THANKSGIVING AT THE MOVIES - PART 3
Finally: The Palm Beach Story.
I visited my sister in Florida recently and we stopped by Blockbuster Video to select the evening's entertainment. Upon entering I spotted about three-dozen DVDs of You, Me and Dupree, a rather unfunny looking comedy from earlier this year, among other recent releases. So I ambled over to the checkout counter and asked the clerk where I could find the "old movies."
"You mean, like from the '90's?" the teenager with the crispy perm replied, in between snaps of her gum.
"No," I answered, with a smile that belied my contempt. "I mean, like from the '40s."
"Like, the 1940s?" she asked incredulously. "Oh, I don't think we carry any of those."
Of course they did carry a few of the regular suspects, such as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. But they were hidden in the back of the store, in a two-shelf section pejoratively labeled Classics, located right between French documentaries and community service videos.
No wonder even the employees couldn't find them.
One of the great crimes of modern American culture is our collective lack of appreciation for the classic films of the first half of the 20th Century. This country has such an anti-Black & White bias that we actually invented software to add wretched, cartoonish color to some the most beautiful films ever made. This is akin to painting a smile on Edvard Munch's to make it more "accessible" to a younger audience.
Black & White movies -- particularly comedies from the 1940s -- are one of the great joys in my life. And none is more joyful that the 1942 Preston Sturges comedy The Palm Beach Story. I watched this classic for the first time over the long Thanksgiving weekend, and it is by far the best film I have seen all year.
Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea play Gerry and Tom Jeffers, a young, New York City couple suffering from chronic financial woes. Gerry decides that the solution to their money troubles is to split up, so she leaves Tom and heads to Palm Beach for a quickie divorce.
Broke and without travel fare, Gerry sweet talks her way onto a Florida-bound train populated by the drunken members of a hunting club. When her travel companions begin ginning up and taking target practice on the train, Gerry sneaks off and ends up in the company of unmarried millionaire John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). Meanwhile, Tom has flown to Palm Beach to intercept Gerry in an effort to change her mind about the divorce. When he finally finds her, she has already been lavished with gifts by her new gentleman caller, whose frequently divorced sister (Mary Astor) has taken a liking to Tom.
I won't tell you how everything turns out, but I will tell you that it makes me smile just thinking about it.
Everything about The Palm Beach Story is a joy: Preston Sturges' sharp script and madcap staging; Colbert, McCrea, Vallee and Astor sparkling performances; even the music, which includes a beautiful serenade from crooner Rudy Vallee as the quirky millionaire to his beloved Gerry.
In the past you might have had to make a special effort to seek out a great old film like The Palm Beach Story. But now it's easier than ever.
Just last week Universal released Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection, a box set of seven of the eight films Sturges made for Paramount between 1940 and 1944. In addition to The Palm Beach Story, this collection includes The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Great Moment (1944). The only Sturges film of this period missing from the collection is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), which is available separately from Paramount.
I've already ordered two copies from Amazon.com for the low, low price of $41.81. The first one is for me and the second one I will be bringing to Florida when I visit my sister's family for the Holidays.
I plan on donating it to the Blockbuster Video in Ft. Lauderdale. By then they should have fewer copies of You, Me and Dupree on the shelf, and more room for comedies that are actually funny.