April 17, 2011 marks the 100th Anniversary of the Town of Palm Beach, which was entirely coincidental in my choosing to write about The Palm Beach Story for this particular post. I'd been wanting to do a Preston Sturges film for some time, and in fact, traded some emails with Sturges' son, Tom, who is a friend of a friend. Tom was able to get me a photocopy of the menu from The Players, the restaurant Sturges owned during his time in Hollywood. Plan on seeing a dish from that menu in a future Sturges movie posting. However, there is only one dish that would be appropriate for The Palm Beach Story - watch the movie, kids! - and so it is the Texas Wieinie.
I love this movie so much, I can't begin to put it into words. I have to put the credit for this on a cousin of mine who was a fan of this film and we watched it together one night many years ago and that was it for me. Though I'll say there is no way for me to choose one of Sturges' classics as my favorite, but this is the first I'm giving the Chef du Cinema treatment to, so that should say something.
The Palm Beach Story is available for purchase through Amazon, and can be rented or streamed via NetFlix.
Gerry: "You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything.... [S]ex always has something to do with it, dear. From the time you're about so big and wondering why your girlfriends' fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden - nothing wrong - just an overture to the opera that's coming.... but from then on you get it from taxi drivers, bell boys, cops, delicatessen dealers, visiting noblemen, and I even think I got it from a corpse once... at a funeral."
Tom: "Got what?"
Gerry: "The look."
Let's start here. Writer/director Preston Sturges wrote that The Palm Beach Story "was conceived as an illustration of my theory of the aristocracy of beauty," which he summed up with Gerry's first sentence of the lines quoted above.
Now in one scene early in the movie, Gerry (having decided to leave her struggling inventor husband because she believes she is better at looking good than being a good wife, and has cooked up a scheme to unburden him by heading to Palm Beach for a divorce, then find herself a millionaire to marry, who will thusly fund her then-ex-husband's invention and make him rich) manages to con some wealthy men at Grand Central station to buy her a train ticket to Palm Beach, but in the middle of the night, she becomes separated (the reasons are too long to get into - just watch the movie) from what money she has, as well as her clothes and train ticket, when the rear of the train is disconnected and left behind as the train rolls on.
Now for most of writers, thinking of such a plot twist as the disconnected train would be a matter of squeezing the creative juices of their imagination. For Preston Sturges, he needed only to tap into his childhood memories. For it is not hard to conceive that Sturges would have become one of the great creators (if not the king) of what we call Screwball Comedies, as his life was more mad than any madcap adventure and more screwy than any screwball comedy.
We're now back in 1907 and Preston's mother Mary (who had so far made it out of poverty and a first marriage, was currently living in Dresden, Germany, with 9-year old Preston, and soon to divorce her second husband - one of Chicago's richest capitalists) had just refused to marry her latest paramour, a Mexican composer. She quickly packed up Preston, her maid, a store-full of luggage, her cage-full of canaries, her French obscenity spouting parrot, and her 3 barking dogs, and carted them all on a train to Paris to reconnect with her best friend, the infamous dancer Isadora Duncan.
At the dinner hour, the three humans went to the dining car to eat. Afterwards, attempting to return to their compartments, they discovered that rear of the train had been disconnected at Cologne whilst they were eating - along with their tickets, money, luggage, canaries, parrot, and barking dogs. Arriving in Berlin, they were told they couldn't leave the train without tickets, but without money they couldn't buy new tickets to get off the train, nor could they get a hotel room, nor eat, nor buy new tickets to return to Cologne and collect their things. Mary threatened the stationmaster offering to call her friend, the sister of the King of Germany, which terrified the man, who let them leave, which then allowed them to sneak back on another train to Cologne to retrieve their stuff.
Between 1940 and 1944 Preston Sturges directed his seven great films. Starting with The Great McGinty and Christmas in July in 1940; The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels in 1941; The Palm Beach Story in 1942; and ending with The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero in 1944. He had written some beforehand, and he only made a few films afterwards, none of which ever came close to the genius of those few four furious years. "The only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood is that I ever had one at all," Sturges noted. Douglas McGrath wrote an article in Vanity Fair entitled, "The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges," in which he muses about the strange "combination of alchemy, talent, and luck [that] had existed to make those years so fruitful."
"Directing was easy for me," Preston Sturges wrote, "because I was a writer-director and did all my directing when I wrote the screenplay. It was probably harder for a regular director. He probably had to read the script the night before shooting started and do a little homework."
At the time it was unheard of to be a writer/director, but he got to do it anyway. But his talent and his demands didn't make him the right friends in the Industry. Also, in 1940, Sturges was 42 years old. He was not some fresh-faced kid eager to please his bosses, but a middle-aged man who wasn't so concerned about money (he had made fortunes and lost them more than once by now), nor felt he needed to make compromises with his vision. Though he did state that he wanted to do good commercial work and make the studio money, McGrath suggests the reason he was essentially banished from making films was because, "Sturges was an American original, which is a dangerous thing to be. While America itself is an original idea, and while America claims always to value the individual over the state, what America likes best is something that can be reproduced the maximum number of times as cheaply as possible with the least amount of interference from its creator. It is a commercial culture above all else, and nothing threatens it more than an individual who is irreplaceable.... And so he was replaced." I would say he was probably a mad genius. He and Sherlock Holmes would have had interesting conversations with each other.
Let's go back to the movie for a moment. Tom, the inventing husband, has designed something so radical, that he can't find any investors for it. We learn from his early exchange with Gerry that he could have had some pretty good management jobs in various businesses, but he is committed to what seems a pretty hair-brained scheme. The idea is to build a huge mesh, made of steel, which would be connected via the peaks of skyscapers, and essentially catch planes like some giant spider web. This way we wouldn't need airports outside of cities, and people could disembark right in downtown Metropolis.
If you agree that this sounds maybe dangerous (what would happen if the mesh broke and a plane descended into busy streets?), kind of hair-brained, and certainly radical, then consider this - this was not yet another plot device he cooked up for The Palm Beach Story. In fact, "Sturges himself had suggested such a device to Paris Singer [heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and the father of Isadora Duncan's 2nd child] a dozen years earlier, and as late as 1948 he was still petitioning the Regional Planning Commission in Los Angeles for permission to establish something like it for helicopters so he could have deliveries of fresh Atlantic seafood to the Players [the Hollywood restaurant he owned]. The issued died, rejected by residents, the Civil Aeronautics Board and the sheriff's aerial squad." As I was saying... a mad genius. (Though, not all his ideas were so cockeyed. He founded the Sturges Engineering Company in 1935 to manufacture a vibrationless diesel engine which became quite successful during WWII thanks to government contracts.)
The Palm Beach Story was initially titled Is Marriage Necessary? which was rejected by the Hays Office (see other posts discussing them) then Is That Bad? but Sturges realized that latter title would make his critics job too easy if it bombed. He continued to battle the Hays Office in preproduction as they felt the script had too many "sex suggestive situations...and dialogue," and that the fictional character of millionaire John D. Hackensacker III might be considered an insult to real life millionaire John D. Rockerfeller, Jr.
Sturges tried placate them, but they continued to have issues well into production. "As you know," a Hays office official wrote him, "the industry at all times has tried to avoid giving offense to the American public and particularly to recognized civic and religious groups.... Of late, they have let it be known that stories centering around the theme of a light treatment of marriage and divorce...has been a source of serious complaint.... we earnestly request that you... help minimize what might be called 'constant irritation' of a sensitive public."
Undaunted by the censors, Sturges pressed on, also raising the ire of Paramount as the budget began skyrocketing due to the lavish set he was building for the home of Maude, aka Princess Centimilla, sister of John D., the millionaire Gerry finds herself indebted to after losing all her stuff on the train.
"I'm not trying to imitate CB DeMille," Sturges defended himself, referring to the director of big-budget epics. "I am [doing nothing] more than slightly imitating my former mother-in-law.... [She] had a place like that. Why, she used to receive guests in the bathroom!"
Once again, Maude's character was less fiction than fact. Sturges' former mother-in-law was none other than Marjorie Merriweather Post (Close Hutton Davies May) - who married four times and was one of the wealthiest women in America. Post indeed lived in exactly such a lavish home in Palm Beach as recreated for the movie, which she dubbed Mar-A-Lago. It is now owned by Donald Trump, who restored it, lived in it for 10 years, and has since turned it into an exclusive private club. "Millionaires are funny," Sturges once wrote.
The film was released in the midst of World War II, but the public took to it as a welcome diversion from the troubles of war. It didn't win any awards, but has held its place as one of the funniest movies ever made.
I could go on, but there are still other Sturges films I'd like to write about here at Chef du Cinema. So, we'll just stop here for now and continue the story with another Sturges film at another date.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT:
It is a strange world we find ourselves in which those who spend their lives accumulating wealth are worshiped above those who spend their lives accumulating experiences or knowledge. And there is no place associated with worship of wealth as historic in America as Palm Beach, Florida.
Back in 1513, the Spanish explorer Ponce de León first arrived on Florida's beaches in search of gold and the fabled "Fountain of Youth." At the time there were about 20,000 Native Americans living in South Florida. By 1763, when the British took over the territory from the Spanish, "most of the native population had died from warfare, enslavement, or European diseases."
In 1876, Henry M. Flagler, who, with John D. Rockerfeller, founded Standard Oil, first visited South Florida and was quite taken by it. In 1885, he was less interested in the day-to-day operation of the oil company, and decided to buy some land in Florida and focus his energies on developing it. By 1890, Standard Oil controlled 88% of the refined oil flows in the United States. But then in 1892, the states and federal government were forcing the monopoly to break up into smaller pieces. Meanwhile, Flagler was buying up pieces of what would be the Florida East Coast Railway and more land, and he became known as the Father of Miami Beach and the Founder of Palm Beach. In 1894, he opened The Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach which he followed with his Palm Beach Inn (aka The Breakers) a few years later.
After World War I, there was an unprecedented boom in South Florida real estate speculation. The war had begat "an increase and redistribution of wealth as America had never known. Millionaires were made over night. Thousands upon thousands who had never expected to be rich found themselves with means enough to retire on their incomes" and many were very pleased with themselves in buying a chunk of Florida real estate at ridiculously over-inflated prices. By the mid-1920's, the prices sank and fortunes were lost.
Nevertheless, Palm Beach remained a place for the rich & famous to relax & cavort. As noted here: "Miami Beach soon became famous as the new home - at least the new winter home - of the 'nice' millionaires (as opposed to Palm Beach, already established as the home of the 'naughty' millionaires)." Mar-A-Lago, the mansion built between 1924 and 1927 by Preston Sturges' ex-mother-in-law (see above), was just one of many giant playgrounds built by the wealthy. One can be assured that Sturges encountered a few of these "naughty millionaires" during his visits there, which would later inspire him to create The Palm Beach Story.
It was Paris Singer (an old friend of Sturges' - see above) who first brought architect Addison Mizner to Palm Beach in 1918, who, "in setting down the Mediterranean Revival style, established Palm Beach's unique look and feel." While Mizner built many memorable buildings, he is also remembered today as one of the town's "unique citizens" who always traveled with his "special friends." As detailed at Roadside America, "The more famous of the admittedly obscure pair [was] Johnnie Brown, the Human Monkey. Johnnie Brown was the pet spider monkey of Addison Mizner.... Johnnie Brown would sit on one of Addison's shoulders, a parrot on the other." The monkey's grave, is one of only two marked graves in the town of Palm Beach.
The following is excerpted from an article written in the late 1930's (at the link it says mid-1930's):
"It is really not necessary for one to be either a millionaire, a social light or a celebrity in order to visit Palm Beach either as a transient hotel guest or as an all-winter resident. It is merely that Palm Beach has a permanent clientele, and is largely owned by people who, while not undemocratic, are in a position where they can afford to be 'choosy' about their neighbors. They prefer to be surrounded by people who at least know how to wear their clothes and have good table manners.... Palm Beach is, in short, a resort for those who can afford luxury and who know how to adapt themselves to the manners and customs of well-bred society."
"Distinctive shops abound in Palm Beach. Shopping alleys with colorful Spanish names offer an Old World touch and a continental atmosphere. Palm-lined drives follow one another in profusion. Tropical trails, from which vehicular traffic is barred, are the routes followed by those who ride in 'afromobiles,' or Negro-propelled wheel-chairs, or on their own bicycles."
Now, while the "afromobiles," we hope, have been retired to history, Palm Beach today remains a special place for special people.
"The town has changed for the better," said Shannon Donnelly, society reporter for the Palm Beach Daily News in 2001. "The middle crust is more accepting now, although the upper is still difficult. But an Internet millionaire who has cashed in at thirty-five is pretty hard to intimidate."
"I'm the Weinie King! I invented the Texas Weinie. Lay off 'em, though... you'll live longer."
Like so many dishes, there is some mystery as to who was the first person to call a hot dog with a Greek-influenced chili sauce on it a Texas Weiner.
First, to clear up any lexicographic confusion, in 1867, the first hot dogs were being sold at Coney Island in New York. The little dog took around 30 years to walk all the way to New Jersey where it changed its name, as many Europen immigrants at the time did, from "wiener" to "weiner," then donned a cowboy hat and claimed to be Texan. Though some of the family tree still go by "wiener."
Both the cities of Altoona and Patterson, New Jersey, claim to be the birthplace of the Texas weiner even though, according to the time line, Texas Hot Weiners opened in Altoona in 1918, and Patterson's Texas Wieners in 1923.
According to the folks in Patterson, "The secret all started in 1923 when a gentleman by the name of Stephanos Mandrohalos (changed to Stephen Miller when he arrived at Ellis Island) migrated from Greece and opened a hot dog restaurant at 2031 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia, which became known as “The Greeks."
The sauce is similar to the one in Cincinnati-style Chili (typically served over spaghetti), and also related to the Coney Island Dog popular in Michigan, but not to be confused with the Michigan Hot Dog popular in Upstate New York. They all, like the Texas weiner, seem to have been created by Greek immigrants.
According to the folks at H0td0g.com, in 2003, a 16-foot hot dog made in Chicago became the world's longest hot dog. But then in October of that year, a 34.4-foot hot dog made in South Africa stole the record away. Chicagoans fought back and in 2004 retrieved the title with their 37.2-foot dog. In 2005, a 57.5-foot dog in Columbus, Ohio took the title, then lost it in February 2006, to a 65.6-foot hot dog in Perth, Australia. The record didn't even last 6 months down under when a 107.5-foot weiner made in Pendleton, Oregon in July 2006 brought it back to the USA. But the current Guinness World Record, since 2007, belongs to the Japanese who made a 196.8-foot hot dog.
Now I have to admit that I don't care for chili dogs. I like chili-cheese hamburgers and chili-cheese fries, but I am a New York City traditionalist when it comes to my hot dogs. I prefer them with brown mustard, sauerkraut, brown onions, and relish. When we were kids we'd call them "dirty water dogs" as they probably sat in a pool of lukewarm water at the corner stand for at least 12 hours before we'd get them. But, because I have to eat what I make here, I did and actually enjoyed it. But don't eat too many... "you'll live longer," as the Texas Weinie King warns in the movie. As always, cook, watch, eat and enjoy.....
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Instead of the usual photo, we have a great poster/print that is available to spice up your home with, from artist Hawk Krall. Check out this and other hot dog prints for sale - here!
4 hot dogs (either Hebrew National or Sabrett brand)
4 hot dog rolls (don't get all fancy here, just your basic bun)
canola oil, for frying
1/2 cup chopped onions, for garnish
yellow or brown mustard
For the Chili Sauce:
1 pound ground beef (80/20 or 85/15)
2/3 cup onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons ketchup
1/2 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Brown ground beef with onions and garlic. If you have a lot of grease, drain most of it, but if you use 80/20 or 85/15 it should be so much. Smash ground beef as much as possible - you don't want any chunks - as it browns.
Add tomato paste, ketchup, and water. Stir. Add spices and stir. Keep at low simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour, occasionally stirring. Adjust seasonings to taste.
(I've read that some suggest letting sauce cool and then blend to make it extra fine, but that's optional.)
When sauce is done, fry the hot dogs in oil and let drain on paper.
To assemble: Put hot dog in the bun, slather some chili sauce on it, squirt some mustard, and top with chopped onions. Eat at your own risk....
The Official Preston Sturges Site
The Essentials: The Palm Beach Story, by Paul Stafford @ TCM
The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges, by Douglas McGrath, Vanity Fair, May 2010
City of Palm Beach Centennial Website
Paterson's Hot Texas Wiener Tradition, US Library of Congress American Memory Collection
Hot Dog of the Week: Texas Weiners, by Hawk Krall @ SeriousEats
H0TD0G.com, "Your Complete Hot Dog Resource"
The Palm Beach Story DVD
Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, by Donald Spoto
Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges
Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges
Great American Hot Dog Book, The: Recipes and Side Dishes from Across America, by Becky Mercuri