The Palm Beach Story (1942)
A surreal meditation on marriage and beauty--and a midrash on Genesis.
There isn’t an actual divorce in The Palm Beach Story, although one of the secondary characters, the Princess Centimillia (played by Mary Astor) has been divorced five times. (Her brother corrects the record: it is three divorces plus two annulments.) But this is called a Palm Beach story because Claudette Colbert travels there in order to obtain a divorce.
Not because she does not love her husband. Jerry (Colbert) and Tom (Joel McCrea) are very much in love. In a memorable scene Colbert curls her toes when McCrea kisses her. Yet their marriage is not working and Preston Sturges is concerned in this brilliant, uncanny movie to show why and, in doing so, to understand something about the nature of marriage.
McCrea’s Tom is an idealistic inventor, unsuccessful in attracting funding for his plan: an airport built from steel cables and suspended above a city. Colbert would love to help him, and she certainly knows how to attract investors. She may not be able to cook or sew, but she has beauty and charm. She is Claudette Colbert, after all.
But McCrea refuses to let her use that charm to generate interest in his plans. “I could have helped you so many times,” she complains, “but every time I tried you punched the man in the nose.” Now they are in debt, about to be evicted from their Manhattan apartment.
What upsets McCrea is not that Colbert would be unfaithful to him—it is clear she would not—but that she is a beautiful woman in a world in which beautiful women attract attention, exert a magnetism that has advantages and risks. McCrea does not know how to create a space for Colbert’s beauty as they move through the world as a married couple.
And so Colbert decides that, out of love for him and a desire to improve their condition, she will divorce McCrea. Were they to divorce, she reasons, and he no longer had the claim of a husband’s protectiveness towards her then, as she tells him, “I could very valuable to you as a sister.”
And indeed in the second half of the movie she is courted by the richest man in America (Rudy Vallee as John D.
Rockefeller Hackensacker III), whom she tells that the jealous, flabbergasted McCrea is her brother. Hackensacker is all too happy to finance the airport plan of his prospective “brother-in-law.” Problems solved?
The story turns upon whether McCrea can win his wife back by learning to accept her sometimes disruptive presence as a beautiful woman, or whether their incapacity to relate fully to each other will turn Colbert and McCrea into “sister” and “brother,” a less complicated, more materially secure arrangement, perhaps, but only a pathetic parody of the marriage they might have had.
Though not Jewish, part of what Sturges has done in this film is to create a canny midrash—the term in Jewish tradition for an interpretive commentary on scripture—on the biblical episode in which Abraham (then called Abram—name change is part of Sturges’s movie too) passes off his wife Sarah (then called Sarai) as his sister while they sojourn in Egypt. The movie clearly meditates on the biblical story, which begins:
And there was a famine in the land and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was grave in the land. And it happened as he drew near to the border of Egypt that he said to Sarai his wife, “Look, I know you are a beautiful woman, and so when the Egyptians see you and say, “She’s his wife,” they will kill me while you they will let live. Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well with me on your count and I shall stay alive because of you.” And it happened when Abram came into Egypt that the Egyptians saw the woman was very beautiful. And Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And it went well with Abram on her count.
(Gen. 11: 10-15, trans. Robert Alter)
It is not that the biblical text explains the movie, but that the movie intriguingly illuminates aspects of this curious biblical episode. In fact, the Bible repeats this wife-sister story twice more (again with Abraham and Sarah, and a third time with Isaac and Rebecca), with suggestive variations each time, and is clearly concerned with questions of how husbands and wives should relate to each other, how female beauty and male aggression might be negotiated in a sometimes dangerous world, and how marital eros simultaneously challenges and nourishes the stability of the family unit.
The film’s real brother and sister, Hackensacker and his sister the Princess Centimillia, both parallel and differ from the fake brother and sister of McCrea and Colbert. It is no accident that Hackensacker helps his sister fasten the clasp of a necklace, an innocuous parallel to McCrea deliciously unfastening the clasp on the back of Colbert’s dress. And during the necklace scene Hackensacker and the Princess articulate their own theories of marriage, opposite extremes between which McCrea and Colbert are trying to navigate.
Mary Astor’s Princess believes that no marriage is permanent and therefore one should marry on a whim—and divorce too—even before getting to know a prospective spouse: “if you get to know them too much you’d never marry them.”
Hackensacker, by contrast, claims he respects the institution of marriage. But by this, he means that there should be no unpredictability whatsoever in marriage. He is determined to find out all the data he can about Colbert and their suitability for each other, possibly including renting small children for her to care for to see how she is as a mother. This is not respect for the institution, but an attempt to control and deny it.
It is in the difficult middle ground, between the brother’s attempt to eliminate unpredictability and achieve total stability, and the sister’s conviction that all is whim and impermanence, that Colbert and McCrea must make their way.
In an intentionally outrageous framing sequence that reveals that Colbert and McCrea each have an identical twin—so that Hackensacker and and Centimillia can have their own simulacra of Colbert and McCrea to marry—Sturges suggests that for marriage to work well we must accept that our spouses are in some sense a collection of different people, as are we. Indeed, the framing episode at the film’s opening indicates that Colbert and McCrea may not even be the couple who intended to marry!
This is a theme Sturges explored in his earlier film The Lady Eve, in which Henry Fonda must encounter two different versions of Barbara Stanwyck in order to accept finally that she cannot be reduced to either one of them. And it has roots, of course, in Shakespeare’s comic twins and—to return again to Genesis—the sister switcheroo experienced by Jacob and his marriage to Leah.
There is so much more in this film, including a dark, fairytale train journey taken by Colbert that emphasizes the violence and danger that must be confronted by a woman traveling alone. In Sturges’s knowing juggling of the tropes of the preceding decade of screwball comedy, he has Colbert reverse the direction of her night journey in Capra’s It Happened One Night, here going from New York to Florida rather than the reverse.
And there is the mysterious character of the “Texas Wienie King” (Robert Dudley), a comic Jehovah who provokes Colbert and McCrea into their respective journeys. The Wienie King introduces the themes of age, accident, and death into the movie as he natters on about “sin, disease, storms, twisters, floods, and cyclones.”
“Cold are the hands of Time that creep along relentlessly,” he recites to an astonished Colbert, “Destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young.” But he is not, finally, dour. Instead, he is here to remind us that, in a world in which beauty and loveliness are fleeting things, we should meet them with gratitude and delight. Particularly when encountered in a spouse.
 I am indebted to discussions with Aaron Weingrad for much of my understanding of this movie, and Sturges more generally.