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The Palm Beach Story: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Palm Beach Story (1942) movie poster The Palm Beach Story

Theatrical Release: November 7, 1942 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Preston Sturges

Cast: Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Mary Astor (The Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (John D. Hackensacker III), William Demarest (First Member Ale and Quail Club), Franklin Pangborn (Manager), Robert Warwick (Mr. Hinch), Chester Conklin (Sixth Member Ale and Quail Club), Al Bridge (Conductor), Roscoe Ates (Fourth Member Ale and Quail Club), Sig Arno (Toto), Arthur Stuart Hull (Mr. Osmond), Torben Meyer (Dr. Kluck), Jimmy Conlin (Mr. Asweld), Victor Potel (Mr. McKeewie)

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Preston Sturges, who contributed to screenplays for more than 40 films from 1930 to 1958, twelve of which he also directed, is widely celebrated for his human comedies.
Among Sturges' admirers is The Criterion Collection, who have released three of his best-known works (Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve, and Unfaithfully Yours) to DVD and who recently brought a fourth, The Palm Beach Story to both Blu-ray and DVD.

Originally released in 1942, Palm Beach is a romantic comedy in every sense. The film opens with a fast-paced 1937 wedding set to a sped-up version of The William Tell Overture. We then jump ahead five years to the then-present day and find the married couple -- Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) -- on the verge of divorce. Months behind on rent, their classy, spacious Park Avenue duplex apartment is being shown to prospective tenants while inventor Tom can't find the funding to realize his dream of an airport suspended over a city. He is too proud to let his wife try to help him land an investor and the lack of success is tearing them apart, albeit amicably. His kisses mean "almost nothing" to her.

Financial problems have driven Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) to the verge of divorce in "The Palm Beach Story." After the rowdy train car holding all her possessions is disconnected, Gerry (Claudette Colbert) is in need of clothes and the generosity of the wealthy John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee).

One prospective tenant, the aging, hard-of-hearing "Wienie King" (Robert Dudley) sympathizes with Gerry and gives her $700 in cash to catch up on rent and clear some other debts. But with nothing likely to change for Tom professionally, Gerry intends to go through with a divorce, describing herself as a lousy wife who can't sew or cook. On a taxi driver's tip, Gerry heads for Palm Beach, Florida, a place where one apparently can get a divorce without much difficulty.

With help from the kindness of strangers, male ones who can't help but notice her big eyes and long legs, Gerry gets on a southbound train. The Ale and Quail Club, an organization of gentlemanly gun enthusiasts, makes for rowdy company on this expedition. In escaping their noise, which include shots fired at windows in the bar car and a bedside serenade, Gerry finds a quiet spot to sleep near a man (Rudy Vallee) whose multiple pairs of eyeglasses she accidentally breaks. When the authorities disconnect the car holding the overly revelrous gun-toting sportsmen, Gerry is suddenly without all of her possessions, including her train ticket. Fortunately, for her, the kind chap with multiple pairs of broken eyeglasses spends extravagantly to get her all set with clothes, jewelry and the like. Turns out, the generous benefactor is John D. Hackensacker III, one of the richest men in the world. He agrees to let her take a ride down to Palm Beach from Jacksonville on his yacht.

Meanwhile, Tom gets a donation from the "Wienie King" for airfare down to Palm Beach, where he is supposed to stop Gerry from getting that divorce. While Gerry and Hackensacker are hitting it off, Tom catches up with them, is identified as her brother and catches the eye of Hackensacker's sister, The Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), who is on the hunt for husband number six.

Introduced as Gerry's brother, Tom (Joel McCrea) naturally ends up a love interest for Hackensacker's oft-divorced sister, The Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). With its Salvador Dali mustache and loose grip of the English language, the princess' European servant Toto (Sig Arno) is a butt of the film's jokes.

Palm Beach Story amuses with its humorous hijinks and witty plotting. It's the kind of romantic comedy that could easily be remade today if you could invent a reason for having the couple take different forms of transportation to go from New York to Florida. There is not a great deal of subtext, historical value, or hidden substance to the film.
It's largely just a good time, designed to divert the masses.

The territory was not unknown to Colbert, whom eight years earlier had played leading lady in Frank Capra's Oscar-sweeping It Happened One Night, still the romantic comedy by which all others are measured. McCrea, meanwhile, had been Sturges' leading man a year earlier in Sullivan's Travels, now the director's best-known and most revered effort. The two actors have some chemistry, but not enough to believe they can't be swayed to go through with the divorce and enjoy life with wealthy new spouses.

Some of the broader comedy of Palm Beach Story is a little spotty. Minor supporting characters, the Princess' European tagalong Toto and whom the credits call "Colored Bartender", are mildly offensive by today's standards but fairly harmless for a movie this old.

Palm Beach Story didn't win any awards or draw any nominations, even though the Oscars then utilized big Best Picture fields of ten or more nominees. Still, the film has persevered and even cracked the American Film Institute's 2000 list of great American comedies, placing 77th in the "100 Years... 100 Laughs" countdown. Criterion assigns it spine number 742 on separate DVD and Blu-ray editions, each consisting of a single disc.

The Palm Beach Story: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
1.0 LPCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Clear Keepcase
Also available as Criterion Collection DVD ($29.95 SRP),
Universal DVD ($12.98 SRP; February 1, 2005), and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

You can always count on Criterion to make a movie look good on Blu-ray, even if that movie is approaching 75. Palm Beach Story is no exception. The black and white Academy Ratio presentation is close to flawless, with scrutiny required to notice some faint vertical lines appearing infrequently, about as minor an imperfection as you could encounter for a film of such age. The LPCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack does not surprise, but it does satisfy with recordings remaining crisp and intelligible. There are English subtitles, too, though only those sharing the Wienie King's hearing problems should need to utilize them.

Romantic comedy historian James Harvey provides the primary bonus feature of Criterion's Blu-ray. Funnyman Bill Hader has a good time admiring Preston Sturges and The Palm Beach Story in this exclusive new interview.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Palm Beach Story is joined by four on-disc bonus features, all of them encoded in HD.

First up is "James Harvey on Sturges" (16:52), in which the film historian looks at Sturges' films, life, and family, paying special notice to Palm Beach Story. Harvey shares his own observations and research,
and his recollections of speaking with Joel McCrea. It's a good piece which stands as the primary supplement here.

Next comes a feature with some unexpected star power: "Bill Hader on Sturges" (9:38). The funnyman of film and "Saturday Night Live" fame largely limits his admiration of the director to Palm Beach Story, which he describes as what Ferris Bueller's Day Off is to John Hughes. Hader comments on Sturges' manner of dictating scripts and reads excerpts from the screenplay.

A half-hour radio adaptation of the movie, broadcast in March 1943, follows. Produced for The Screen Guild Theater anthology series, this episode (29:19) features Colbert and Vallee reprising their roles, while Randolph Scott fills in for Joel McCrea. It plays over a caricature of the Ale and Quail Club that's also found in the booklet. It stays very true to the film, keeping dialogue verbatim, though condensing the story to about a third of the film's runtime. Some fascinating promotional messages and ads are kindly left in.

This soldier needs to do a better job of "Safeguarding Military Information" in Preston Sturges' 1941 military training short. Though the film may be black and white, Criterion lends plenty of color to the cover art and this animated main menu.

Finally, we get Safeguarding Military Information (11:33), a World War II training short directed by Preston Sturges that was produced shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor and released shortly after.
There is not much evidence of Sturges' involvement in this short that could easily be synopsized as "Loose lips sink ships" as it illustrates the danger of sharing confidential information with civilians and implores you to "think before you speak."

Sadly, Paramount's theatrical trailer is not unearthed here.

The menu animates palm trees within a title logo while end credits score plays and the colors keep changing. As always, Criterion kindly authors the disc to resume playback and support bookmarking on the film too.

Finally, this being a Criterion release, there is one more thing to talk about: the obligatory booklet, found inside one of Criterion's standard clear keepcases. The booklet folds open to ten pages, half of which are devoted to "Love in a Warm Climate", an essay from Village Voice film critic Stephanie Zacharek which deconstructs the story and what it says about money. It also tries to make sense of the prologue's unsolved puzzles. The nicely illustrated remaining pages provide the usual credits, transfer information, and acknowledgments.

And they all lived happily ever after. Or did they? Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) reunite with the help of identical twins.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Palm Beach Story is an entertaining film which fans of screwball comedies and known devotees of Preston Sturges should both enjoy quite a bit. Criterion unsurprisingly but satisfyingly treats this yesteryear romcom to a terrific Blu-ray whose fine feature presentation and sturdy extras leave virtually no room for improvement.

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Reviewed January 24, 2015.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1942 Paramount Pictures and 2015 The Criterion Collection, Universal Studios. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.