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February 14, 2007

OGIC: The wrong horse

So you’re Claudette Colbert, you’re cute as all get out, and you have a taste for the finer things in life: the couture, the cocktails, the coifs. You have a handsome and adoring husband who has some very grand business plans, but unfortunately few backers. Saved from a humiliating eviction on the sole strength of your personal charms, you resolve to fly the coop for Palm Beach, where you hear they grant a quick and easy divorce. You’re doing it for the sake of your hubby, mind you, who will have a quicker road to success without the burden of a wife whose domestic talents are restricted to winsome lolling about the apartment and quickly dispensing with any unanticipated funds that happen to alight on the household. It’s for his benefit that you pack your bags and set out to find a more able provider.

After batting your eyelashes into a first-class ticket on a Florida-bound train, you make the acquaintance of a sweet, nearsighted young fogy who turns out to be one of the richest men in the world. And this is where Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story had me torn, because though I could see where things were headed and that Rudy Vallee’s winningly stiff John D. Hackensacker III was not destined to get the girl—I could even see why he wasn’t—I couldn’t stop rooting for him. Maybe it was his inexhaustible reservoir of replacement eyeglasses, which Colbert’s Geraldine and a pack of baying hounds (don’t ask) have him repeatedly reaching for in the sleeper car scene where the two meet cute; the hapless millionaire, we get, has recognized himself early on as a man whose glasses routinely get stepped on and crushed—while they’re on his face—accepted this lot, and planned accordingly. Maybe it was the dogs’ unbridled, unanimous beeline for him and the equanimity with which he receives their slobbery respects. Certainly his shopping spree on Geraldine’s behalf once they arrive in Jacksonville had something to do with it; he's ten times giddier than she is about it, grinning dreamily as he adds up every last penny.

Oh, Geraldine. What were you thinking, going back to the vaguely sketched Tom (Joel McCrea)? As in Sturges’s greater picture The Lady Eve, the calculating dame handily hooks her feckless prize fish. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean/Eve, however, Geraldine throws her catch back into the sea. Of course, married from start to end of the film, she has never been truly free to keep him. But the picture treats divorce lightly enough that her existing marriage never feels like very much of an obstacle. Still, the logic of the movie demands a reconciliation. It's a satisfying one, too, and Hackensacker does lose some of his appeal once his progress is complete from initial lovestruck bewilderment to pompous determined courtship.

He's still unflappably cute, though, and still my choice for Geraldine. In what books or movies, romantic comedy or otherwise, did you find yourself backing the wrong horse? The only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Steve Martin's L.A. Story, in which Martin's character holds out for the slightly dour if age-appropriate Brit over the pure spun-sugar confection that is Sarah Jessica Parker's SanDeE*.

Posted February 14, 2007 10:58 AM

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