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Film Nerd Bill Hader Goes Deep on Preston Sturges and The Palm Beach Story

Photo: Louis Fisher/Corbis

One of the greatest, wildest comedies ever made, Preston Sturges’s 1942 classic The Palm Beach Story, hits Criterion today in a beautiful new edition packed with extras. The story of a husband and wife (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) who, having hit a rough financial patch, agree to separate but then are thrust back together after she heads to Florida and begins to romance a wealthy playboy (Rudy Vallee), the film is remarkable for its inventive, freewheeling story line; it’s the kind of movie that can digress into a 20-minute tangent about a gun-happy hunting club wreaking havoc on a passenger train without batting an eye. One of the most intriguing extras on Criterion’s edition features SNL’s Bill Hader, who is a huge Preston Sturges fan, discussing what makes the film so special and even reading through parts of the script. We spoke to him about his love of Preston Sturges and screwball comedy.

How did you get involved with this Criterion of The Palm Beach Story?
Three or four years ago, I went to their offices. I recorded one of those closet videos — you know, where you go into the Criterion Closet, which is, like, the crown jewel of movie nerds. They have every Criterion disc in there, even some that are out of print now. And they say, “Go nuts. You can take some home.” After that, I just kept in touch with Susan [Arosteguy], who produced this DVD, and she said, “We need someone for a Preston Sturges one.” And I love Preston Sturges. She said, “We’re doing The Palm Beach Story. We don’t want to do a normal interview. We’re trying to make it something a little different, so if you have any ideas … ” And it turns out, Preston Sturges dictated all of his scripts. And in his published scripts, you can find all of his script notes. He would sit in an office with a secretary and just, like, talk out the script to himself. He’d just dictate the whole screenplay. And I thought that was interesting, so we kind of took that angle on it.

When you think about the way Sturges must have dictated — and you get into this a little bit in your intro — there’s an improv quality to it.
Yeah, there really is. But he was improvising with himself! One of the nice things about improv is you have someone else. He would just basically improvise with himself. And I always wondered what his relationship with his secretary was like. It was a male secretary, and I always wondered if Sturges was there trying to impress him. I remember reading Francis Ford Coppola say that he dictated some of the script for The Conversation and he knew the woman who was transcribing it, so he was kind of dictating the script for her, trying to impress her. You know what I mean? Hoping that she liked it. So, I wonder if Preston Sturges was doing a similar thing with his secretary.

It would actually make a fun movie, if you think about it.
Yeah, yeah. That is a fun movie. This whole body of this amazing work was all basically for this one dude, and to impress this one guy. It would be funny if the male secretary was really hard to please, doesn’t have a good sense of humor. Or maybe he didn’t want to lose his job, so it was this weird miscommunication.

When did you first get exposed to The Palm Beach Story, and Preston Sturges in general?
I found out about Preston Sturges when I read an interview with one of the Coen Brothers where they said they grew up liking Preston Sturges movies … or maybe, it was someone saying that Coen Brothers films like Hudsucker Proxy were trying to be like Frank Capra or Preston Sturges movies. I knew who Frank Capra was, but I didn’t know who Preston Sturges was. So, I went out and tried to find some of his movies. But I actually saw The Palm Beach Story for the first time when I first started at SNL. I lived on the Upper West Side and at Symphony Space, on the weekends, they would play movies. And they played Palm Beach Story on one Sunday.

You also draw attention to this in your intro. Even in Preston Sturges’s body of work, Palm Beach Story is unique, because it feels so freeform. It just constantly goes off in these crazy directions.
You do get a sense that he was easily bored. [Laughs.]

At this point, he’s also probably at the height of his powers. He’s won an Oscar, and he maybe feels the confidence to do something that is actually really risky.
He has kind of the power to do whatever he wants. I think some people get worried. They get a lot of power, and then they might try a personal project or something, and then it doesn’t do as well as their popular project. So they go back to the popular thing, to make the studio some money, so they can ingratiate themselves and make, hopefully, another personal project or whatever. I don’t think Preston Sturges had that kind of a mind. I think he did whatever the hell he wanted.

What’s your favorite part of the film?
That’s a good question. That’s a tough one. Let me think about that for a second … When I think about The Palm Beach Story, to be honest, I think about the ending, because it’s so fucking weird. I remember when I saw it for the first time. When the ending happened, I kind of went, “What?” It was almost like seeing a French New Wave movie. I was like, “Wait, can you do that?” I didn’t know if it was bad storytelling, or if he had just broken the mold.

[Note: This is a spoiler, but at the end of The Palm Beach Story, the cast’s various romantic entanglements are easily, and suddenly, solved by the revelation that Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert’s characters both have identical twins.]

When I first saw it — on video — I had to rewind it. “Wait, no. What happened? He didn’t do that, did he?”
What, they have twins?? Wait, is that like a forties thing? Like everyone in the forties would have found that funny? Like, it was Twin Fever, or was it kind of a topical joke at the time? I kept thinking, “Either this guy’s smarter than me, or it was a case of, “I wrote myself into a corner. Ah, they’re all twins! They’re both twins. Fuck you!”

But some of the greatest comedy endings have that quality, right? Like Some Like It Hot, with “Nobody’s perfect.”
Some Like It Hot at least follows logic, though. It’s not a weird deus ex machina where it’s like, “Well, they’re both twins.” It’s not just that he’s a twin, she’s also a twin — which has never been even introduced through the whole movie and it’s such a weird thing. But then, when I revisited the movie, I was like, “Oh, it’s cool.” But the first time I saw it, it definitely threw me for a major loop.

I think the way the film starts kind of helps that, too. The beginning is so crazy and frenetic, but then the movie completely discards that opening. So, by the end, when you get this totally random, crazy ending, there’s still a strange kind of unity to it.
Yeah, I agree. All of Preston’s movies have this weird kind of unity, though. You get the sense that he allows himself to take the kinds of structural liberties a novelist can take. And you think, a movie is all about structure. It’s got to have a time limit to it. So, it is a bit like putting a chair together. There can be a lot of different variations, but at the end of the day you have to be able to sit on it and it has to hold your body weight. But Preston Sturges’s chair looks fucking crazy.

Obviously, screwball is a kind of tradition that existed during a certain period of American film. But do you feel like there are people keeping that screwball spirit alive today?
I think screwball finds its way into everything. I always associate screwball with a romantic story, you know? You see that in a lot of television and movies now. Some of the best comedy on TV, Parks and Rec and 30 Rock, and then movies like what Judd Apatow is doing … I always associate those with screwball comedy.

I thought your wife Maggie Carey’s movie, The To-Do List, had a bit of that quality to it.
Oh yeah, that has a very screwball quality — especially the last act of it, with all the misunderstandings. Totally, it’s a screwball movie, and she loves those movies. She’s a huge fan of His Girl Friday. That’s one of our favorite movies. Structurally, all those misunderstandings and everything leading up to a giant blowup is always fun to watch. If you think about it, Billy Wilder’s movies were these perfectly structured mouse traps, and Preston Sturges does, like, the opposite. It was almost like someone saw one of those other movies and he was drunkenly trying to retell it. It doesn’t make sense, but in a weird way it’s even more charming and funny, adds a kind of looseness to it. “I don’t know … This happened … I think.”

Sturges has such a great sense of satire, too — in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, especially. And he also could go really dark, which I like. Unfaithfully Yours is another example of a movie I thought was wonderful, but Rex Harrison’s violence that he’s thinking about perpetrating against his wife is really horrific; it’s actually quite hard to watch. But then what’s so perfect about that movie is that people can relate: I’ve never had violent fantasies like that, but there are times you feel like you’ve been slighted and you have fantasies about how you’d like to get revenge or something.  And then seeing how this guy actually tries to perpetrate his fantasy and what a fucking idiot he is, how none of it would work, is such a simple premise and just so fun to watch.

That’s the other thing about Sturges. Maybe that’s the trick to it — it was very character-based and very simple when you looked at it. People like Billy Wilder and Frank Capra would really work on structuring things to where everything made sense. But I felt like Preston Sturges knew these people. They were real people; they lived in him somehow and he would just go, “Well, here’s what they would do.” And maybe they’re dictating the movie. All of the characters are just dictating what happened. It really feels like he doesn’t have any control over them. So, maybe he knew they were twins from the beginning and he’s a genius and I’m an idiot. I don’t know.

Film Nerd Bill Hader on Preston Sturges