I have a very large soft spot in my heart for Frank Sinatra. I find his trajectory from teen idol crooner, to movie musical superstar, to well-respected dramatic actor to be an awe-inspiring run of high-quality artistry. Here in Pal Joey all of those various elements, along with Sinatra’s innate streetwise and smart-alecky impeccable cool, into one hell of an entertaining star vehicle.
It’s not just a great showcase for him though, as Rita Hayworth, the Love Goddess, gets one of her last great roles as wealthy widow Vera Simpson. She slowly steals the film from Sinatra, and he knew it too as it’s partly a reason for her top billing. Her singing voice is dubbed outside of the introductions to both her numbers, but she throws herself into the musical and dance sequences with a wild ambition. “Zip” is a charmingly sexy laugh riot, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is a sensual delight that recaptures some of the explosive Gilda magic. It also takes one hell of a woman to smack Sinatra down to size, but Hayworth’s withering line deliveries and clipped purrs does the trick repeatedly.
Shame about Kim Novak’s nothing of a role, though. It’s an ingénue part, a good girl who tames the naughty boy with her virtuous charms. Lord knows Novak’s chilly, sexy, slow-burn take on “My Funny Valentine” is enough to make a sinner repent (even if, much like Hayworth, her voice is dubbed). She tries her best, and she’s sensational in a scene where she comes on to Joey in a drunken stupor, but there’s not much for her to do. She tries her best to keep up, but she’s out-gunned by Sinatra’s natural charisma and Hayworth’s dynamism. I will say this, I adore that touch of lavender they added to her hair. It makes her presence pop that much brighter as it catches the light in certain scenes and gives her hair a shimmer that is either silver or faintly purple.
If the part of womanizing cad Joey feels tailor made for Sinatra’s casual, detached, and sarcastic screen presence in both dramatic and musical sequences, then you should know what a star vehicle is. Loosely reassembled from the Broadway show of the same name, this Pal Joey is definitely prettier and cleaner in presentation and execution. The lurid and salacious acts of the story are implied rather than spelled out, much like the other famous John O’Hara adaptation, BUtterfield 8.
It doesn’t take much mental contortions to fill in the lines, between Joey’s unique lingo and the central love triangle’s transitions of power and affection. Like many movie musicals, Pal Joey is primarily concerned with this love triangle. Joey Evans, an ambitious song-and-dance man, has to keep moving from town to town thanks to being something of a louse. He winds up in San Francisco where he takes a liking to an innocent showgirl (Kim Novak), before becoming the plaything of a wealthy widow (Rita Hayworth), and still burning a candle for Novak’s nice girl. The rest of the story plays out exactly as you think it would, with the Production Code demanded redemption and happily ever after.
Yes, the plot is flimsy. But most movie musicals are if they’re primarily romantic comedies, and this certainly fits that bill. Films like this are best watched as displays of movie star charisma and high-level production values in service of a great songbook. Pal Joey is one hell of a movie based purely on these strengths. It may not outrank MGM’s output during the same era, but for a more modest budget to play with, it holds its own quite nicely. Of course having a score featuring Rodgers and Hart classics like “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “I Could Write a Book,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and “My Funny Valentine” most certainly helps.
There’s a ton of color, charm, and urban wit on display in Pal Joey, and it’s one hell of an entertaining way to spend two hours. Maybe not the most essential entry in any of their bodies of work, but I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the best second-stringers. That sounds like faint praise, but I really adore this movie. I think it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with films like Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Kiss Me Kate for sheer joyous entertainment.