One of the many things I like about Preston Sturges is that he’s all over the place. It is not that he completely defies the Classic Hollywood conventional formula, but that he is not confined to it, and he plays with expectations. Even in the screwball comedy genre, he’s a bit of a loose cannon and less predictable. The Palm Beach Story is even more out there than others, like the soon to be upgraded Sullivan’s Travels (which, to be fair, is not exactly conventional either).
While the overall journey does not sound too far fetched – they start in New York, take a train to Jacksonville, and then boat to Palm Beach – it is the detours along the way that make this truly a Sturges picture. Tom (Joel McRea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are the true leads and get the most screen time, but they share it with plenty other colorful characters. It is not the Capraesque manner of portraying two primary characters with some dimension and flattening all the others around him, such as in It Happened One Night, also with Colbert. He uses the supporting characters to give texture and flair.
All of the characters are a lot of fun, whether they are major or minor, but I am going to touch on the best of the supporters.
My favorite batch of supporting characters is the band of drunken hunters that take Gerry under their wing and give her access to their train car. They are introduced one-by-one, all with ridiculous names, but not to the extent that they could all be totally made up, just far from the norm. When they get on the train and start drinking, they are a delight. Two fellows start a competition where they will shoot crackers in the cabin, which a racially insensitive stereotypical African-American porter (unfortunately, this was common to the era) would reluctantly throw the crackers up in the air. At first one drunken gentleman seems to think they are merely miming the shot, which itself is a little silly since there could be no way to prove which is a hit. The reality is even more outrageous. The man loads a live round into the chamber, and succeeds in hitting the cracker, shooting out the train window in the process. They do it again, and eventually the entire Ale & Quail Hunting Club are shooting toward the train window, destroying the entire cabin. Rather than deal with drunks with guns, the conductor simply detaches their car and goes on without them.
The next two characters are the ultra-rich descendants of the Hackensacker family (an obvious mockery of the Rockenfellers). John D enjoys the idea of paying for whatever Gerry needs along the way, which includes a wardrobe since hers was on the Ale & Quail car. He even meticulously writes down each amount, although we learn later that the total bill means next to nothing to him. He could own the store without blinking. His sister, Prince Centimilla (Mary Astor) is later introduced, and they are both humorous in their pursuit of married couple that are playing as brother and sister. The best comic relief is Toto, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Carlo from My Man Godfrey as the jilted sponge who passive aggressively allows himself to be cuckolded for a free meal ticket.
The most outlandish part of the feature is the ending. I won’t reveal the specifics, but it is a form of a deus ex machine (sort of), which comes completely out of left field. There are some films that I see this type of ending as sloppy and lazy, but here it is completely appropriate with the zaniness that has taken place during this romp to South Florida.
Film Rating: 8/10
James Harvey – This is a critical analysis from Harvey, a film scholar. He talks about Sturges origins with screenplays and B movies, and how he made his way up the ladder with Paramount.
Sturges came from a rich upbringing, which explains why he focuses often on the upper classes and lampoons them with such precision. His adopted was Solomon Sturges, who had acquired a great deal of wealth in the stock market. Despite not being his real father, the two were very close.
As I noted above, Struges’ comedy was too far out to be appreciated by the mainstream. The Lady Eve was a big hit, but Palm Beach and Sullivan were failures. Despite another big hit with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (which I would LOVE to see on Criterion someday), Paramount let him go and aside from a couple successes, his career mostly went on the downturn. He became a favorite of French critics like Andre Bazin, who liked him and hated Capra, so his work has been rediscovered and celebrated in part thanks to them.
Bill Hader – This is an odd choice for an interview since Hader is not necessarily a film scholar, but he clearly has an appreciation for classic comedy and he is unquestionably an authority on modern comedy. He spends most of his interview with a Sturges script book, just reading some of the dialog and cracking up at it. The words read as funny as they sound spoken, and sometimes even funnier. He remarks that a number of comics and filmmakers were inspired by Sturges.
Safeguarding Military Information, 1941 – This is a short propaganda film made during the war to prevent people from unwittingly spilling military secrets in public and possibly compromising the safety of our military. It plays out as one would expect from a propaganda film, whether American, German or Russian. One segment had Eddie Bracken, who would star in two major 1944 features for Sturges, the aforementioned Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.
Criterion Rating: 7.5/10
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll come clean that I’m not a Capra fanatic. That’s not to say that I don’t have tremendous respectful for him as a talented and influential filmmaker, and I like most of his films, even if I do not love them. My first exposure to him came during my younger cineaste years, when I was being reared on the edgy indies of the 90s and the new auteurs of the 00s. Compared to Todd Haynes or Tarantino, the “Capraesque” pictures of the classic Hollywood era seemed rather plain and mundane. Again, I thought they were good pictures, but they laid everything on a little too thick. There was too much ideology in Mr. Smith Goes to Hollywood, too much populism in Meet John Doe, and too much sentimentality in It’s a Wonderful Life.
When I first saw It Happened One Night, I had an anti-Capra bias. Just like with those other films, I did not hate his breakthrough comedy, but I did not love it either. I was ambivalent. That was easily 15 and possibly 20 years ago. I gave it another shot earlier this year, and came out with a newfound appreciation, yet still was not completely enamored. This Criterion disc gives me another chance for a re-visitation, and like their best releases, a new contextualization. Having a lot more knowledge about film history doesn’t hurt either. On this third viewing, the film grew on me quite a bit more.
First, in the context of his library, this film is not as “Capraesque” as I had originally remembered. Beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, his signature style really started to take shape, and was cemented as he continued to work. This film is actually unlike a lot of Capra’s later work, in that it’s more spontaneous, faster paced, and has a lot more of an edge.
It’s worth pointing out that this is a pre-code film. That said, it is a relatively benign pre-code film. The code would begin just a few months later. The writing may have been on the wall, but Capra did not indulge too much. When he did, it served the plot, such as the hilarious mannerisms of speech of Mr. Shapeley. At it’s core, the film is about sex, yet Capra danced around the subject in ways that undoubtedly inspired post-code filmmakers. The ‘Walls of Jericho’ way of dividing the hotel room is the perfect way to have a man and woman sleep together in a non-threatening way. It also became a suitable metaphor for the unspoken subject throughout the film. Some of the dialogue, the undressing scene, and the payoff of the ‘Walls of Jericho’ metaphor would probably have been altered in a post-code world, but it was indirect enough that it could have been a workable canvas to present sex in film.
There are three elements that make this simply a fun movie: Clark Gable, Mr. Shapeley, and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Gable was a delight, and played opposite the stone-faced Colbert with precision. The confident, charming and funny way he delivered his lines during their banter really sold the hostile courtship. He interacted with other characters in the same way, such as his boss, the detectives that try to search his hotel, and last but not least, Mr. Shapely. One of the funniest scenes of the movie, in my opinion, was the way in which Gable manipulates the misogynist character of Shapeley. Even though the character was funny, he deserved comeuppance, and the manner in which he was dispatched was one of the comedic high points. The song they sing on the bus does very little for the plot. It is more of a diversion than anything, but it conveys the relaxed, jovial atmosphere, where the courtship and the ‘One Night’ would eventually take place.
Film Rating: 8/10
Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers – Frank, Sr’s son remembers and discusses a lot of the details about the film. Of course he was born in 1934, so he did not remember anything firsthand, but he probably was exposed to a lot more about the film as a Capra than most others involved. He talked about the situation with Claudette Colbert, how she was about to leave for vacation and would only take the project if they doubled her pay and finished in four weeks. They agreed and literally had to begin production the next day. She was complaining all the time, and told friends that “I’ve just finished the worst picture of my life.” He says that Capra and Gable had a lot of fun making the picture. It shows.
Screwball Comedy? – Conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate. It Happened One Night is sometimes called first screwball, but that is not altogether accurate. It is only loosely a screwball in the first place, at least in the way that future films would be considered. It was not as fast talking as Howard Hawks’ films, including Twentieth Century that came out that same year. The conversation moves on from looking at it from a screwball perspective and becomes a straightforward critical analysis, although they would often return to view the themes from a screwball point of view.
Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, 1921 – This is the first Capra film. While his amateurism is on display, some of his skill is also clear. It works well visually, and he blends the title cards into the action effectively. The action scenes were effective, but the title cards were excessive and made the short film tough to follow.
Frank Capra’s American Dream, 1997 – This feature length documentary about Capra’s life was a treat. This and many of the other supplements make the disc far more than just the film. This is a tribute to the entire legacy of the filmmaker. Ron Howard narrates as they follow his origins as a child immigrant, the hard work that gave him opportunities in life, and of course his career in Hollywood. What was surprising was that after the huge success of It Happened One Night, Capra fell into a deep depression due to his success and guilt towards those suffering in the depression. This is where his career took a turn and he worked towards making films that the common man could appreciate. While this is often a criticism of the “Capraesque” method of filmmaking, it is also a justification for it. People in the depression were suffering. Movies were a low-cost escape for them. Capra gave them hope and inspiration, and considering the time, it does not matter how realistic his worlds were. Through this journey, I gained respect and appreciation for the man and his methods, even if I do not always adore his movies.
AFI Salute to Frank Capra – This was the 10th life achievement award in 1982. It plays as an hour-long awards ceremony. Jimmy Stewart hosts the show, beginning with a short feature about Capra’s childhood story up to his breakout in silent pictures. Many other celebrities speak, including Bette Davis and Peter Falk, who worked with him in Pocketful of Miracles. Claudette Colbert came out and was respectful, which is ironic since she had such a miserable time on the picture. Lionel Stander, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, said a few words, as did many stars who were influenced by Capra. These included Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Burgess Meredith, Fred MacMurray, Steve Martin, many more. It ended with Capra giving his acceptance speech, and truly enjoying the moment.
Criterion Rating: 9/10