The Palm Beach Story is a narrative. Director Sturges opens with a rapidly cut prologue showing stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea getting married, where he inserts clues for what will eventually be the film’s utterly pointless deus ex machina. Sure, Palm Beach runs less than ninety minutes so it’s possible the viewer be sitting around focusing on the prologue’s unanswered questions, but unlikely. Sturges is betting a lot on no one paying too much attention.
The film’s first act has Colbert paying off she and McCrea’s debt, so she then leaves him. She’d been waiting to do it until they were even with the grocer. Besides an awkward scene where she and McCrea get drunk, there’s almost no character development between them. It’s not just with one another–since the second act requires them both to be dishonest, there’s rarely any sincere scenes between their characters and anyone else in the film.
One has to wonder if Sturges intended the deus ex machina to have more importance, since it deals entirely with Colbert and McCrea and he’s spent most of Palm Beach concentrating on the people they meet. Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor eventually show up to provide romantic interests for the married leads, which ought to be funnier but Sturges spends more time with jokes at Sig Arno’s expense.
Astor is fantastic, Vallee is fine, Colbert is too mercenary and McCrea looks lost.
Sturges never finds the right tone for the film. It’s off from that first scene.