The Palm Beach Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Leave it to Preston Sturges to create the sexiest and most grown-up romantic comedy of his day. Claudette Colbert has never been more desirable as Gerry Jeffers, the flirtatious pragmatist with a clear-eyed take on the realities of men, women, and sex, and Sturges turns Joel McCrea’s All-American stiffness into comic perfection as her husband, the aspiring inventor Tom, a would-be Horatio Alger with a sense of pride and honor at odds with Colbert’s willingness to leverage her sex appeal. She’s not mercenary exactly, merely more socially sophisticated, and without the usual homemaking skills of the traditional housewife, those are tools she is more than willing to use. They are opposites in everything from attitude to onscreen energy to body language. Colbert moves like a dancer and even her dialogue seems to dance through the film while the stocky, blocky McCrea is slow-moving, deliberately speaking bedrock, a foundation of hard-working focus and unbending values. They shouldn’t work but when his hands work the stubborn zipper on the back of her dress, their temperature rises noticeably.
The Palm Beach Story is a variation on the classic comedy of remarriage, a theme that runs through such films as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Not that this couple divorces, but that’s Gerry’s plan, convinced that he’s better off without her expensive tastes, and she runs off with little more than the clothes on her back and almost literally falls into the lap of an idle rich oddball (a brilliantly underplayed comic turn by Rudy Vallee) and his cheerfully man-hopping sister (a sparkling Mary Astor). Meanwhile, Tom runs after her and gets introduced to Palm Beach society as her brother, Gerry’s plan to leverage the situation to finance his future as well as hers. She’s nothing if not thoughtful.