PAL JOEY, 1957
Directed by George Sidney
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, Barbara Nichols, Bobby Sherwood, Hank Henry, Elizabeth Patterson
Review by Virginia De Witt
San Francisco nightclub singer, Joey Evans, is broke and finds himself working at a dive called The Barbary Coast where he meets and falls for dancer, Linda English. Joey’s dream is to be his own boss and after he meets wealthy socialite, Vera Simpson, he pursues her, and his desire to open his own night club, Chez Joey. Vera agrees to become his partner, both financial and romantic, but she quickly becomes jealous of Linda’s presence at the new club. Joey finds himself torn between the two women who can shape his future and has to decide which woman will help him fulfill his dream.
Frank Sinatra rarely found musical roles on screen that matched his range as both a singer and an actor. With the exception of “The Joker Is Wild”, (1957) in which Sinatra plays singer/comedian Joe E. Lewis, and which is really more of a straight dramatic role than a studio musical, ‘Pal Joey” is the closest Sinatra came on screen to exploring the kind of life and character he knew so well. Far more typical were the early musicals he did with Gene Kelly, for instance, “Anchors Aweigh” (1945) or “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” (1949). These, along with his other early musicals, are enjoyably lighthearted and were meant to capitalize on Sinatra’s status as the American Idol of his day. These films were aimed straight at the heart of the swooning bobby soxers in the balcony and presented Sinatra in the most harmless possible light, most often as a guileless, love struck innocent. Joey Evans is, of course, anything but. He is an amoral hustler who takes nothing and no one seriously, except his own ambition. The character has been softened and sentimentalized for the screen adaptation, but Sinatra understands this man in his bones and conveys a great deal about Joey’s true nature through his delivery of both dialogue and song.
The film is an adaptation of a successful Broadway musical of the same name from 1940 which gave Gene Kelly his break out hit on stage. The original play had a book by John O’Hara and was adapted from short stories he had written for The New Yorker in the 1930s. Original music and lyrics were by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The play waited nearly 20 years to be adapted to the screen because of its frankness in depicting sexual situations which were unacceptable according to the Hollywood
production code of the time, despite its having an even more successful stage revival in 1952. The play was considered a landmark musical in its day for bringing psychological depth to its characterizations, and a dramatic reality to its situations, rather than simply using stock romantic situations as excuses for performers to sing and dance to the popular numbers of the moment.
To this end, the success of “Pal Joey”, was aided greatly by the music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hart in providing songs that were not only witty and beautiful, but managed to complete the character’s thoughts and express their desires. Many of these songs are now standards in the American songbook – “If They Asked Me I Could Write a Book”, “The Lady Is A Tramp”, “My Funny Valentine”, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” – amongst them. Sinatra is in his element delivering these songs, all of which benefit from Nelson Riddle’s now canonic arrangements. Especially memorable is his rendition of “The Lady Is A Tramp”, sung as a slap in the face to the haughty Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth). After hours and alone in a run down night club, Sinatra performs his magic trick of seeming to be both defiant and vulnerable at once.
Sinatra is joined by two of the great female stars of the era. Rita Hayworth, who was actually younger than Sinatra, while playing the middle aged Vera, is in great form here. Hayworth was an accomplished dancer who was a veteran of movie musicals, and while she doesn’t have any formal dance numbers in “Pal Joey”, she handles the quasi-burlesque number “Zip” with great style and skill. Vera is a former stripper who worked the same clubs as Joey. They understand each other and so do Sinatra and Hayworth. The relationship builds believably as these two befriend and yet use each other relentlessly, until the logic of it is betrayed by the requisite Hollywood ending.
Sinatra, is not so fortunate with his other leading lady, Kim Novak as Linda English. Due to Novak’s inability to be expressive either physically, even though she plays a dancer, or emotionally, there isn’t much for Sinatra to work off of with her. His presence and talent are so strong, however, that he glides over the spaces created by her vacant stare and manages to create the sense of a rapport with Linda.
George Sidney’s direction is straightforward and unobtrusive, if not especially imaginative. He allows the performers to have their moment in their musical numbers. Sidney frames Sinatra particularly well in his stage performances. The director understands that, in the end, “Pal Joey” is a showcase for this great singer and allows him plenty of space to move.