The Love Song of Capt. McGloo

Hollywood’s fascination with itself has generally meant that movies about movies–or, more precisely, movies that celebrate movies–tend to be overvalued by the film establishment relative to their actual merits. For example, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels tends to show up on a lot of classic movie lists, it was singled out for the Criterion treatment back before Criterion’s management really cottoned on to the idea that comedies can be classics, and when writers try to summarize why Preston Sturges is important, Sullivan’s Travels is almost always cited as his one or two most significant accomplishments. What Sullivan’s Travels is not, however, is terribly funny–it is one of Sturges’ tamer works. If you want to ask me what Sturges should be most remembered for, I’d have to say Palm Beach Story–a profoundly anarchic comic masterpiece that wholly abdicates any responsibility to make a lick of sense.

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The extent to which Palm Beach Story abandons all pretense to conventional narrative structure is presented in the opening title sequence. I say “presented” instead of “revealed,” because there is no chance whatsoever that anyone viewing this movie for the first time will recognize the significance of what is shown in the titles.

On a second viewing, after you have witnessed the bizarre deus ex machina solution Sturges uses in place of a sensible finale, sure, then you can see how Sturges the magician blatantly stuffs his aces up his sleeve right from the opening frames. But I refuse to believe that any human being in all of history has ever watched these opening titles cold, and then said to themselves, “gee, I wonder when we’re gonna see what happened to that other lady?”

And if you’re reading this without having seen (or remembered) the movie, and that preceding paragraph made no sense at all, then you’re more or less in the position of the people in the audience, watching this movie pretend to be a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist.

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Because that’s what those opening titles look like–for all the world like a recap of events from a previous adventure. The rapid-fire staccato of images, periodically freeze-framing on a pratfall or slapstick sight gag, comes out of nowhere and barrels along too quickly to fully register. That, and credits are superimposed over it all, further reinforcing the impression that you are expected not to study these images but to gloss over them–they are the to remind you of the highlights of the last film.

Of which, of course, there is none. If this is Palm Beach Story, then it’s prequel must have been something like New York Story, in which Joel McCrae fell in love with Claudette Colbert. Apparently that faux-quel ended with their wedding (attended by lots of falling and crashing into things), and they lived “happily ever after.”

Or did they?

And that’s where this movie begins. This is something of a bold move by Sturges, for a romantic comedy.

As we’ve discussed here before, the rise of romantic screwball comedies marked a rise in the significance of female comedians, specifically an equality between the male and female comedy co-stars. I’m not going to say that the rise of female comedians as equals caused the structure of screwball comedies, or that the structure of screwball comedies caused the rise of female comedians as equals, but I can say with confidence that the two are closely related. Think about it this way: if you’ve got two comedy leads in a film, one male and one female, and you want to give them more or less equal amounts of screen time and comic business, then it makes perfect sense to have the central dramatic conflict of the story be their relationship to one another. You have them meet cute, and then combat each other in funny ways for about an hour and a half, until they realize that the things they hate about each other are things they love about each other. Fade out.

We can call this the apart-apart-together model.

There are other ways to pull this off–the Thin Man movies begin with a married couple whose relationship is never in danger, and just puts the two of them into mortal danger instead, tracking down killers and conspiracies. But without the Thin Mannish style danger, having your romantic couple start the movie off together is a problematic stance to take. If you choose to have the dramatic conflict be a romantic one, one that puts their relationship at risk, such that you go for a together-apart-together model, you threaten the very structure of your story.

For the together-apart-together model to function, you presumably need to make the central dramatic conflict convincing enough to mount a meaningful challenge to the relationship. The more credible the challenge, though, and by extension the more effective the dramatic conflict, the more work the movie has to do to resolve that conflict and reunite the lovers. These two loved each other once, they know what being together is like, and they’re seriously considering walking away from that.

By contrast, the apart-apart-together model sets the bar lower. They just need to realize they’re in love, not overcome the one barrier that’s strong enough to undo that love.

Which brings us back to Sturges and Palm Beach Story, which opts for a together-apart-together model but gleefully defies the very storytelling logic I just outlined. The gimmick here is that the force that tears them apart if exactly the same force that would keep them together or could reunite them–they never stop loving each other, they never stop wanting to be together.

So what’s pulling them apart, you ask? What’s pushing this husband and wife toward divorce in Palm Beach?

Joel McCrae is a dreamer, which is a nice way of saying he’s down on his luck. His peculiar ambition is to construct an urban airport in the center of New York City by stretching powerful steel nets across the skyscrapers, so that planes can land safely in the middle of a city.
This looney invention encapsulates the Sturges touch. Listening to McCrae describe this plan, it all sounds perfectly reasonable. His scale model is impressive, and you might well sit in the audience nodding your head approvingly, and wondering why, so many decades after this movie was made, why hasn’t anyone gone and built this thing yet?

And then, on reflection, realization dawns: the idea is completely insane. How would planes safely navigate through the buildings? The noise would be unbearable for the poor citizens of the city, who would have to resign themselves to never seeing the sky again, thanks to the airport that now hovers permanently over their heads. I could keep going with objections to the idea, but why bother? No, wait, one more objection–why does the thing cost exactly $99,000? Even the price tag is ridiculous.

And that’s Sturges in a nutshell.

Preston Sturges lived a life so absolutely implausible and so stuffed with absurd events that if someone had set out to make a completely honest bio-pic about him, one that didn’t stray from the facts one bit, it would have been laughed off the screen as even nuttier than his comedies.  He made screwball farces because he wrote from what he knew–and the weird thing is, Palm Beach Story is actually kind of autobiographical in places–and not in the places you might think.  The crazy airport scheme, the wastrel rich cougar flitting from man to man, the relationship that tears itself apart because the woman wants to see the man succeed–these are things Preston yanked from deep in his soul and turned into frothy entertainment.  He turned pain into laughs, mostly because his pain wasn’t recognizable to outsiders as anything real.

In a Sturges movie, the craziest people are made to sound the most becalmed and normal. And, the lone voice of reason in a Sturges film is made to sound foolish.

For example, consider Sturges’ Christmas in July. Dick Powell is another Sturges-style dreamer, who pins his hopes on winning a cash bounty for his proposed slogan for Maxford House Coffee: “if you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

He will simply not be told that his slogan is a) unwieldy and wordy, b) hard to remember, or c) factually inaccurate. Far from it, he’s argumentative and combative on these points, singularly convinced that coffee actually puts people to sleep (he says a “Viennese doctor” said so). But his conviction is so acute, that when pranksters try to joke with him that despite all odds he did win, the result is that the entire world is warped around him as if this improbable fact was true. It suddenly becomes harder to persuade anyone of the actual facts than to go thoughtlessly along in the craziness unleashed by his “winning” slogan. And then, one solitary sane person emerges in the maelstrom–to offer the sage advice that being content with your lot in life is the best way to enduring happiness, as opposed to wishing for miracles. But his advice is laughed off and repeatedly ridiculed–despite the fact that it is plainly correct.

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This is the corollary of the proposition that Sturges makes sensible ideas sound foolish and crazy ones sound reasonable: Sturges’ movies spend most of their effort advancing ideas and values contrary to what he actually means. His films jam-packed with slapstick chaos and machine-gun dialogue, but their greatest comic power comes from irony. They are manifestly not about what they are about–as we shall see with Palm Beach Story.

MacCrae’s absurd airport idea is faltering, and the couple can’t pay their bills. At which point, Claudette Colbert decides that since she’s an attractive and shapely young woman and there are lonely rich guys out there, the best way to help her hubby is divorce him, seek out a sugar daddy, and funnel the cash back to MacCrae so he can become a successful entrepreneur. And when Colbert explains her idea to him, it sounds completely sensible, an iron-clad proposition. How could anyone object?

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So, off she trundles to Palm Beach to execute this scheme. Within hours she has hooked Rudy Vallee, playing the third richest man in the world. He is utterly delighted to spend money on her, and is so sold on the self-evidently brilliant urban airport idea that he remains committed to it even as Colbert keeps changing her story about whose idea it is–is it the brainchild of her cruel husband, described as a vicious wife-beater, or the intellectual property of her brother, “Captain McGloo?” (funny names are another Sturges trademark. In the film, Colbert has to come up with a name for her “brother” on the fly, and misremembers his mother’s maiden name McGrew)

In short, Colbert’s plan has worked exactly as she said it would. In one scene, she cooks up a crazy scheme, and in the very next scene she pulls it off. What kind of storytelling is that? Where’s the conflict?

Well, the conflict is in whether she would be doing this at all. She is successfully executing a very bad idea, that will hurt a lot of people.

Or will it? McCrae has followed his wife to Palm Beach hoping to stop her, which is where the whole McGloo thing came in. Having told Vallee that her husband was a vicious wife-beating lout, she passes her real husband off as her brother, and he finds a sugar momma–Rudy Vallee’s sister Mary Astor thinks Captain McGloo is the very picture of desirable manliness, and she is prepared to pay for his companionship.

So what does our dreamer hero really want out of life?  Comfort, riches, abundant sex, and professional accolades–or does he want to hang on to his screwball wife and live from hand to mouth instead?  So much for happily ever after–the opening titles show us a wedding, and then the movie shows us two possible outcomes.  They both have their good points, and they both involve some compromise.  You can’t have everything–you just have to choose which something you want.

In other words, the movie is a romantic comedy which drives aggressively to this precipice: romance is the bunk.  Living happily ever after with your sweeties isn’t on the menu–you can have living happily ever after, or the with your sweetie part, but not both together.  This is a bleak message for a romantic comedy.  The schizophrenic attitude is so bewildering, the audience gets to this point in the story and has no idea what they’re rooting to happen now.  Do we want Claudette to succeed in her plan–and thereby make this appealing rich dork really happy, and give her (ex-)husband the very success he’s aspired to?  Or do we want Joel to reveal the truth, and thereby deeply wound everyone and destroy everything?

Sturges gets out of this impasse by suddenly announcing that the rules have changed.  It’s like playing a game of chess to the brink of checkmate, and then loosing because your opponent hits a home run.  What game were you playing?

But Sturges’ get-of-jail-free-card of an ending doesn’t change the point of the preceeding 90 minutes–it just lets you walk out of the theater happy, and maybe unaware that you just watched a deeply romantic story about the impossibility of romance.  Or is that it?  The plot may be anti-romantic, but this is a Sturges film–and as such, it isn’t about what it seems to be about.  The tone, the mood, the overall experience is one of love triumphant–a message that somehow comes across despite the abject inability of the rest of the movie to even remotely believe in it.

0 Response The Love Song of Capt. McGloo
Posted By Juana Maria : May 12, 2012 12:49 pm

I love Claudette Colbert movies! Thanks for this article. I taped off of TCM “The Palm Beach Story” but have not watched it yet. I did see this film ages ago on TCM of course. I am not certain if I ever watched it in its entirity. Hey! It’s fun to be the first to comment. I don’t usually have that priviledge.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 12, 2012 12:49 pm

I love Claudette Colbert movies! Thanks for this article. I taped off of TCM “The Palm Beach Story” but have not watched it yet. I did see this film ages ago on TCM of course. I am not certain if I ever watched it in its entirity. Hey! It’s fun to be the first to comment. I don’t usually have that priviledge.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 12, 2012 2:52 pm

Interesting take on a terrific movie. I am not sure, though, if the ending does support love triumphant. I think I agree more that it was a get-out-of-jail-free card to give the illusion of a happy ending as a wink at Hollywood’s most recognized convention.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 12, 2012 2:52 pm

Interesting take on a terrific movie. I am not sure, though, if the ending does support love triumphant. I think I agree more that it was a get-out-of-jail-free card to give the illusion of a happy ending as a wink at Hollywood’s most recognized convention.

Posted By Tom S : May 12, 2012 3:03 pm

Criterion put out Sturges’ The Lady Eve a bit before they put out Sullivan’s Travels, and for my part I always thought Sullivan’s Travels much the funnier of the two (though I’m saying nothing against The Lady Eve.) I feel as though its popularity amongst the cineastes is as much because it’s one of the few Sturges movies with a clear and expressible thesis as because of the inside baseball movie thing.

Though I have always thought a lot of Sunset Boulevard’s popularity came from that phenomenon.

Posted By Tom S : May 12, 2012 3:03 pm

Criterion put out Sturges’ The Lady Eve a bit before they put out Sullivan’s Travels, and for my part I always thought Sullivan’s Travels much the funnier of the two (though I’m saying nothing against The Lady Eve.) I feel as though its popularity amongst the cineastes is as much because it’s one of the few Sturges movies with a clear and expressible thesis as because of the inside baseball movie thing.

Though I have always thought a lot of Sunset Boulevard’s popularity came from that phenomenon.

Posted By AL : May 12, 2012 6:32 pm

Nothing, no other film, makes me laugh harder than the final 15 minutes of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS…I was priviledged to see Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert live on stage in L.A. in the 80′s. It was a revival of a 20′s “Drawing room comedy” fluff; totally forgettable, but they were Magic. Unforgettable…

Posted By AL : May 12, 2012 6:32 pm

Nothing, no other film, makes me laugh harder than the final 15 minutes of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS…I was priviledged to see Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert live on stage in L.A. in the 80′s. It was a revival of a 20′s “Drawing room comedy” fluff; totally forgettable, but they were Magic. Unforgettable…

Posted By AL : May 12, 2012 6:37 pm

to paraphrase Sturges: “Good dialogue is all the comments/replies you SHOULD have said at the time, but didn’t think of them untill later…”

Posted By AL : May 12, 2012 6:37 pm

to paraphrase Sturges: “Good dialogue is all the comments/replies you SHOULD have said at the time, but didn’t think of them untill later…”

Posted By dukeroberts : May 12, 2012 7:49 pm

I saw this movie a few years ago and honestly can’t remember the ending. Now I have to watch it again. Thanks, Kalat!

Did Sturges ever make a bad movie?

Posted By dukeroberts : May 12, 2012 7:49 pm

I saw this movie a few years ago and honestly can’t remember the ending. Now I have to watch it again. Thanks, Kalat!

Did Sturges ever make a bad movie?

Posted By Juana Maria : May 12, 2012 10:33 pm

Duke Roberts: You need to clarify which Sturges, Preston or John. If you meant Preston Sturges,the only movie of his that I am not real crazy about is “the Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and it’s still pretty funny. It just my least favorite. Then there’s John Sturges, I love his movies,”Gunfight at the OK Corral”;”The Magnificent Seven” & “The Great Escape”,but then there’s the sequel to “OK Corral”,”Hour of the Gun”.I just don’t really like that movie. So there I go being a film geek again! I should stick with how much I love Claudette Colbert’s acting. She’s one of my favorite actresses. Right up there with Audrey Hepburn,Doris Day,and Julie Andrews. Oh! There are so many really good actresses. Well, there used to be..That’s why I devotely watch TCM!

Posted By Juana Maria : May 12, 2012 10:33 pm

Duke Roberts: You need to clarify which Sturges, Preston or John. If you meant Preston Sturges,the only movie of his that I am not real crazy about is “the Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and it’s still pretty funny. It just my least favorite. Then there’s John Sturges, I love his movies,”Gunfight at the OK Corral”;”The Magnificent Seven” & “The Great Escape”,but then there’s the sequel to “OK Corral”,”Hour of the Gun”.I just don’t really like that movie. So there I go being a film geek again! I should stick with how much I love Claudette Colbert’s acting. She’s one of my favorite actresses. Right up there with Audrey Hepburn,Doris Day,and Julie Andrews. Oh! There are so many really good actresses. Well, there used to be..That’s why I devotely watch TCM!

Posted By dukeroberts : May 13, 2012 10:48 am

I meant Preston. The post was about Preston Sturges’s “The Palm Beach Story”.

Posted By dukeroberts : May 13, 2012 10:48 am

I meant Preston. The post was about Preston Sturges’s “The Palm Beach Story”.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 13, 2012 5:56 pm

Duke Roberts:Deep down I really knew that! I just was having a bit of fun showinf off my knowledge of the different directors! Sorry for that, sorta, thanks for writing me ;D Your Amiga,Juana Maria.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 13, 2012 5:56 pm

Duke Roberts:Deep down I really knew that! I just was having a bit of fun showinf off my knowledge of the different directors! Sorry for that, sorta, thanks for writing me ;D Your Amiga,Juana Maria.

Posted By Willie Bilder : May 13, 2012 10:36 pm

* Personally I think that Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is both the funniest of all (which is saying a lot indeed!) — & also the most shockingly subversive — especially the film’s core idea that a young lady’s noble & virtuous wish to “cheer up” the departing troops could very well indeed be a way of masking & rationalizing a decadent wish to be slutty & inebriated … Which of course is the “real truth” — but the fact that Sturges sort of tells it to us out loud makes it so wonderfully hilarious … Of course in more recent years we’ve had tons of comedies derivative in the sense of the girl finally realizing that the pathetic nerd who can be taken infinite advantage of is in fact in reality the only guy who actually cares for her sincerely … But this is better than any that came after!

Posted By Willie Bilder : May 13, 2012 10:36 pm

* Personally I think that Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is both the funniest of all (which is saying a lot indeed!) — & also the most shockingly subversive — especially the film’s core idea that a young lady’s noble & virtuous wish to “cheer up” the departing troops could very well indeed be a way of masking & rationalizing a decadent wish to be slutty & inebriated … Which of course is the “real truth” — but the fact that Sturges sort of tells it to us out loud makes it so wonderfully hilarious … Of course in more recent years we’ve had tons of comedies derivative in the sense of the girl finally realizing that the pathetic nerd who can be taken infinite advantage of is in fact in reality the only guy who actually cares for her sincerely … But this is better than any that came after!

Posted By marty : May 14, 2012 2:56 pm

Paramount was very lucky to have Sturges and Billy Wilder at the studio writing and directing pictures at the same time. Now on to Sturges. I am crazy about nearly every picture he had ever made and my favorites are Unfaithfully Yours, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. Unfaithfully Yours, made in the latter part of his career and produced at Fox, is just sensational. All of his pictures have ripping dialogue and big physical jokes. But what really makes them is the sense of speed…these pictures really take off like a caravan of fire trucks heading for a fire…sirens wailing, bells clanging.
His stock company, Robert Grieg, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlon, Bill Demarest, Torben Meyer, Rudy Valle, Porter Hall etc…they are the cream of the crop in terms of character players.They can handle a wisecrack or a pratfall…doesn’t matter which or both at the same time.
Sturges and Wilder. They don’t make them like that any more…nor do they make pictures like those anymore, either.

Posted By marty : May 14, 2012 2:56 pm

Paramount was very lucky to have Sturges and Billy Wilder at the studio writing and directing pictures at the same time. Now on to Sturges. I am crazy about nearly every picture he had ever made and my favorites are Unfaithfully Yours, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. Unfaithfully Yours, made in the latter part of his career and produced at Fox, is just sensational. All of his pictures have ripping dialogue and big physical jokes. But what really makes them is the sense of speed…these pictures really take off like a caravan of fire trucks heading for a fire…sirens wailing, bells clanging.
His stock company, Robert Grieg, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlon, Bill Demarest, Torben Meyer, Rudy Valle, Porter Hall etc…they are the cream of the crop in terms of character players.They can handle a wisecrack or a pratfall…doesn’t matter which or both at the same time.
Sturges and Wilder. They don’t make them like that any more…nor do they make pictures like those anymore, either.

Posted By Emgee : May 14, 2012 3:20 pm

“Sturges and Wilder. They don’t make them like that any more…nor do they make pictures like those anymore, either.”

Indeed. Whatever happened to the well-written, sophisticated comedy? Anybody? Ok, Sturges used a fair amount of slapstick, but mixed it well with real wit.

Posted By Emgee : May 14, 2012 3:20 pm

“Sturges and Wilder. They don’t make them like that any more…nor do they make pictures like those anymore, either.”

Indeed. Whatever happened to the well-written, sophisticated comedy? Anybody? Ok, Sturges used a fair amount of slapstick, but mixed it well with real wit.

Posted By Qalice : May 14, 2012 7:09 pm

I’ve seen all of Preston Sturges’ movies — even the one about the invention of ether — and I love them to varying degrees, but none makes me laugh harder than Palm Beach Story. The Wienie King! The Ale and Quail Hunting Club! “You never think about anything but Topic A, do you?” I just don’t think there’s a more sustained piece of silliness anywhere, especially one with a romantic heart at its demented center. Thank you for writing about it! Every Morlock should see it!

Posted By Qalice : May 14, 2012 7:09 pm

I’ve seen all of Preston Sturges’ movies — even the one about the invention of ether — and I love them to varying degrees, but none makes me laugh harder than Palm Beach Story. The Wienie King! The Ale and Quail Hunting Club! “You never think about anything but Topic A, do you?” I just don’t think there’s a more sustained piece of silliness anywhere, especially one with a romantic heart at its demented center. Thank you for writing about it! Every Morlock should see it!

Posted By kevin mummery : May 15, 2012 5:54 pm

Every film should have a Wienie King or his equivalent in it. It’s a shame he didn’t become one of Sturges stock players…his appearance in any picture would add that extra little spark that people always remember.

Posted By kevin mummery : May 15, 2012 5:54 pm

Every film should have a Wienie King or his equivalent in it. It’s a shame he didn’t become one of Sturges stock players…his appearance in any picture would add that extra little spark that people always remember.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 24, 2012 4:07 pm

My mom and I finally watched “Palm Beach Story” which I taped off of TCM, it was so funny!! I love the ending,they’re twins! I especially loved the ending since I myself am an identical twin. Good article for an extremely funny movie. Thanks.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 24, 2012 4:07 pm

My mom and I finally watched “Palm Beach Story” which I taped off of TCM, it was so funny!! I love the ending,they’re twins! I especially loved the ending since I myself am an identical twin. Good article for an extremely funny movie. Thanks.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – The Sin of Harold Lloyd : September 1, 2012 6:02 am

[...] with audience expectations.  As I’ve discussed before, Palm Beach Story behaves as if it is a sequel to a non-existent film, and Sullivan’s Travels recursively folds details of its own making into the film’s plot.  [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – The Sin of Harold Lloyd : September 1, 2012 6:02 am

[...] with audience expectations.  As I’ve discussed before, Palm Beach Story behaves as if it is a sequel to a non-existent film, and Sullivan’s Travels recursively folds details of its own making into the film’s plot.  [...]

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