One of Frank Sinatra’s best films, Columbia’s production of Pal Joey features a perfect string of hit songs, a stellar cast, glossy fifties Technicolor, and sharp dialogue quips filled with risqué attitude.
Frank Sinatra may never have been better in a dramatic musical, playing big dreamer Joey Evans with a likeable combo of womanizer, louse, and a savvy talent able to turn on the charm, and gamble on his winning abilities as a seasoned emcee, singer, and a lover. No sooner is he booted onto a train and arrives in San Francisco does Joey wander into a burlesque club where an old pal (musician Bobby Sherwood) works as a band leader. After opportunistically snagging a job, he soon steals his friend’s sweet girlfriend Linda English (Kim Novak, with singing dubbed by Trudy Stevens), and entices a former burlesque queen Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth, with her singing dubbed by Jo Ann Greer), while teasing (and likely sleeping with) the rest of the dancers, except wise Gladys (Woman Obsessed’s [M] Barbara Nichols).
Things seem to go his way when Vera offers to fund Chez Joey, his dream club, but just as the classy joint is about to open, things come crashing down, causing Joey to rethink his goals, and choose between the women he’s been diddling.
That’s the story in a nutshell, and interwoven are stellar musical numbers which exploit not only the talents of the star performers, but the relationships of their characters, which director George Sidney beautifully handles. Sidney’s the overlooked talent among this perfectly built classic, and while his career was built on bringing musicals to the big screen – The Harvey Girls (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and the candy-coloured Viva Las Vegas (1964) – he knew how to balance all the elements at hand to make a crisp production.
The musical numbers are elegantly staged, and his use of colour is sublime; Pal Joey is a tasteful representation of the idyllic fifties interior design and costumes, and while clothes and chairs and curtains never, ever clash, the design still feels natural. Sidney also holds back on close-ups until they’re strategically advantageous, which ensures they hit audiences hard, and capture each character’s most trying moment (as is the case in the “My Funny Valentine” number). Less effective is a bizarre dream sequence where Joey trips into a number with a broken glass superimposition and his two main lovers sliding down walls like pole dancers; the sequence comes off as terribly kitschy, and interrupts what’s essentially the character’s most introspective moment in the film.
Sinatra owns the role of Joey, playing him with confidence and relishing the character’s pattern of wandering through life episodes with a sense of self-effacing humour, whereas Hayworth gives aging Vera sultry sex appeal and personal pride in having transcended the sleazy life that Joey’s chosen to live; she married into money, dumped her stripper days, and at best is willing to relive the teasing thrills exclusively through Joey.
The middle character is Linda English, and Novak’s performance quirks – a streak of childish nervousness that manifests through quivering facial expressions and odd body contortions – work, because Vera represents unspoiled goods; she’s unblemished by the entertainment business’ sleaze, and while she’ll do a strip routine, her aspirations to sing as portrayed in the film are unusually humble. Even in the script, Linda’s yearning to sing doesn’t come off as a cliché, and there’s no real ‘big moment’ where her peers recognize her talent and she’s vaunted as a Great Star. Her signature song – the classic “My Funny Valentine” – doesn’t bring her any joy; instead, it sparks a seething jealousy in Vera, and seeds the demise of Chez Joey, as well as giving the club’s entire employ a collective pink slip.
Dorothy Kingsley’s suave adaptation of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1940 stage musical (based on characters and storylines by John O’Hara) makes some radical changes in character tones and the finale, and although there’s less edge in the film version – the finale and all’s well that ends well’ resolution is frankly ludicrous – there’s just the right amount of sleazy behaviour without alienating audiences with doomed and broken heroes and heroines.
(One also can’t help wonder if Steve Kloves was inspired by the Rodgers and Hart musical, reworking the tale of a womanizing dreamer into his 1989 gem The Fabulous Baker Boys. In that film, the Chez Joey dream is represented by the piano playing team of the brothers Baker, and its destruction similarly comes from a womanizing streak and romance with a newbie singer that breaks up several relationships. While all does end well in the finale, like the original stage version, the central heel doesn’t get the girl.)
The underscore and musical arrangements by Nelson Riddle and George Duning bring out the best in jazzy, burlesque, and melodramatic moments, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray offers the film’s original mono mix, a gently remixed 5.1 track designed to fill out the room instead of simulate stereo, and an isolated score track that has some of the slight reverb associated with the rear mono surround sound tracks in a Dolby 4.0 mix.
Twilight Time’s limited Blu-ray includes a production essay by film historian Julie Kirgo, plus the original Sinatra-hosted trailer (in fairly rough shape), and the featurette “Backstage and at Home with Kim Novak,” where the actress discusses her decision to retire form Hollywood in the country, her painting (which goes back to her college years, during which she won several arts scholarships), and Jean Louis’ body-fitting costumes which suited the actress’ ‘unencumbered’ figure. (If Sony’s HD transfer enhances anything for Novak’s fans, it’s more detail in the upper regions.)
The featurette is part of several extras Columbia produced for their 2010 Kim Novak Collection, which also included selected scene commentary with Stephen Rebello that remains exclusive to that DVD set which is comprised of Picnic [M] (1955), Jeanne Eagels (1957), Pal Joey (1957), Bell, Book and Candle (1958), and Middle of the Night (1959).
Other filmed works based on John O’Hara stories include Moontide (1942), The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), Ten North Frederick (1958), From the Terrace (1960), Butterfield 8 (1960), and A Rage to Live (1965).
Although better known as a director of musicals, George Sidney also tackled classic adventurism in The Three Musketeers (1948) and Scaramouche (1952), postwar Red Menace in The Red Danube (1949), and historical melodrama in Young Bess (1953).
Pal Joey also marked a shift in Columbia’s leading lady roster, with Rita Hayworth leaving to tackle more dramatically meaty roles in Separate Tables (1958), They Came to Cordura (1959) and The Story on Page One (1959), and Kim Novak, who had co-starred with Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), started to get bigger roles in Columbia’s Jeanne Engels (1957) and Bell Book and Candle (1958) before her career high as the ultimate troubled blonde in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan