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Film / The Palm Beach Story

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The Palm Beach Story is a 1942 Screwball Comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea.

The story concerns Tom and Gerry Jeffers, a New York couple who are struggling to make ends meet. Gerry (Colbert) comes up with a Zany Scheme to divorce Tom (McCrea), a struggling inventor, so she can get a new rich husband to help Tom with his plans for an above-ground airport.

Gerry runs away to Palm Beach to get her divorce—with Tom, who disapproves of the whole plan, following right behind her—and she captures the eye of one of the richest men in the world, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallée). Tom butts in and has to pretend to be his wife's brother, and he becomes the target of affection from the multiple-divorced sister of Hackensacker, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). As they get deeper and deeper into this scheme, Gerry begins to have second thoughts.

Hilarity Ensues even further.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Toto has attached himself to the Princess like a limpet, but she is sick of the sight of him and just wants him to leave. He either can't understand her attempts to get rid of him, or can understand them but feigns ignorance so that he can keep living off her fortune.
  • Accidental Marriage: At the end of the film, we learn that this describes Tom and Gerry's marriage. Tom thought he was marrying Gerry's sister when he replaced his brother at the altar, while Gerry thought she was marrying Tom's brother when she replaced her sister.
  • Affectionate Nickname: The Princess calls her brother "Snoodles".
  • Alcohol Hic: The president of the Ale and Quail Club is so drunk, this is his only method of communication.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Two members of the Ale and Quail Club, on the wrong side of a large quantity of booze, ask the bartender to throw crackers through the air so that they can shoot them like clay pigeons. The first member just pretends to fire his gun, but the second man has loaded his gun with live ammunition. Instead of being horrified as his companion's recklessness, the first man loads his gun with live ammunition, and soon the entire club are shooting out the windows, the light fixtures, the glasses behind the bar... and judging from the conductors' reactions, this isn't even their first bout of drink-induced stupidity on their trains.
  • All Women Are Lustful:
  • Always Identical Twins: Tom and Gerry are each one of a pair of identical twins. This is why they thought no-one would notice if they replaced their twins at the wedding at the beginning of the film... except neither knew the other had the same idea.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Toto speaks an indistinguishable (presumably European) language.note 
  • Balcony Wooing Scene: Hackensacker performs the serenade "Goodnight Sweetheart" with complete orchestra beneath Gerry's balcony, though producing the opposite of the desired effect.
  • Book Ends: The film opens and closes with weddings; Tom and Gerry'snote  at the beginning, and John Hackensacker to Gerry's sister and the Princess to Tom's brother at the end. Both times, the camera cuts to hanging text reading "And they lived happily ever after...", followed by "... Or did they?"
  • Brick Joke:
    • The opening sequence. At first, it appears as though Gerry is simultaneously tied up in a closet and scrambling to get to her wedding on time, while Tom seems to be in two different cars wearing two different suits and with two different people at the same time. At the end of the film, it turns out that Tom and Gerry both have identical twin siblings; Tom's brother was engaged to Gerry's sister, but Gerry was also in love with Tom's brother while Tom was also in love with Gerry's sister, and so both tried to replace their siblings in the original wedding... meaning the only pair who weren't in love with each other were the ones who ended up married to each other.
    • When the Wienie King and his wife first view Tom and Gerry's apartment, the building manager assures them that their tenants are rigorously screened; the sound of a rehearsing operatic soprano suddenly bursts forth from one apartment, and the manager assures his prospective new tenants that she was let in by mistake and will be thrown out the next morning. Halfway through the film, when Gerry is on her way to Palm Beach by train, the Wienie King shows up at Tom and Gerry's apartment again, but now as their neighbour - sure enough, the opera singer was evicted, and he and his wife moved into the newly vacant apartment.
  • Brutal Honesty: Princess tries being completely blunt to Toto about her lack of affection for him in an attempt to get rid of him. It doesn't work.
    Princess: Toto, this is Captain McGloo. I'm going to see more of him and less of you from now on.
  • Butt-Monkey: Toto, all the way. By the time we meet him, the Princess has long since lost interest in him, but since he doesn't understand English well enough to take the hint (or is simply too stubborn and/or addicted to a life of luxury to give up and has accordingly affected Obfuscating Stupidity), she has resorted to trying to push him away by treating him with utter contempt.
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: Gerry and Tom revive their love but in the process they leave behind a flabbergasted Hackensacker and his Princess sister. Time to Pair the Spares by suddenly bringing in the twin brother/sister ploy for everyone to be Happily Ever After.
  • Creator Cameo: Sturges is leading a crew carrying Gerry's luggage off the yacht.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Gerry tries to hide from the old business man behind the shower curtain of her apartment.
  • Curtain Clothing: Gerry moans about not being a good housewife at the beginning, lacking an ability to make a dress out of window curtains, yet later she has to improvise a skirt made from a Pullman train blanket.
  • Deus ex Machina: The contrived situation that both Gerry and Tom had a twin sister/brother which helped to clean up romantic loose ends. The existence of their twins is implied in the opening sequence, but while Tom mentions a brother and Gerry mentions a sister several times during the film, it is only at the end that they are explicitly revealed to be identical twins in both cases.
  • Divorce Is Temporary: Gerry goes to Palm Beach to begin divorce proceedings and is determined to make Hackensacker her new husband while Tom tries to persuade her to come back to him.
  • Embarrassing Last Name: When Gerry hastily introduces Tom to the Hackensackers as her brother, she refers to him as "Captain McGloo". When they are alone together, Tom confronts her over choosing such a silly pseudonym for him, and she claims that she thought it was his mother's maiden name (it was actually McGrew). Tom grumbles that he'll have to stick with it. Even the Princess, smitten as she is by Tom himself, finds his name unfortunate.
  • Enormous Engagement Ring: Gerry is proposed to by one of the richest men in the world. The ring so large that she tells him to put it away, or else the sight of it will convince her to go through with it (she is married already, anyway). She takes a final look at it before putting it away forever.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: The Princess is extremely fond of these:
    Hackensacker: You don't marry someone you just met the day before; at least I don't.
    Princess: But that's the only way, dear. If you get to know too much about them you'd never marry them.
  • Funny Foreigner: Toto. We don't know where he's from or what language he speaks. He's more like a dog than a companion.
  • Happily Ever After: Inverted by opening the film with a wedding. Reconstructed by showing how the marriage goes awry but the couple finding themselves back together by the end. Lampshaded and subverted both times by following the caption "And they lived happily ever after" with another: "Or did they?"
  • Hypocritical Humor: Hackensacker calls his sister out on her tendency towards marrying men so quickly after she's met them, yet he's willing to do the same thing with Gerry.
  • I Can't Hear You: The Wienie King is very hard of hearing, so most conversations involving him result in assorted misunderstandings (several times, he mishears "Who are you?" as "How are you?" and answers "Fine, thank you!") or the other speakers having to repeat themselves (sometimes more than once) or simply speak in louder voices than usual.
  • Love Dodecahedron:
    • At the beginning of the film, Tom —> Gerry's sister <—> Tom's brother <— Gerry. (Notably, Tom and Gerry were not in love with each other, but ended up married anyway.)
    • By the end of the film, Toto —> Princess —> Tom <—> Gerry <— Hackensacker.
  • Marriage Before Romance: Tom and Gerry were not actually in love when they got married (Tom was in love with Gerry's sister, Gerry was in love with Tom's brother). By the time the film proper begins, they have tried to make the best of their Accidental Marriage, but money problems have prompted Gerry to seek a divorce in Palm Beach so she can marry a rich second husband who can bankroll Tom's invention idea. But while Gerry tries to carry out this scheme and Tom tries to stop it, they end up (re)discovering that they really do love each other.
  • Mood Whiplash: Near the end of the first act, Tom and Gerry have spent the night together after having too much to drink, but Gerry is still resolved to divorce Tom and leaves him an emotional farewell note. She tries to attach it to the bedclothes with a safety pin while Tom is asleep - only to accidentally stick him with the pin, jarring him awake and sparking him into chasing after her as she tries to leave.
  • Motor Mouth: The princess will not stop chattering.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Played with; Hackensacker is generally nice to all the service people he encounters, he just doesn't believe in tipping.
    Hackensacker: Tipping is un-American.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: John D. Hackensacker III is a pretty obvious goof on the Rockefellers.
  • Officer O'Hara: When Gerry initially heads out to start divorce proceedings, Tom yells from his apartment window to a policeman on the street below that she has stolen his suitcase. The Irish-accented officer's name is revealed to be O'Donnell (though Tom initially guesses it to be Mulligan), and he ultimately decides not to charge Tom with false arrest, insisting that he and Gerry simply learn to get along, as he did with his own wife.
  • Pair the Spares: Hackensacker and his sister are left single by Tom and Gerry's decision to stay married to each other - until the revelation that each has a twin sibling. Hackensacker promptly marries Gerry's sister, while the Princess promptly marries Tom's brother.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Tom tries to evade the guard at the train station by wearing a hat and glasses. It doesn't work.
  • Pun: Hackensacker: "You made quite an impression" (after Gerry stepped on his face twice).
  • Punny Name:
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense
  • Running Gag:
    • The only words of Toto's native language the Princess can translate with certainty are "Nitz!" and "Yitz!" (meaning, respectively, "No!" and "Yes!") - which turn up at least once in every scene in which he appears.
    • Hackensacker getting his glasses broken at several occasions.
  • Serial Spouse: The princess has possibly been married six times; she's had three divorces and two annulments, and she says she's "not quite through with the Prince" (although she is certainly looking for candidates to replace him).
  • Settle for Sibling:
    • In a particularly insane, madcap ending which reveals that both Gerry and Tom have identical twin siblings. As soon as they hear of the existence of the twins, the Hackensacker siblings simultaneously ask, enthusiastically, "Well, what's he/she doing?" In the final scene, the Princess marries Tom's brother, while John marries Gerry's sister. (And Toto doesn't marry anyone.)
    • The ending also finally clarifies that Tom and Gerry themselves have settled for siblings; Tom originally wanted to marry Gerry's sister, who was engaged to Tom's brother, whom Gerry originally wanted to marry. In the opening credits, Gerry has tied up her sister to steal her fiancé, unaware that Tom has also waylaid his brother to steal his fiancée.
  • Take That!: The script gleefully goes after the eternal low-hanging fruit of the reputation politicians have for self-serving dishonesty.
    Gerry: Don't you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them? Didn't you ever hear of a campaign promise?
  • Trigger-Happy: The Ale and Quail Club members on the train. When they organise a "hunting party" to find Gerry after she flees their carriage when they get so drunk they start shooting everything in the lounge, their guns keep going off as they march down the corridors with their dogs leading the way. Miraculously, no-one is killed or even injured.
  • Wealthy Yacht Owner: Hackensacker, as one of the richest men in the United States, naturally has a yacht, The Erl King,note  which he inherited from his grandfather. Gerry is bowled over by it; Hackensacker doesn't seem as fond of it, and says he prefers to travel by train.
  • Zany Scheme: The thrust of the plot, which is a divorce to get her husband money from a new rich husband.
  • Zip Me Up: On two different occasions Gerry asks Tom's help to get out of a dress, and sexy times ensue.