I picked up a copy of the 1942 film The Palm Beach Story, starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea, hoping to see some of old Florida, but I got something better instead: a view of the original Penn Station in Manhattan. I’d always heard that the Beaux Arts station, built in 1910 but bulldozed in the 1960s for the likes of Madison Square Garden and an incredibly depressing Amtrak gare, was better than Grand Central.
See for yourself in this dated romp about a married couple so economically depressed that they’ve fallen behind on the rent for their duplex. The architect husband just can’t provide in quite the way his wife wants him to. Newly flush after an elderly man—“the Weinie King”—is shown their apartment and is so captivated by Colbert that he hands her a wad of cash, Colbert pays off the family’s debts and buys some new clothes. Claiming she’s just a drag on her spouse’s already sagging fortunes, she decides to head south for a divorce so he won’t be burdened by her. She’s always been able to get by thanks to her wit and her looks, a bit lost on me in this particular piece. To the train station she goes.
Just about the only real element of this picture is the exterior scene of Pennsylvania Station, to which viewers are treated as Colbert’s character descends to the train tracks and sweet talks her way onto a club car with the Ale and Quail Club, a bunch of upscale, drunken hunters. Their zeal compels her to seek other sleeping arrangements, and she just happens to end up sharing a berth with the fabulously wealthy John D. Hackensacker III (played by Rudy Vallee), who considers tipping and sleeping cars to be un-American. He’s otherwise ready to woo her, though.
Unfortunate caricatures abound. The best part of the film is that outdoor glimpse of Penn Station. (The interior, maintains Lorraine B. Diehl, author of The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station (1996), was a mockup.) The New York Times savaged the picture when it came out. “Except for some helter-skelter moments, it is generally slow and garrulous,” wrote one film critic. Bosley Crowther, ‘The Palm Beach Story’ Brings Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea to the Rivoli—‘Seven Days’ Leave’ at the Capitol, N.Y. Times, Dec. 11, 1942, at Amusements 33. Two days later, he was still unimpressed, calling the film “so underburdened with intellect that it practically blends into a void.” Bosley Crowther, In a Lighter Vein, N.Y. Times, Dec. 13, 1942, at Drama-Screen-Radio-Music-Dance-Art-Photography-Bridge-Stamps X3.
By 1983, the film apparently had a better patina. The Palm Beach Story is “among the wittiest, most pungent, most sophisticated, most falling-down-funny comedies ever made in America,” wrote critic Vincent Canby. Vincent Canby, Film View; A Fresh Assay of the Comic Gold of Preston Sturgis [sic], N.Y. Times, Jan. 16, 1983, n.p. It’s falling down, all right, in a funny-sad-pathetic way: its depiction of African-Americans is alarming, and the woman at the center of the plotline doesn’t seem to mind getting ahead on her back.
I loved the glimpse of the station, though, but as much as I’d love to travel back in time to see it, The Palm Beach Story reminds me of the ugly realities and limited opportunities of earlier eras.