One of the earliest and best-written “gold-digger” or “grifter” narratives, Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story is a fast-paced, entertaining farce with witty dialogue that still captivates audiences, decades after its release. The premise of the film is a provocative one: after several years of marriage, Gerri Jeffers (played by Claudette Colbert) leaves her husband in pursuit of more profitable relationships with men. She openly and unapologetically acknowledges the role that sex and beauty play in social status and access to money, and as such, the plot dances around the notion of prostitution, or at least, of “sex as commerce,” while strictly adhering to the neutered demands of the Production Code. Thus, a film that at first blush appears to be a formulaic screwball comedy is actually quite radical, relying upon (and critiquing) certain norms and notions of gender and economic class in 1940s America.
The film is an airy delight – one could easily revel in the outrageous costumes and behaviors of the rich protagonists without acknowledging the film as satire. But a more serious-minded viewer could easily leave the film pondering what writer/director Preston Sturges, himself on his third marriage at the time of the film’s production, thought of the institution of marriage. The Palm Beach Story, for this viewer, becomes a rich cinematic text that contains subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about marriage, prosperity, and the socioeconomic role of women.
After a very confusing and frenetic prologue set to the William Tell Overture, the film introduces one its most endearing and memorable characters: the elderly and hard-of-hearing “Wienie King” of Texas. The King and his wife are being shown a tony Park Avenue duplex by a realtor who explains that the current residents are behind on their rent. Cue the gorgeous and well-to-do female resident, Gerri Jeffers, who is caught off-guard and comically tries to hide from the nosy Wienie King in her massive master bedroom. The two meet, and the older man confesses that he’d like to marry Gerri if he weren’t already married (and too old for her).
He delivers to her a sobering but insightful epigram on aging: “Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone, our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That’s hard to say with false teeth!” He asks her about the rent situation, and remarks that he “used to be broke, too,” but he didn’t have her figure. He takes out his bankroll to give Gerri the amount she owes in back rent (and then some), and she kisses him for it.
In retrospect, the premise of the film is pretty flimsy: one wonders why owing back rent on such a lavish Park Avenue duplex is presented in the film as dire circumstances for the young couple. Especially if they are waiting for an investor to finance husband Tom’s (Joel McCrea) grandiose engineering plans, why not move into a more modest dwelling in Brooklyn? Is Gerri really that set on living beyond her means that she’s willing to divorce the husband she ostensibly loves? And, once the Wienie King’s generous gift settles all of the couple’s debts, why does Gerri see that as the opportune time to make a clean break? The film’s contemporary audience would, by and large, never have even walked on Park Avenue, much less been able to identify with a woman upset that she was almost evicted from her luxury duplex.
Once Gerri is given the money by the Wienie King, she surprises Tom by paying all their bills, buying a new dress, and getting her hair done. Tom is irate, immediately suspicious that a man would give his wife such a large sum of money, and asks Gerri “if sex entered into it.” While the audience knows the transaction was innocent enough, Gerri’s philosophical reply is a bit shocking: “Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don’t think he would have given it to me if I had hair like Excelsior and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear. From the time you’re about so big, and wondering why your girlfriends’ fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden. Nothing wrong, just an overture to the opera that’s coming…but from then on, you get it from cops, taxi drivers, bell boys, delicatessen dealers…the look. ‘How’s about tonight, babe?’”
This is when Gerri explains that she’d like her husband to move into a smaller place by himself. She plans to divorce him, and “can always find a good provider” if she wants one, even if “he may not look like a movie star.” In these marital exchanges –the first we see between Gerri and Tom –we learn that Tom is emotional and prone to sexual jealousy, while Gerri seems more rational and calculating, aware of the male gaze and her power to manipulate it for provision. We learn early in the film that Tom’s dream is to build an urban airport, while Sturges seems to suggest that Gerri’s only dream is to see Tom achieve his, even if the two are living as “brother and sister.” Since Tom fails to provide Gerri the standard of living to which she’s grown accustomed, she yearns to go out into the world and make money; but, rather than honing a skill or finding a trade, she plans to exploit her beauty and sexual allure to earn money.
Maybe Gerri is scared into this dubious plan by the Wienie king’s sermon on aging. Her rash behavior might better be explained by her suggestion the night before her departure that Tom has been taking her for granted – he doesn’t notice her new dress, and she says he is “blind to her” and can’t “see her” anymore. Nevertheless, the monetary gift from a rich man who finds her attractive, who gives her “the look,” seems to incite some sort of consumptive drive in her – to find men she can extract money from, like the smelting tycoon suitor from her revered past. Without this quest and the flight to Palm Beach that it entails, there is no movie – but do women really think this way? On one hand, it’s empowering to think of Gerri as independent of her spouse and smart enough to manipulate any man she chooses; on the other, the premise seems to perpetuate a myth of women as gold diggers –superficial, cruel and predatory.
Gerri is ultimately drawn back under Tom’s sway when he comes to Palm Beach to find her, and he undergoes a transformation in the film to the extent that his eyes are opened to his wife’s charms in time to save their marriage. But does one come away from the film with an idea of marriage as ideal, or silly? What have our characters learned? Gerri’s millionaire suitor becomes her and Tom’s benefactor in exactly the same way as the Wienie King does in the beginning of the film. Perhaps Sturges is trying to absolve himself of having the final word on the matter with his postscript: And they lived happily ever after….or did they?