Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.
The Palm Beach Story is second-tier Preston Sturges; it doesn’t approach the madcap heights of The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero, or (my personal favorite, strangely) Christmas In July. But second-tier Sturges is still better than first-tier just-about-anyone-else. It’s full of quotable lines (“That’s one of the tragedies of this life: that the men who are in most need of beating up are always enormous”) and clever tricks (it plunges you right in with one of the most insanely inventive title sequences I’ve seen in a war-era comedy) and wonderful performances, from not the so-called “Sturges stock company” but the breezy, effortlessly sexy Claudette Colbert and the dryly funny Rudy Valee.
Valee is so likable, in fact, that the ending is troublesome; as in the similarly-titled Philadelphia Story, you like the “other man” (Valee in this film, Stewart in that one) so much that you don’t actually feel bad for him, and don’t want her to go back to her handsome lunk of a husband. That complaint aside (and it is a personal one; when I shared it with my wife after Philadelphia Story, she sighed and announced, “Yes, but it’s Cary Grant,” which is a legitimate point), The Palm Beach Story is an awfully good screwball comedy—it ticks along like a good watch (even if it does get a little out of Sturges’ control during that section on the train).