‘The Palm Beach Story’ From 1942: Discovering the Non-Code Era

‘The Palm Beach Story’ From 1942: Discovering the Non-Code Era
"The Palm Beach Story" lobby card from 1942. (MovieStillsDB)
Tiffany Brannan

If you’ve read any of my classic movie reviews here at The Epoch Times, you probably know that I focus on a particular 20-year period, 1934-1954. As I often explain, these two decades were Hollywood’s Golden Era because that was the Motion Picture Production Code’s heyday. The Code is a set of guidelines for decent film content which kept American movies clean without the arbitrary Rating System. The Code was enforced by the Production Code Administration (PCA), which existed from 1934 until it was replaced with the current Rating System in 1968. However, the Code’s glory days ended in 1954, when Joseph I. Breen, the first head of the PCA, retired.

I always refer to these twenty years as the Breen Era, but that’s not entirely accurate. Joe Breen’s tenure at the PCA was interrupted by a one-year hiatus from May 16, 1941, to May 15, 1942, during which time he had no official replacement. While he was a mogul at RKO Radio Pictures, his assistant, Geoffrey M. Shurlock, ran the PCA from his usual position of second-in-command. The result was a batch of PCA-approved films which are strangely Code-violating. I call this the Non-Code Era.

A good example of a non-Code film is “The Palm Beach Story,” a Paramount Picture from 1942. This movie stars Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, and Rudy Vallee. The all-star cast makes it an entertaining film, but the content is shocking for the 1940s.

"The Palm Beach Story" lobby card from 1942. (MovieStillsDB)
"The Palm Beach Story" lobby card from 1942. (MovieStillsDB)

It Happened in Palm Beach

Gerry Jeffers (Colbert) has been married to young architect and builder Tom (McCrea) for a few years. Thing aren’t going well for them financially, as Tom struggles to fund his latest project, a futuristic airport. They are about to be evicted from their New York apartment, but a potential new renter (Robert Dudley) takes pity on Gerry and gives her the rent money. Naturally, Tom doesn’t believe Gerry’s story about the generous stranger, and they have an argument. Gerry decides to head to Palm Beach to get a divorce, asserting that she can get there entirely on the generosity of strangers as an attractive single woman.

At the train station, Gerry becomes the guest on a hunting party’s private car, but she ends up losing her luggage when the car is detached because of the drunken hunters’ rowdy behavior. She receives chivalrous assistance from fellow passenger J. D. Hackensacker III (Vallee), an eccentric millionaire who takes an immediate liking to her.

Hackensacker buys Gerry an extravagant wardrobe to replace her lost luggage and takes her the rest of the way to Palm Beach on his yacht to avoid the impropriety of his funding her railway passage. Once in Florida, Gerry becomes a guest at Hackensacker’s mansion, where she meets his man-crazy sister, the frequently divorced Princess Maud Centimillia (Astor). Not far behind is Tom, who has pursued his wife to Palm Beach. Gerry introduces him as her brother, Captain McGlue. The Princess sets her sights on the captain, while Hackensacker makes plans to marry Gerry. Gerry hopes to get the millionaire to fund her soon-to-be ex-husband’s airport project, but all Tom wants is her as his wife.

"The Palm Beach Story" behind the scenes photo with Rudy Vallee and Claudette Colbert. (MovieStillsDB)
"The Palm Beach Story" behind the scenes photo with Rudy Vallee and Claudette Colbert. (MovieStillsDB)

A Crack in the Code

Non-Code films are a paradox, caught in a bizarre alternate universe. The most extreme examples seem either like flashbacks to the bawdy Pre-Code Era or eerie foreshadows of the risqueity which became the norm when Shurlock officially took over the PCA in October 1954. “The Palm Beach Story” is in the former category, largely because its stars were popular actors during the first days of talkies in the early 1930s. Before the PCA was formed in July 1934, filmmakers tried to draw audiences by making movies increasingly daring. The results remain shocking even today.

The basic premise of “The Palm Beach Story” seems more Pre-Code than Code. An attractive young woman claims that she can use her womanly wiles to get wherever and whatever she wants. She decides to leave her husband after determining that being a vamp will be more profitable than being a wife. Since it is technically a Code film, Gerry uses her wits instead of her body, unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s title character in "Baby Face" (1933). However, Gerry implies that her attractive figure has a lot to do with her power over men, saying that she’s received attentions from friends’ fathers and police officers since age twelve.

The most non-Code-ish things about this film is its flippant, disrespectful attitude toward marriage. The holy state of matrimony, which the Code said must be upheld, is treated as a loose, impermanent arrangement which can easily be dissolved, as it is today. This attitude begins with Gerry but is really perpetuated by Princess Maud. She has been married so many times, even she has lost count. Barely divorced from her last husband, she already has a new European suitor, Toto (Sig Arno), whom she treats like a pesky lap dog. She quickly forgets him when she sees Captain McGlue, whom she begins hotly pursuing. Princess Maud also delivers most of the suggestive lines; it’s clear that this character only thinks about one thing.

"The Palm Beach Story" lobby card from 1942. (MovieStillsDB)
"The Palm Beach Story" lobby card from 1942. (MovieStillsDB)

A Racy Reminder

Artistically, “The Palm Beach Story” is quite entertaining. It has an excellent cast and an interesting premise. Certain parts of it are very funny, although the humor includes a bit too much innuendo and goofy slapstick comedy for my taste. It’s interesting how any lapse in stringent Code-enforcement tended to render films silly rather than clever and genuinely funny. I think it’s because the PCA’s process of enforcing the Code, when done properly, led to more thought and care throughout production, which made the final film better overall.

This is one of the best examples I can offer to illustrate what a big impact Joe Breen’s leave of absence from the PCA had on film quality. In many cases, it’s almost more of a general feeling than a plethora of Code violations. That feeling is real, however, and it offers the answer to the biggest conjecture about the Code: why did it lose its influence over Hollywood?

If you want to watch a romantic comedy with an all-star cast which reveals a lot about Hollywood history, I recommend “The Palm Beach Story.” As a Non-Code film, it illustrates the reason why the Code became ineffective over ten years later. Whenever Geoffrey Shurlock was in charge of the PCA, films violated the Code, whether for a day, a year, or permanently.

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She is launching Cinballera Entertainment this summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.