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1957's Pal Joey was adapted from the 1940 Broadway musical by John O'Hara, from his own novel, with music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hart. The show made Gene Kelly a star. It followed a conniving singer and emcee that romances a stenographer while accepting the favors of a rich patron, whom he hopes will help him start his own club. That effort is complicated by subplots involving blackmail; Elaine Stritch played a reporter getting the goods on the scandal. The two women in Joey Evans' life eventually decide that he's too much of a liability. Joey shrugs it off and is last seen moving on to the next girl. Although not as venal as the infamous Sammy Glick of Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, Joey was an interesting development for a show business character... he's an outwardly charming by totally undependable louse.
The movie makes major changes to accommodate the requirements of its stellar cast -- especially Frank Sinatra, who just two years earlier had taken part in another Broadway adaptation, Guys and Dolls, twisted to the needs of film star casting. Sinatra's Joey Evans character has been transformed into a more sympathetic Frank Sinatra clone. Although much of the bite of John O'Hara's original has been left behind, the film develops its own glossy appeal. Sinatra sings more Rodgers and Hart standards (The Lady is a Tramp). The colorful, classy cinematography is a treat -- many shots look as though they could be Sinatra album covers from the period. Many of the singer's fans consider this his best film role.
Besides reshaping Joey into a nice guy, the adaptation alters gives the leading actresses more elbow room to perform showbiz musical numbers. Socialite Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth) is now an ex-burlesque queen. Joey tricks her into performing a faux striptease song (Zip) at a charity auction. Stenographer Linda English (Kim Novak) is now a "nice" showgirl who gets Joey to buy a dog to sidetrack his seduction attempts. Her supposed strip number gets absolutely nowhere before Joey calls a halt, but Linda receives compensation in a scene where she gets drunk on Vera's Yacht and tempts Joey. It's at least verbally sexy. All of this aborted stripping action has been lifted from the plays's original stripper character. Gladys Bumps (game gal Barbara Nichols) is only seen performing in secondary numbers, which makes us hope that Ms. Nichols knew that the part had been so diminished before she signed on. In the streamlined plot all of the sidebar intrigues involving blackmail and secret pasts have been completely dropped. Besides reducing The Gladys character to a few sassy dialogue lines, the changes result in the elimination of the reporter character. The reshuffled characterizations allow all three stars to sing and dance, although both Hayworth's and Novak's singing voices are dubbed by others.
Sinatra's character is now so much like his own public personality, that the show might well have been re-titled Pal Frankie. This Joey begins as a heel, but undergoes a romantic conversion into a standard rascal/playboy, who will straighten out as soon as the right girl comes along. This is probably Frankie's first full-on ring-a-ding character, after his preliminary womanizer in The Tender Trap.
Kim Novak had recently worked with Sinatra on The Man with the Golden Arm. On this show she was reportedly disappointed to find that he'd taken on a hard, aloof star attitude and no longer behaved like a fun guy trying to do good work. Sinatra was impatient with the slow filmmaking process. Although he learned his lines, he hated rehearsing and would sometimes refuse to do a second take if he thought he was good in the first, no matter what the director thought. Hermes Pan had come on to develop a couple of musical numbers that would allow Hayworth and Novak to do some fancy moves. The two female stars and other dancers rehearsed at length without Sinatra, so he could step right in at the last moment.
But the preparation went for nothing when Frank arrived unwilling to commit to the effort. He cut out sections of the dancing that he didn't like or didn't want to learn. In the finished film, the number is pretty ragged, a fairly unimaginative selection of shots of Sinatra singing screen center with no dancing to speak of. Tacky 'dream' images of still photos of Hayworth and Novak link the pieces together. The result is that nothing in the movie is allowed to upstage Sinatra's impressive crooning scenes, singing ballads like There's a Small Hotel, I Could Write a Book and I Didn't Know What Time It Was. That's where the film's lasting interest lies.
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Pal Joey is a candy-colored Technicolor delight. The glamorous leading ladies are treated like special effects, always dressed in brightly colored fashions. Hayworth is stuck with slightly more 'sophisticated' upscale fashions, while Novak gets to wear the bright greens and eyeball-searing reds. Her close-ups have an almost hallucinogenic quality. Although Rita Hayworth can muster more depth as an actress, Novak's youth gives her the edge in the glamour department.
Photo left: Just a night on the town with ordinary folks back in the late 1950s. If I could remember which side of Hollywood Blvd. that Coca-Cola sign was, I could be more sure of which movie palace Kim, Frank and the Bogarts are attending.
Sony's HD transfer shows no flaws, and the encoding maintains the illusions of frequent matte effects that tie location shots in San Francisco to the Columbia back lot. Much of the 'happy sunset' view of the Golden Gate Bridge that concludes the film is a painting. The remixed 5.1 track makes the film a concert opportunity for Frank Sinatra's many songs. Insert liner notes by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo delve deeper into the filmic transformation of John O'Hara's glad-handing heel, into "a hound with a heart."
The Isolated Score track also allows us to appreciate the George Duning cues that tie the Rodgers and Hart standards together. Repeating from a 2010 disc are two featurettes (taped in HD) with Kim Novak at the Carmel retreat where she's lived for at least forty years. Interviewer Steven Rebello elicits an interesting discussion of Ms. Novak's attitudes toward her retirement, and her decision to remain out of the spotlight to protect her glamorous image. She seems to have a healthy attitude about her career, and a thoughtfulness that belies current cheap shots about her protest against the use of the very specific Vertigo soundtrack in this year's front-running Best Picture contender, The Artist.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pal Joey Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.