– Frank Sinatra in “Pal Joey” (1957)
By Michael Hadley
A 1957 adaption of the successful Broadway musical, Pal Joey is a prime example of old school filmmaking that placed greater emphasis on star power, glamour and classic songs than realism or innovation to attract audiences. The filmmakers conveniently glossed over the more unsavory aspects of the title character to make him palatable to mainstream audiences and position the film favorably at the boxoffice. In spite of the tampering, Pal Joey remains a highly entertaining musical thanks to a top drawer cast, superlative songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and the confident direction of George Sidney.
The story originated as an epistolary novel by John O’Hara that was printed in the late 1930s as a series of letters in The New Yorker. The author recounted the story of an ambitious “second-rate nightclub entertainer” named Joey Evans amidst the backdrop of 1930‘s Chicago. The storyline pivots around Joey’s opportunistic involvement with a wealthy socialite who helps him achieve fame as a nightclub entertainer. O’Hara presents Joey as a rakish charmer who isn’t above using people to get what he wants. The series was eventually adapted into a formal novel that became the basis for a 1940 musical that enjoyed a successful 10 month run and a total of 374 performances on Broadway. The risqué subject matter, however, kept it from receiving a film treatment until the late 1950’s when the exacting rigors of the Hays Code were beginning to unravel.
– Sources: IMDB, Wikipedia and The New York Times.
Was anyone better suited to play Joey than Frank Sinatra?
By 1957, Frank Sinatra had corralled his personal demons and established himself as a major movie star following his epic comeback in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity. At the time, no one was more capable of selling a song than Frank and the results in this film are stunning. He deservedly got the best of the Rodgers and Hart tunes and catapults them to the rafters. Always an immensely natural actor, Sinatra makes Joey a three dimensional hustler who convincingly romances Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak at the same time. You never doubt for a second that his Joey Evans possesses the swagger and the stamina to make both ladies very happy.
Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak provide many alluring moments in their respective roles. Hayworth creates a convincing socialite with a dubious past who falls for Joey against her better instincts, while Novak brings a spirited naiveté to her role as Linda, a principled chorus girl who wants to ascend on her own terms.
In case you’re wondering, there wasn’t a trace of acrimony among the principal actors when it came to billing. Sinatra graciously deferred top billing to Rita Hayworth by simply telling the Columbia Studio executives that “Rita Hayworth is Columbia”.
– SOURCE: Rita Hayworth: A Photographic Retrospective by Caren Roberts-Frenzel.
Rita Hayworth gives a full-bodied performance as socialite Vera Prentice-Simpson in every sense of the word. Her character, a prominent member of San Francisco society, was formerly a “striptease artist” and this gives her the opportunity to perform a terrific “bump and grind” number called Zip. Rita brings her trademark glamour and verve to the song, as she suggestively pantomimes a modest strip routine to the music. The segment is very tame by today’s standards but, as she demonstrated in Gilda, Rita only needs Rita to tantalize an audience. She plays the part with her usual aplomb and navigates the fine line of romantic desperation with unerring skill. Hayworth always managed to inject a distinct thread of vulnerability in every character she played and her portrayal of Vera is no exception. In her capable hands, Vera is shrewd yet touchingly vulnerable without lapsing into the cliche of an aging diva clinging to better days.
Her showcase number is the venerable torch song Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered which she sings the morning after she and Joey begin their love affair. Director George Sidney lovingly photographs her in a sexy yellow negligee as she lounges in a rumpled bed of satin sheets with an elaborately tufted gold headboard behind her. Female sensuality has rarely felt so natural on screen. As in Gilda, her singing voice in Pal Joey was dubbed, this time, by Jo Ann Greer. Nevertheless, Rita was a natural at projecting the earthier aspects of her attraction to Joey with utter class. No one has ever purred the line “my heart is unzipped again” with such piercing sensuality. All this, mind you, without a trace of vulgarity and only a brief suggestion of nudity.
It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing
Sinatra is equally at home singing on stage and portraying the seamier side of Joey Evans. His biggest dramatic challenge in this film is to be convincing as a second-rate singer who needs help from “a society dame” to become successful. As you would expect, his trademark smooth vocals are on full display in such classic Rodgers and Hart numbers as I Could Write A Book, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and The Lady Is A Tramp. It isn’t a stretch to argue that the film paradoxically comes alive and grinds to a halt whenever Sinatra takes hold of a great song. Put simply, when Frank starts to sing, everything else recedes into the background and time pretty much stands still. His musical numbers alone make the film worthwhile. Fittingly, he won a Golden Globe award for Best Musical Performance By An Actor for his work.
Sinatra was such a natural actor that his scenes with Hayworth and Kim Novak are a joy to watch. Playing opposite Hayworth, he tends to hold back and slow down his line readings to allow the audience more time to take it all in and give Hayworth her proper due. He does the opposite with Novak by raising the energy level and pace of their scenes. He seemed to intuitively know how to inject more energy into his interactions with the relatively inexperienced Novak.
Kim Novak strips, Frank Sinatra worries and Rita Hayworth sees red.
Kim Novak – The Mouse in the Spotlight
Novak was the protege of Columbia Studios head honcho, Harry Cohn, and her press agents were promoting her as the natural successor to Hayworth as the studio’s number one sex goddess. Anyone hoping for drama or conflict between the two leading ladies had to look elsewhere. Novak commented many times over the years about how gracious and kind Hayworth was to her; “Rita Hayworth was a very lovely woman to work with. She was very nice and we got along great”.
Director George Sidney took great care to film Novak’s solo musical number, My Funny Valentine, in a simple manner that required little movement on her part. He opens the shot with her singing (dubbed by Trudy Erwin) on stage with a large heart-shaped valentine framing her. This is her character’s first solo number, which Joey has engineered without making Vera aware. Midway through the song, Vera appears at the top of the nightclub stairs and slowly makes her way beside Joey, who is transfixed with Novak’s youthful beauty and singing. Joey’s unfortunate catch-phrase for women is “mice” and Vera is not thrilled to discover that she has been replaced in his affections by a much younger “mouse” who is being groomed for stardom behind her back. On the surface, this set-up seems nothing more than a familiar romantic cliche, but Dorothy Kingsley’s sharp writing, Sidney’s astute direction and the performances make it feel much fresher than you would expect.
Although her role lacks the complexity of the other stars, Novak acquits herself nicely here. She has many wonderful moments and is completely believable as the innocent ingenue who struggles to make it without compromising her values.
Academy Awards Best Art Direction – Set Decoration: Walter Holscher, William Kiernan and Louis Diage. Nominated. Best Costume Design: Jean Louis. Nominated. Best Film Editing: Viola Lawrence and Jerome Thoms. Nominated. Best Sound, Recording: John P. Livadary (Columbia SSD). Nominated.
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture Actor – Musical / Comedy: Frank Sinatra. WON. Best Motion Picture – Musical / Comedy: Nominated.
Laurel Awards Top Male Musical Performance: Frank Sinatra. WON. Top Musical: Second Place. Top Music Director: Morris Stoloff. WON.
Writers Guild of America Award For Screenplay, Best Written American Musical: Dorothy Kingsley. Nominated.
SOURCES: Wikipedia and IMDB.
Another Perspective – Original NY Times Review By A.H. Weiler, October 28, 1957.
Pal Joey – from Broadway to Hollywood
“Pal Joey” should have no regrets in having made a trip, which could have been perilous, from Broadway to Hollywood if the richly tuneful and Technicolored evidence that was put on view at the Capitol on Saturday is any proof. The passage of time and Hollywood’s artisans have not laid heavy hands on John O’Hara’s resilient heel who is still as irresistible as cheese to the succession of dames he labels ‘mice’. Although Joey’s dialogue has been laundered somewhat, he bears no relation to Snow White. And, if the scene of his nightclub operations has been changed from Chicago to San Francisco and his talents switched from hoofing to warbling, no great harm has been done. For this “Pal Joey” company is performing with admirable gusto in a swiftly-moving, cheerful and adult musical play that is one of the season’s best.
The purists, who remember with good cause the original John O’Hara-Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart work, and its revival on Broadway and the road, as a sophisticated, unrelieved portrait of an unmitigated dastard, may take issue with the fact that “Joey” has grown a mite more benign with the passage of years. In the person of Frank Sinatra, even a myopic viewer can see a redeeming feature or two. While he has personal integrity, he is still no shining knight but a blandly smiling predatory type who is torn between a basic contempt for the women he has known in third-rate boîtes and the dawning of what turns out to be his first real love affair.
Although Rita Hayworth, the Nob Hill heiress and ex-striptease artist who succumbs to Joey’s charms and gives him the wherewithal for the rich life and the nightclub of his dreams, is presented as a widow rather than a married woman, it is still a realistically lucid relationship that is shown. Kim Novak, the undefiled “mouse” in the chorus for whom he falls, was a smaller bit part in the play but this, too, is not developed as a pure and simple romance. Joey gives up the vision of starring at his own “Chez Joey” club simply because, as he explains to the anxious Miss Hayworth, “nobody owns Joey but Joey.” And he accedes to the love offered by Miss Novak only after warning her that life with Joey could be a real problem.
The purist might also note that several songs from the original score have been dropped in favor of tunes from other Rodgers-Hart hit musicals. This frankly biased observer contends that this does not constitute short-changing the public. For example, there are “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “Funny Valentine” from “Babes in Arms”; “There’s a Small Hotel” from “On Your Toes” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” from “Too Many Girls.” They dovetail beautifully into Dorothy Kingsley’s script. Original numbers include the famed, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Zip,” “I Could Write a Book,” “What Is Man” and “That Terrific Rainbow.” Although the lyrics have been bowdlerized a mite, their general ideas come across charmingly. There is no doubt that this is largely Mr. Sinatra’s show. As the amiable grifter with an iron ego, he projects a distinctly bouncy likable personality into an unusual role. And his rendition of the top tunes, notably “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Small Hotel,” gives added luster to these indestructible standards.
He gets a professional assist from Miss Hayworth, who undoubtedly will be the envy of all women. As the red-haired charmer whom he finally rejects, she wears a succession of negligees and gowns that would make any couturier drool. And she has occasion to sing “Zip” with the uninhibited éclat of any burlesque queen. The blonde Miss Novak is decorative, too, as any red-blooded American boy will attest, but her subdued histrionics and singing are not nearly as convincing as her robust competition. Hank Henry deserves honorable mention as the gravel-voiced operator of the night club.
The views of San Francisco, where some of the film was shot under George Sidney’s taut direction, are picturesque. All things considered, the customers have good reason to cheer the return of “Pal Joey” to Broadway.”
Written and researched by Michael Hadley