Subliminal messages in The Palm Beach Story
It is important to note that the movie was set in 1942, in the middle of a World War when tensions were high and those in power would do just about anything in the name of National Security and defense. A director was seemingly forced to suppress his dialogues and messages to a level where it did not offend the masses for fear of being censored. As a result, the messages in the movie were largely subliminal, with hints to the triumph of capitalism over traditionalist approaches to life and how those traditions were in the process of being overthrown in pursuit of worldly riches.
What the Palm Beach Story portrayed was in effect a convergence of the ideals that make for a happy lifestyle, be it importance of family and love, going to lengths for the interest of your partner, or holding one’s own for family values in the face of materialism. The subliminal messages are of course, very evident when the drunken rich millionaires tear the inside of the train booth down with their guns and get away with it for quite some time until they actually barged out of their room into the rest of the train where the conductors take charge and set them straight (Sturges, 1942). This scene could be interpreted in a multitude of ways; in an economic sense, where the rich millionaires pose as capitalists who, because of their wealth, are allowed to get away with a lot more than an average person would, signify the looming presence of large wealthy companies over the common folk.
Naturally, Geraldine, the attractive female proposition everyone lusted after, serves to demonstrate the changing mindset of the era, where the general population was increasingly drifting towards acquiring materialistic gains at the expense of more intimate and family-oriented benefits, such as maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s spouse and making up for the lack of a higher standard of living with love and affection. This was especially evident in the first instance when Tom gives chase to Geraldine as she tries to run away, exclaiming “but I love you and you love me and that’s all that matters” (Sturges, 1942), suggesting the growing restlessness of the wider society to find love outside one’s family in more material things.
Of course, one can argue the opposite that Geraldine only left her husband in order to find a pawn that would enable her to procure money for her husband, whom she loved. And even though the crowd loves happy endings, on a realistic front it does not sound like a fair deal for Tom to have been subjected to the pain of seeing his wife in someone else’s more financially capable arms. Sturges cleverly dubbed all of these settings under the umbrella of comedy so the audience receives the right messages and are still greeted with a happy ending, the kind somewhat necessary for a movie to churn out a healthy profit.
As is apparent, a comedy’s purpose is to project ideas and messages of this sort in a humorous way, in order to alleviate their seriousness so that the interpreters are persuaded to reach their own conclusions. Thus, Sturges crafted the whole leaving scene in this manner, starting with Gerry writing the note while Tom sleeps in the background and pinching him wide awake as she tries to stick it to his blanket, to the point where she finally boards the train, falsely accusing Tom of being a molester along the way so the police would help her escape. If this was not a comedy, this whole picture could be vastly disturbing (1942). The build up to this leaving scene was very suggestive of the aforementioned aspect of society, in its pursuit of wealth and worldly riches in order to achieve happiness. Gerry was constantly trying to persuade Tom to be practical instead of noble, up till a point where she exclaims “When love is gone there is nothing left, only admiration and respect” (Sturges, 1942). This dialogue led up to a romantic scene only for the audience to catch Gerry in the next scene preparing to leave Tom. The message here was clear in one respect, that love can only do so much in the face of financial burden, and true happiness lies only after acquiring a certain degree of wealth.
More was noticeable in the follow up scenes after Gerry flees when she finally landed upon the man she misjudged to be middle class travelling in lower berth. Of course, this is indicative of the stereotypes that exist amongst society in general, stereotypes that could very easily be proven wrong, as happened later since that same guy turned out to be a very wealthy individual. This is a positive message delivered to those considered to be elite and those that look up to them, that a person’s status is not to be judged strictly by his outer shell and much of the reliance should be placed on what lies underneath his skin in order to make a final judgment on his character.
Sturges rounds up the subliminal messaging well, as the ending very carefully provides that the pursuit of material pleasures is nowhere near the same as placing complete reliance on love. Tom ends up getting Gerry back, where as she realizes that she could only truly be satisfied with the person she loves regardless of their financial position. However, the element of capitalism does seep into the picture as the wealthy man Gerry had befriended discovers of her twin and all of them get married, signifying how men with power truly end up with what they want.
Sturges, P. (Director). (1942). The Palm Beach Story [Motion Picture].