Speaking of sex-as-subtext in classic films, The Palm Beach Story was on TCM this week. Preston Sturges’ screwball gem is all about how sex keeps getting in the way of a wife’s scheme to help her husband by divorcing him and taking up with a rich man who can help her husband in his career. The problem is, said husband is played by tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed Joel McCrea, so you can understand why wife Gerry keeps back-sliding on her plan. When McCrea’s Tom comments that they may not be rich, but at least they have a roof over their heads, Gerry ruefully remarks, “I wasn’t thinking about the roof.” I hear you, Gerry.
Gerry, played with knowing humor by Claudette Colbert, lays out The Palm Beach Story’s mission statement when she says that “sex always has something to do with it.” Gerry has a difficult time leaving Tom because of their mutual sexual attraction; she’s able to use other men’s desire for her to her advantage, for everything from a cab ride to a train ticket to an extravagant new wardrobe. In her relationship with Tom, Gerry has very little control over her own desire; she’s helpless to resist him. In her dealings with men to whom she’s not attracted at all, Gerry has all the control, using their attraction to her to get what she needs from them.
Princess Centimillia (the brilliant Mary Astor) is the agent of her own desire, shrewdly retaining control while she’s actively pursuing the object of her affections – in this case, Tom. She serves as a sort of Greek chorus of sexual desire, constantly commenting on Tom’s attractiveness and her desire for him. As Tom points out, “you never stray far from Topic A, do you?” “Is there anything else?” she responds archly. Given her marital history, we can assume that Centimillia is often successful in her pursuit of men and has no qualms about divorcing them when she’s no longer attracted to them. If Gerry cedes control when she desires, Centimillia seems to become more iron-willed and determined in the face of her own desire. In that way, Centimillia functions as a sort of reverse Gerry (especially interesting given that we also briefly see a double Gerry, her twin, at the very beginning and end of the film). I think wealth gives Centimillia the freedom to express both desire and agency simultaneously. Gerry, on the other hand, marries Tom for love and desire but can’t quite afford that decision. She has to relinquish her own desire and dispassionately manipulate others’ desires in order to achieve her own material ends.
Come to think of it, The Palm Beach Story is a bit like Jane Austen’s novels in that way. As I re-read Austen’s novels over the years, I find that they’re not simply about marrying for love, but, perhaps just as importantly, about marrying wisely into money. Austen acknowledges the importance of love and mutual respect, but she is also clear-eyed about the need for financial security in a successful marriage. The Palm Beach Story may be a whirl of whip-smart banter and sexual desire, but, in the end, each marriage, even Tom and Gerry’s (hah!) has a foundation of sexual attraction and financial security.