October 25, 1957 Columbia 109 minutes
Strange but true: Rodgers & Hart’s greatest show owes a good deal to Jule Styne. Bold and unheroic on the eve of WWII, the musical proved too much for all but (and even some of) New York’s sophisticates. Despite a great score, and star-making performance by Gene Kelly (who was quickly rushed to Hlwd) the studios weren’t biting for this one—not even with their proclivity to gut and waste. A dozen years would pass before Styne, who was a huge fan of the show, would himself produce a critically-lauded Bway revival. Ethan Mordden coined it Candidefreude: a show that achieves greater fame and respect years after its premiere—as Candide was most famously an example. Chicago is another. But Pal Joey may be the granddaddy of the group. Styne’s heralded 1952 revival added another perennial to Richard Rodgers’ already obscenely lucrative catalog. And now Hlwd, too, was suddenly interested. Not that Hlwd was fully ready to embrace John O’Hara’s seamy anti-hero. Bway may have matured enuf to accept a philandering opportunist, but Hlwd still took the Maiden Aunt approach: moral awakening and a happy ending, none of which make sense in the context of these characters. But we’ll get to that…
Columbia, once the skid-row of studios had risen to A-list status by the ‘50s; producing a string of Oscar Best Pictures: All the King’s Men, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai—as well as other prestige hits straight from Bway: Born Yesterday, The Caine Mutiny, Picnic, Suddenly Last Summer. But as far as musicals went, the studio was still a bit poverty row. Clive Hirschorn in his exhaustive catalog of Hlwd Musicals says that Harry Cohn purchased the show in the mid-40s, but shelved it when he couldn’t secure Gene Kelly from under MGM’s grasp. Funny how Pal Joey has evolved its own identity apart from Kelly, for surely he was the show every bit as Barbra was Funny Girl, or Preston was The Music Man. Taking the opposite tack from MGM’s Silk Stockings, Columbia scuttled what was essentially a dancer’s showcase, and fashioned it into a singer’s vehicle. And just as a dance show couldn’t do better than Astaire; who could improve on Sinatra for the Voice. As usual, he fits the part. This time like a glove. Of course it’s really more that the part was made to fit Frank. Which is both a complete disregard for the show’s integrity and the best thing that happened to the film.
If this isn’t Sinatra’s greatest screen role (and I’m not saying it’s not) it’s certainly his most defining or iconic; largely because it captures him at his peak, gives him the freedom to essentially play himself, and hands him some great Rodgers & Hart tunes to croon. There’s an unparalleled purity about him in this film. His seduction of Hayworth reminds of his real-life turbulent marriage to Ava Gardner; Novak evokes his many other glamour gal romances. His smoke-filled ballads have the smoothness of his revived Capitol Records recording career; they swing in arrangements by Nelson Riddle and George Shearing. Tho he was then probably the biggest singing star in the world, Frank didn’t play stadiums or Madison Square Garden, but intimate venues like the Copa, the Cocoanut Grove, or the Sands in Vegas. The film’s Barbary Coast Club is meant to be seedy but its modest North Beach ambience with its vinyl upholstered scarlet door and postage stamp stage comes across as cozy and with Sinatra onstage, mesmerizing. (But what’s with the narcissistic Chinese hat check girl? Too busy fixing her makeup won’t get her many tips.) When the emcee goes AWOL, “Joey” springs into action, delivering the first of the film’s treasures: “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” crooned as a lullaby then kicked into action. It’s Ol’ Blue Eyes in concert, right before our eyes; and the whole carefully lit, intimately outfitted, jewelbox of a club just oozes with midnight magic. (One of the starry-eyed lovers in the front row in Robert Reed, of later Brady Bunch fame—his first ever credit.)
Soon enuf Joey’s serenading a party with “There’s a Small Hotel,” then back at the club with “I Could Write a Book.” These moments are truly transfixing, but nothing beats the after-hours romp he unleashes on “The Lady is a Tramp,” which is filmed every bit as exquisitely as it is performed. The dance with Hayworth that follows, and the subsequent exit from the club; the band still playing those Nelson Riddle arrangements, makes this entire scene a delicious treat that can be savored many times over. Then for too long we get no more vocals from Sinatra, until the eleventh hour when he launches into “What Do I Care for a Dame?”—or what would otherwise have been the dream ballet—here just a fantasy in verse, and a quick spin with the two co-stars. It feels like it’s going to build to something, but it just putters out quickly. But whatever flaws the film has (and there’s no shortage of them) as a record of the undiluted Sinatra, this is the film above all others.
He was a free agent these days, working all over town. And apparently quite secure in his standing, for he was rarely fussy about billing. In fact, quite generous; insisting Columbia top bill Hayworth in Pal Joey tho there’s little question the film is really his. Similarly he took lower billing in Guys & Dolls and High Society. For the distaff side, Harry Cohn could make use of his own stable: Rita Hayworth & Kim Novak were Columbia gals, and so what if neither of them are quite right. I had a hard time registering Rita for much of my youth—certain people like Lana Turner or Madonna have often been curiously unidentifiable to me. I no longer have that trouble with Rita, and she looks ravishing here at 39 (no more so than waking up in bed to sing “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered”). But she’s supposed to be the cougar in this story, and she’s 3 years younger than her prey. Novak is 15 years younger than Hayworth, so she of course winds up with the 42 year old hero. Dorothy Kingsley’s sloppy screenplay has to contend with dropping the older woman angle but did she have to also make Vera Simpson a widow instead of an adulteress? It seems a bit ludicrous then to also make her a former stripper just to give context to her singing “Zip” for a Nob Hill society crowd. (Would a blueblood really marry a stripper, and unleash her on San Francisco society?) Vera being Joey’s age, and of similarly low-rent show biz beginnings, seems a perfect match—instead of being the inconvenient and opportunistic relationship that originally spelled O’Hara’s story. Another major change in Kingsley’s script was making Joey’s truer love interest, Linda English part of the nightclub’s kickline.; and cutting the hoofer Gladys down to an occasional wisecrack. But Linda’s occupation is at odds with her virginal character and haughty manners; her ambition to become a singer even less believable. The story now turns on Vera’s jealousy of Linda after seeing her rehearse a number for Chez Joey—the luxe Pacific Heights nightclub Vera finances. It’s the Helen Lawson moment from Valley of the Dolls—“get rid of that girl!” Only this time it isn’t because of a threat of talent—Novak’s performance of “My Funny Valentine” (even dubbed by Trudy Erwin) is so enervated it nearly sucks the air out of the movie. Given the ultimatum, Joey makes the “moral” choice in Linda—so on the eve of the club’s opening Vera pulls the plug. When Linda pleads on Joey’s behalf, Vera calls her bluff: offering to open the club if Linda disappears. Victorious, Vera proposes marriage to Joey, but when he rejects her—she reunites him with Linda. Not exactly what the authors had in mind when they gave Vera & Linda the delightful duet, “Take Him”—now obviously cut. It’s a ludicrous and illogical ending—and of course, not remotely close to O’Hara’s reality: as summed up in Larry Hart’s words:
I can’t be sure of girls
I’m not at home with men—
I’m ending up with me again.
Of course this song also wasn’t in the movie, as weren’t eight others from the show—tho a number of these are heard as instrumentals by the band: Ned Galvin & His Galvinizers. In the 17 years since the show’s birth, both “Bewitched” and “I Could Write a Book” had become standards. Given that virtually all the songs here are performed in the nightclub setting it’s not a bad idea using other Rodgers & Hart standards—as these were, after all, the very songs heard in such venues —no less by the likes of Sinatra. (O’Hara originally wanted to use R&H’s “Blue Moon,” which had never found the right berth in any of their shows, yet still became a standard. Too bad they didn’t here. Sinatra’s Capitol recording under Riddle’s baton is the tops.) But to pretend then, as director George Sidney has Rita Hayworth do, that she’s hearing the lyrics to “There’s a Small Hotel” and “The Lady is a Tramp” for the first time is a false note. She acts up a storm, responding to the words as if they are personally directed at her. We first meet her in the movie, in fact, in medium shot, dancing with some stuffed-shirt—and indicating like crazy her every reaction as Frank/Joey steps up to the mic. “There’s a small hotel, where we two can dwell. . . together”—at which she recoils as if slapped on the ass. Same thing too, when Sinatra croons, “…that’s why the lady is a tramp!” The well-known song is a complete surprise to her—the phrase cracking her brow, like a zinger from Groucho to Margaret Dumont. (Contrast this with Sinatra as he watches Rita doing “Zip”; his relaxed spontaneity almost steals your eye) The two songs Rita actually performs (dubbed by Jo Ann Greer) are “Zip,” and “Bewitched” the film’s only number not done in context of performance. Both are passable, with the former a bit more entertaining—tho there’s something quite false about Vera’s seamless transition to Minsky’s veteran and back to society hostess. But if Hayworth doesn’t make much case for herself as a thespian, she deserves an Oscar next to Kim Novak.
A notoriously opaque actress, Novak’s icy exoticism and impenetrable gaze was used effectively by some, like Hitchcock in Vertigo Josh Logan in Picnic, or Richard Quine in Bell, Book & Candle. Not here. Director George Sidney, accustomed to musical talent, was either clueless or indifferent with Novak. She walks thru the film as if under hypnosis. It’s a truly embarrassing performance—you could do better with many an amateur. What’s she doing here? She can’t sing, she moves poorly and there’s nothing musical about her. Some of her scenes are jaw-droppingly awful. Watch her sitting next to Sinatra at the society ball, rolling her eyes like a petulant child. There’s more eye-rolling here than in a dozen Vera-Ellen movies. (Harvard Lampoon cited her Worst Actress of the year.) She’s revealed first as the chorines take stage one at a time to sing “That Terrific Rainbow,” starting with Gladys (it was her solo in the Bway show.) Each of them typical dolls from the School of Adelaide—long in leg, short in voice—except Kim, whose entrance at the end of the line is meant to pop. “Who’s the mouse with the build?” asks Sinatra, his eyes bulging out; tho she’s not really a standout—certainly not in talent. Her soporific acting certainly doesn’t help the movie’s deadliest scenes: life outside the club; sharing a bathroom with Joey in a boarding house; buying a pet shop mutt; getting drunk to show a piece of her mind; suffering the hangover. Supposedly she’s the bandleader’s girlfriend—so whatever happens to that thread? Aside from her silver-coiffed looks you can’t see why Joey even bothers. One thing Harry Cohn made sure: Novak is dressed well. Jean Louis made the gowns, and there’s one in lilac she wears for “I Could Write a Book” that is nothing short of spectacular—a torrent of fringe flies when she spins. It’s a bit extravagant for this cheap club, But Hayworth isn’t so lucky with her gown for “Zip”—a bizarre sheath draped with satin wings that would fit a ’57 Cadillac.
Aside from the three principals, the film has scarcely a handful of other roles. Barbara Nichols, one of the chorines in the ’52 revival, and fresh off Pajama Game gets short shrift as Gladys—her terrific stage numbers; “You Mustn’t Kick It Around,” “Do It the Hard Way,” and “Plant You Now-Dig You Later,” all left out—as well as a whole blackmail sub-plot. (It was a part that June Havoc & Helen Gallagher built careers on; the latter even winning a Tony for it.) As bandleader Ned Galvin, actual bandleader Bobby Sherwood has some nice interactions with Sinatra, but making the most of a subsidiary role is Hank Henry, the club’s manager—a gruff steer of a man who suggests a Rodney Dangerfield years before there was one.
The film begins with great energy: Joey being run out of town; arriving in San Francisco; searching for work in the now defunct International Settlement—a nightclub and girlie show block along Pacific Avenue. He smooth-talks his way into a job; charms the chorus girls while pointedly ignoring Linda; and boldly insinuates himself into Vera’s charity auction. This first half hour moves crisply, with lots of character and atmosphere. (But I’m puzzled by the timeline: the band picks up the society ball job after the nightclub has closed for the night? It would seem so, as the evening concludes with Joey following Ned & Linda home, and then denied a night’s sleep on Ned’s sofa, he insinuates himself into Linda’s boarding house.) Thereafter the film loses steam unless Vera’s in the picture; her game of upmanship the real engine driving the narrative. Once Joey wins her affection, the film goes rather coy: we see him seduce her on her yacht, but when she awakes the next morning she’s alone at home. (The house is rather a peach. It should be, it’s actually Coit Tower—the nozzle shaped campanile matted out to suggest a two-story mansion. Later Vera breakfasts in the “yard”—which is clearly the south terrace of the Telegraph Hill site with its peerless vistas. Nice home if you can get it.) I don’t know the motivation for shifting the show’s location from Chicago to San Francisco, but given the mostly indoor settings, I suppose it makes little difference. Which makes the liberal use of location shooting all the more surprising—happily so, for SF in the ‘50s was such a visual delight. They managed to use the chorus number, “Chicago,” with a minimal lyric change; instead of a “Great big town by a great big lake“ it’s a “great big town by the Golden Gate: Frisco”—tho any local will tell you that appellation is taboo.) Unfortunately some locations are mixed with obvious studio sets—sometimes cutting back & forth between the two. The cheesy shots at the end are especially egregious—believe me it’s not hard to capture a stunning SF sunset. But even this forced happy ending doesn’t convince— the leopard would have to change too many spots for us to believe a committed future for these two.
As we have seen, 1957 was a year of some good film musicals, but Pal Joey was clearly the favorite of both the public and award-givers. Breaking the pattern set by the other movie musicals this year of playing Radio City Music Hall, Pal Joey opened at the Capitol Theater on Bway on October 25th. The current Music Hall attraction was MGM’s Les Girls, a lazy Cole Porter frolic that turned out to be Gene Kelly’s final studio musical—interesting that both he & Astaire would essentially retire the same year. But neither of them drew crowds the way Sinatra did, making this the 4th highest grossing film of the year; behind only last year’s holdover epics: Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days and Giant. (He was also in another of the year’s top ten movies: The Pride & the Passion with Cary Grant & Sophia Loren.) It was an exciting fall on Bway; West Side Story had detonated a month earlier, and a week later Jamaica would finally bring Lena Horne to the Big Street. That fall also saw: Look Back in Anger, Look Homeward Angel, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, The Music Man and Two for the Seesaw—most of which made it to Hlwd in short order.
As for me, I didn’t know about Pal Joey then. I wasn’t yet five. But when I first saw it on TV at the age of 15, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I think one gets the taste for Sinatra in adulthood, like with coffee or vodka. When I watched it decades later I was knocked out by the ambience, by the smart-city glamour of San Francisco, but most of all by The Chairman of the Board. Yes, the film cannibalizes its source, tho it wasn’t until the all-inclusive Encores! recording with Peter Gallagher, Patti Lupone & Vicki Lewis that I really understood the hatchet job that was done by Hlwd. R&Hart’s score deserves to be heard more fully, so who knows perhaps another film will someday be made. (Hugh Jackman’s window is already closing.) The show itself remains in the canon and periodically resurfaces. In the early ‘60s it was even played by Bob Fosse—his dream role. In ’73 an Eleanor Powell/Edward Villella revival lost both stars in rehearsal. Michael Kidd staged a ’78 edition with Clifton Davis, and Lena Horne as Vera. A 2008 mounting had an entirely rewritten book by Richard Greenberg, and saw a youngish understudy inherit the lead without quite the star-making result. The show seems to have a reputation for being difficult to get right. But judging by the results on record of the ’95 Encores! concert—this would seem to have been the perfect combination of ingredients.
Next Up: South Pacific
Next Up: South Pacific