Friday, May 3, 2013

Mary Astor Blogathon - The Palm Beach Story: The Subject Was “Snoodles”

This post is part of the Mary Astor Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings, running from May 3rd through May 10th, 2013!

Ah, how times and mores change over the decades!  Consider this:

1.)  In 1942, writer/director Preston Sturges brought us The Palm Beach Story (TPBS, a riff on the 1940 comedy The Philadelphia Story), in which a young couple find themselves living beyond their means and about to be evicted from their New York City duplex apartment.  As potential renters circle the couple like vultures, one would-be renter, an elderly gent, takes a liking to the young wife.

The older man turns out to be “The Wienie King…Home of the Texas Wienie.” (Make your own naughty jokes here, as needed.)  And he’s loaded—with money, not just wienies!  Despite the wife’s kind but firm no-thank-yous, the older man is touched by the young couple’s financial predicament, and gives her $700, which went a long way back then!  He doesn’t want to bed down with our heroine or get into any indecent proposals; he just wants to give these crazy kids a hand, not a handout!

Got them to the church on time—eventually!

 2.)  Now fast-forward to Adrien Lyne’s much-discussed 1993 drama Indecent Proposal.  This time, the helpful wealthy stranger wants to have sex with lovely young Wifey for a million dollars!  Granted, most folks would probably consider Indecent Proposal’s co-star Robert Redford to be a lot sexier than TPBS supporting actor Robert Dudley (scene-stealer though he is), but even when comparing the mores of both the early 1940s and the mid-1990s, as well as today’s attitudes, there are gals out there who’d gladly hop in the sack with Redford, or with Dudley’s Wienie King, for that matter. For many people, money talks!  As for me, I’ll take The Palm Beach Story anytime; all told, it’s got way more laughs and far less agita!  Indeed, audiences embraced TPBS as a welcome tonic to the downbeat war movies focusing on combat and troubled families shattered by war.  Who could blame moviegoers for wanting to laugh?  Hey, it worked for another great Sturges hit, Sullivan’s Travels!
Scenes from a marriage ceremony?!
For all its American-ness, TPBS feels to me like both a French farce and a surreal lunatic 1940s version of Christopher Nolan’s thriller Memento (2000).  Claudette Colbert is first seen tied up in a muffler that Doctor Who would envy.  Then she’s shoved into a closet, and apparently there’s another Claudette Colbert who kicks her way out. All the while, their maid keeps fainting with each new unexpected version of our heroine. Meanwhile, bridegroom Joel McCrea is scrambling to get himself to the church on time, as is our heroine on the other side of New York City.  What the Sam Hill is going on?!  Luckily, Entertainment Weekly’s Keith Staskiewicz explains it all for us, courtesy of

Preston Sturges had one of the most impressive runs of any writer-director:  In a span of five years, he produced more classic comedies than most do in a lifetime. That easily includes this hilarious, Hays Code-testing film about love and marriage, but it should also include a film he didn't make, the finale of which we glimpse at the start of The Palm Beach Story.  As the opening credits roll, we see a madcap dash to the altar involving not only stars Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert, but also their respective twins, as well as a series of accidental switcheroos. Only Sturges would be so wackily brilliant as to start his movie with the conclusion of another, and then tie them both perfectly together once more at the end.”

Our heroine gets no kick
from matrimony, Sturges-style!
Well, that explains that, at least for the nonce!  I guess that also explains why Tom and Gerry (appropriate names for a screwball comedy couple) apparently gave their maid her walking papers, or maybe the poor frazzled woman ran screaming from the Jeffers’ employ; it takes stamina to work in a screwball comedy!  Since Tom and Gerry finally made it to the altar, I bet Gerry’s twin also finally left in a huff or some other form of transportation.  Or maybe getting tied up in a thick muffler left Gerry’s twin with second thoughts: “If this is marriage, you can keep it!  I’m gonna live happily ever after with my dozen cats!  Here, kitty, kitty….”  Anyway, our lovebirds finally got married and lived happily ever after!  Or did they? 

TPBS is an irresistible blend of screwball comedy and surprisingly tender romance, with a great cast of Preston Sturges’ zanies.  Actually, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther resisted it with a vengeance, but I think he might have been the only one.  Besides, Crowther was a mercurial kind of guy anyway; there’s just no pleasing some people!  But whether they’re happy or sad or freaking out, the characters really get an emotional workout.  Sure, it’s mostly laugh-out-loud funny, but you can also feel the characters’ anxiety beneath their witty repartee, making me sympathize with them.  Even now in 2013, our country’s financial issues make it easy to sympathize with Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea from Sullivan’s Travels; Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent; Ride the High Country) and his wife Gerry (Claudette Colbert from It Happened One Night; It’s A Wonderful World; So Proudly We Hail!)

Meet The Wienie King, 
Fairy Godfather-type! Who knew?
Murder, My Sweet's Mrs. Florian is in the chips;
now she's after the Jeffers' joint
as Franklin Pangborn dithers!
Tom and Gerry have been happy with each other for the past 5 years, but they’ve also  faced lean financial times. (As a native New Yorker, I can’t remember a time when The Big Apple WASN’T an expensive town!)  Tom and Gerry still love each other (even when they try to convince themselves they're not), but right now, they’re not exactly thrilled about the high cost of living in a Manhattan duplex!  I bet Tom’s the type who won’t let his wife work; it’s probably a pride thing for him, especially during that era.  If only Tom could get his floating airport off the ground!  Well, that’s where the aforementioned Wienie King (played by scene-stealing Sturges stalwart Robert Dudley from The Lady Eve; The Sin of Harold Diddlebock; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) comes in—right into the couple’s bathroom, in fact!  It’s OK, he’s just checking out his potential new home, like any savvy real estate prospect would:  “I'm the Wienie King!  Invented the Texas Wienie!  Lay off 'em, you'll live longer.” 

While Tom is out trying to interest prospects in his revolutionary airport,The Wienie King’s garrulous wife (Esther Howard of Murder, My Sweet; Detour; Born to Kill) cases the Jeffers’ joint while Gerry and the Wienie King chat.   It becomes clear that although The Wienie King is half-deaf, he’s also all heart and deep pockets!  He has the kindness and the means to give Gerry a lucky financial break.  Gerry keeps spurning the dough, but The Wienie King won’t take “No!” for an answer, so despite her protests, The Wienie King gives her $700 (big bucks back then!) to pay off the couple’s debts. Gerry gratefully gives The Wienie King a kiss on the cheek, then uses the money to pay off all their overdue bills.  Happy days are here again!

Tom and Gerry's love is sole-deep!
Or are they?  When Tom comes home and finds out about The Wienie King’s generous windfall, he’s peeved instead of grateful, letting his pride mess with him.  We see Tom has a history of giving the heave-ho to any man Gerry gets friendly with—and we really mean only friendly, no hanky-panky.  But when Gerry turns on her natural charm, Tom votes with his fists (only with guys, not Gerry).  Just out of curiosity and empathy, I’d love to know more about how Gerry and Tom got themselves in such dire financial straits after 5 otherwise happy years together.  Was it because of World War 2, or were Tom and Gerry unwittingly careless with their money, as many young married couples have been? (Even Vinnie and I had tight financial times in our younger days, like many others in today’s economy; no shame in it if you learn from your mistakes, like we did.)  Goshdarnit, Sturges has me caring about those wacky lovebirds!  Where the heck is Spellbound’s Dr. Constance Petersen when you need her?

Too bad those crazy kids didn’t get some kind of budget counseling (presuming such things existed back then) before the couple’s ensuing nutzoid hijinks became necessary, but otherwise, we wouldn’t have a movie!   If Tom would get over his stupid jealousy and misplaced pride, and let backers at least give Gerry a discreet, tasteful flash of leg like she did in another Colbert classic, It Happened One Night, Tom and Gerry’s problems would be fixed in a jiffy!  Admittedly, I’m no aviation expert; does anyone reading this post know if Tom Jeffers’ floating airport could have worked in the real world (the real world of 1942, at least)?

So our lovebirds have a heart-to-heart talk about the situation:

Tom:  “We’ll get ahead someday.”

Gerry:  “But I don’t want it ‘someday.’  I want it now, while I can still enjoy it.  Anyway, men don’t get smarter as they grow older, they just lose their hair…I’m very tired of being broke, darling, and feeling so helpless about having my hands tied.  I could have helped you so many times, but every time I tried to, you tried to punch the man in the nose."
Heartbroken yet determined, Gerry decides there’s only one solution:  she must go to Palm Beach, Florida, where millionaires meet millionairesses and marry them, living happily and wealthily ever after.  If all goes well, whatever new millionaire falls in love with Gerry and wants to marry her will be able to fund Tom’s revolutionary airport.  Granted, neither Tom nor Gerry can afford a divorce, but she figures whatever new rich hubby she finds will surely cough up dough for said divorce, and make his airport dream a beautiful reality.  Only in the movies! 
100 (or so) drunk Ale & Quail Clubbers and a girl!
Of course, Tom doesn’t want any part of this hare-brained scheme, but once Gerry accidentally sticks a farewell note in her hubby’s rump via safety pin after their tipsy night of love, the chase is on, and hilarity ensues, Sturges-style!  Tom does his best to catch up with Gerry, but she reaches Pennsylvania Station (Penn Station, as it’s called today) first. Still, all isn’t lost yet, thanks to The Wienie King, bless him.  Mr. and Mrs. Wienie King have rented the Jeffers’ duplex, and he also he gave Tom money to go and catch up with Gerry, and nobody had to get punched in the nose, at least not yet!

At Pennsylvania Station, Gerry stands around looking like a foundling waif (a well-dressed waif, granted) until a group of wacky rich hunters calling themselves The Ale and Quail Club take Gerry under their collective wing and into their private railroad car.  The First Ale & Quail member (William Demarest, another Sturges stalwart from The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve) is peeved at having to put up with dames in his hunting car, but the rest of the gents take a shine to her, dubbing her their mascot.  Gerry doesn’t get much sleep, though, what with the happy hunters alternately trying to sing Gerry to sleep, using the Club Car for target practice, and disconnecting the Club Car when the conductors get fed up with the drunken dopes.  It’s pandemonium in the funniest sense! 
The Ale & Quail Club puts on the dogs!
Luckily, the good-natured bespectacled gent who ends up stranded along with Gerry is none other than millionaire John D. Hackensacker 3rd (Rudy Vallee, crooner and actor, who’d also starred in George White’s Scandals; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Live A Little, Love a Little with Elvis Presley; and of course, many Sturges comedies).  Kind, chivalrous, deep-pocketed John falls in love with Gerry, taking great pleasure in buying her gifts, jewelry, and gorgeous fashions by Irene, kinda like a far more cheerful, upbeat version of Vertigo. It looks like smooth sailing for Gerry and her hopes of getting John to fund Tom’s airport.  Considering how generous he is to Gerry, I’m surprised John isn’t into tipping, claiming “It’s un-American.”  Then again, maybe that’s why he's fabulously wealthy while Tom and Gerry have been struggling. I must say I admire John’s thriftiness and generosity, inside and out, and he did bestow help and gifts on our heroes when they were up against it. Maybe Tom and Gerry could learn something from him?  What’s your opinion?  We’d like to know!

And then there's Maude, a.k.a. The Princess Centimilla!
(Our birthday girl Mary Astor!)

We got us a speedboat, it seats about twenty...
John’s sister Maude, a.k.a. The Princess Centimillia, (our gal Mary Astor from The Maltese Falcon; Across the Pacific; and Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner for The Great Lie), likes Gerry instantly:  “We can look for new husbands together!”  Maude is also delighted to see how happy Gerry has already made “Snoodles,” as she affectionately calls her brother.  Ironically, our Ms. Astor wasn’t crazy about her own performance in TPBS, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine why.  As far as I’m concerned, Mary steals the show; heck, I think she deserved another Best Supporting Actress Oscar for TPBS!  It’s too bad that she didn’t appreciate her own wonderful performance as much as the rest of us do.  She's got terrific comic timing, looked lovely in her stylish Irene fashions, and she looks fabulous as a blonde. I can well imagine that a gal like Maude would probably enjoy trying different hairstyles and haircolors, a la Auntie Mame.

But whango, is Gerry ever surprised when Tom turns up on the dock at sunny West Palm Beach, with roses yet!  (My late mom and stepdad lived about an hour’s drive or so from West Palm Beach, and we had plenty of vacation fun in the sun during our visits to their home!  But I digress…)  Blindsided by Tom’s passionate kiss, Gerry quickly introduces Tom as her brother, “Captain McGloo” so as not to give the scheme away:

Gerry: “I thought your mother’s maiden name was McGloo.” 
Tom:  “That was McGrew!”)

And so, the gals’ husband-hunting gets underway.  With both playfulness and determination, Maude takes quite a liking to Tom (“I grow on people…like moss.”), to the frustration of perennial houseguest Toto (Sig Arno from of On Moonlight Bay; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Up in Arms with Danny Kaye.)  Arno steals his scenes armed only with indecipherable gibberish and natural zaniness. This makes Gerry all the more frustrated when the loving but frustrated Tom won’t play along (not that this stops the irrepressible Maude).  Even supporting players steal the show here! 

Here's one of my favorite scenes between Maude and "Snoodles" regarding Gerry:

Maude : “Why don’t you marry her?  She’s lovely.” 

John:  “In the first place, she isn’t free yet.  In the second place, you don’t marry someone you just met.  At least, I don’t.”
Maude:  “But that’s the only way, dear.  If you get to know too much about them, you’d never marry them….nothing is permanent in this world except Roosevelt...”

The Palm Beach Story is a "bundle" of joy! Just ask Princess Maude and company!

Truly, TPBS is one of the zaniest yet endearing comedies yet in movie history!  Watch and enjoy!