projects after she gets rich. She escapes to Palm Beach, happens upon a man named John D. Hackensacker III with quite a bit of money, and falls for him. Tom comes to get his wife back…but will the allure of newfound financial success get the best of their marriage?

When introducing The Palm Beach Story on the TCM channel, Ben Mankiewicz said, “In the early 1940s, the country was at war, and Hollywood was producing war-themed movies by the dozens. […Writer/director Preston] Sturges thought the country needed more comedy; we needed to laugh. And so Sturges delivered some of the finest comedies Hollywood had ever seen.” Jessica Kiang of IndieWire wrote, “The Palm Beach Story is perhaps the lightest, frothiest mousse-dessert of a film that Sturges would ever make.” I don’t think Sturges would be insulted by that statement if Mankiewicz’s analysis is correct.

There was one aspect of The Palm Beach Story that could have been directorial oversight or comic genius…I’m still trying to decide if it’s more annoying or funny. You see, John D. Hackensacker III has these spectacles he is constantly taking off and putting back on throughout the film. He seems to do this at the most random times, even when there’s nothing interesting he should be looking at. I was tempted to watch the film again to count how many times this happened. My estimate is at least 50. Either Sturges is poking fun at the perceived eccentricities of rich people, or actor Rudy Vallee had a nervous tick he channeled through these wire frames.

After navigating some hilarious mistaken identities with Tom and reexamining her own goals, Gerry concludes that the grass was not greener on the other side.

Any way you slice it, divorce sucks. I feel very fortunate that my parents have stayed married 26 years, and I hope to carry on their legacy someday. Even within the same genre (comedy), films tackle divorce in very different ways. Later in this series we will take a look at movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and His Girl Friday. Whether we have experienced the “D” word or not, thank goodness movies give us an outlet to process the many emotions that accompany such a colossal life event.