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Film Friday: «Pal Joey» (1957)

In honor of Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday, which is tomorrow, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you one of his most iconic films and one of my personal favorites.

Original release poster
Directed by George Sidney, Pal Joey (1957) tells the story of Joey Evans (Frank Sinatra), a cynical singer who is thrown out of town for romancing the mayor's underage daughter and ends up in San Francisco emceeing at a second-rate nightclub, where he meets a naïve young chorus girl named Linda English (Kim Novak). One night, Joey and the club band are invited to perform at a society fund-raiser hosted by Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth), a wealthy widow whom the crooner immediately recognizes from her old days as a stripper. Later on, Joey walks Linda to her rooming house and notices a room for rent sign in the window. After ascertaining from the sleepy landlady, Mrs. Casey (Elizabeth Patterson), that there is a vacant room adjoining Linda's, the womanizing Joey eagerly rents it.

As the weeks pass, Joey constantly flirts with Linda, but she seems to be immune to his charms. Annoyed by his constant propositions, she tricks him into buying a small dog, which he names «Snuffy.» In time, however, Joey and Linda realize that they have genuine feelings for each other, but that does not stop him from romancing Vera in order to convince her to finance his big ambition to have his own club. Vera agrees to be Joey's partner in «Chez Joey» and he soon hires the entire crew of the Barbary Coast Club to work at his new place. When Joey promotes Linda to be the featured female dancer in the show, Vera gets jealous and demands that he fire the girl. Joey refuses and Vera closes down «Chez Joey» in a fit of rage. Linda then visits Vera and agrees to leave town in an attempt to keep the club open. Later, as Joey himself prepares to leave, Vera tells him that she has changed her mind and even offers to marry him, but he rejects her. As Joey walks out of a darkened «Chez Joey,» Linda and Snuffy run after him and she offers to go wherever he is headed. Although Joey warns her to get out while she can, he quickly gives in and they walk away together.

Joey Evans: Some guys got a system with horses and I got a system with dames.
It's a snap. You treat a dame like a lady and treat a lady like a dame.

The fascinating tale of Joey Evans first reached the public in a series of stories written by John O'Hara for The New Yorker magazine in the late 1930s. In October 1939, O'Hara sent a letter to his friend and renowned Broadway composer Richard Rodgers suggesting that they turn «the pieces, or at least the character and the life in general» into a book show. A story whose main character was «a conniver and braggart who would do anything and sleep anywhere to get ahead» was a complete departure from the usual musical comedy formula Rodgers was known for, but both he and his longtime collaborator, lyricist Lorenz Hart, were very enthusiastic about the project. According to the composer, «the idea of doing a musical without a conventional clean-cut juvenile in the romantic lead opened up enormous possibilities for a more realistic view of life than theatergoers were accustomed to.»

Produced and directed by George Abbott, Pal Joey made its Broadway premiere at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 25, 1940 and closed 374 performances later at the St. James Theatre, on November 19, 1941. The amoral and conceited Joey, «the American musical theatre's first anti-hero,» was played by «an engaging young man» named Gene Kelly, who was personally chosen by Rodgers based on his performance as Harry the Hoofer in William Saroyan's play The Time of Your Life (1939). Vera Simpson, Joey's wealthy benefactress, was Vivienne Segal, who had previously appeared as a socialite in Rodgers and Hart's I Married an Angel (1938). Completing the love triangle was Leila Ernst as the innocent Linda English. When Pal Joey opened in New York, critics were divided; some found it «brilliant» and a major «advance» in the genre, while others were disgusted by its disturbing subject matter. Still, Pal Joey was the second longest-running of all the musicals by Rodgers and Hart.

Frank Sinatra, «Snuffy» and Kim Novak
In late 1941, the screen rights to Pal Joey were purchased by Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, who soon hired a group of screenwriters to turn the book into a property that would satisfy the Hollywood censors without destroying the acerbic nature of O'Hara's original work. Cohn initially pursued former song-and-dance man James Cagney to play Joey Evans, but then decided to offer the role to Cary Grant. Several actresses were considered for the part of Vera Simpson, including Gloria Swanson, Ethel Merman and Irene Dunne. However, a satisfactory script never evolved and Cohn shelved the project within a year.

When a 1952 successful Broadway revival of Pal Joey generated renewed interest in the property, new talk arose of a film version, one that would star Gene Kelly in the role he had originated on stage a decade earlier. However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Kelly's home studio, demanded an exorbitant amount of money for his loan-out to Columbia and the project was ultimately put on hold once again.

In 1956, it was announced that Columbia was finally in possession of a satisfactory screenplay, written by Dorothy Kingsley, and that Pal Joey was to be directed by Billy Wilder, with Marlon Brando and none other than Mae West in the key roles. Hearing of this, Frank Sinatra, still annoyed because Brando had been assigned the male lead in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), which Cohn had promised him, decided that he would not let «Mr. Mumbles» play Joey, a part the crooner had long coveted. Through his production company, Essex, Sinatra eventually got the role and even negotiated a deal with Columbia wherein he would receive a fee of $150,000 plus 25% of the film's profits. Sinatra also brought in director George Sidney and producer Fred Kohlman to bring the story to the screen.

Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim
Novak on the set
After Sinatra signed on, Columbia's reigning queen Rita Hayworth was given the role of the «older woman,» Vera Simpson (at 37, she was actually three years younger than Sinatra). To play Linda English, the studio chose 23-year-old Kim Novak, Sinatra's co-star in Otto Preminger's critically acclaimed drama The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). It was no secret that Cohn was grooming Novak to become Hayworth's successor at Columbia; still, according to Sidney, on the set «there was no friction between Rita and Kim.»

Since a musical based on two sleazy characters who use one another for sexual and financial gain was not yet permitted in a major Hollywood picture, Pal Joey had to go through several changes before it could reach the screen. As a result, Vera, originally a flagrant adultress, was turned into a rich widower; Joey, a heartless philanderer, was given a chance to redeem himself at the end of the film; Linda, a stenographer Joey meets in front of a pet shop, became a showgirl infatuated with Evans. While Linda agrees to do a strip number, the uncharacteristically gallant Joey does not let her go through with it and does not take advantage of her sexually off-camera. In addition, the seedy world of Chicago blackmailers, strippers and other low-life characters was replaced by likeable show people living in San Francisco. To suit Sinatra's talents, the film version also changed Joey from dancer to singer.

The fantasy sequence
Of the original 14 songs Rogers and Hart wrote for the stage version of Pal Joey, eight remained in the film (with two of them used as instrumental background only) and four were added from other shows. The new additions were «I Didn't Know Which Time It Was,» introduced in Too Many Girls (1939); «There's a Small Hotel,» first heard in On Your Toes (1936); «My Funny Valentine,» originally performed in Babes in Arms (1937); and the film's most significant number «The Lady is a Tramp,» also taken from Babes in Arms. Other notable musical numbers in Pal Joey include: «Zip» and «Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,» both performed by Hayworth, whose voice was dubbed by Jo Ann Greer, just like she had done in Affair in Trinidad (1952) and Miss Sadie Thomspson (1953); «I Could Write a Book,» sung by Sinatra and Novak (dubbed by Trudy Erwin); and «What Do I Care for a Dame?,» the first song in the film's final fantasy sequence, performed by Sinatra.

Beginning in March 1957, filming on Pal Joey ran over eight weeks in total, with most major scenes completed by the end of May. The only serious disruption to an otherwise relaxed production was the presence of unwelcome press visitors on set. Columbia executives were under strict orders from Sinatra not to allow certain journalists onto the set. When Ezra Goodman of TIME magazine arrived to interview Novak, Sinatra expressed outrage that a banned name had been admitted and threatened to walk out mid-take unless the reporter left immediately. Hardened by his experiences on Anchors Aweigh (1945), Sidney had no problems with Sinatra's preferred working method, as he later explained to the crooner's daughter Nancy: «His first take is better than most people's tenth.»

Frank Sinatra filming on location in San Francisco
Location shooting in San Francisco often took place during extremely cold weather, with Hayworth actually turning purple at one point. However, since Pal Joey was her last film under contract to Columbia, Hayworth just wanted to get the production finished and did not complain. For her part, Novak was aware that she was not entirely suited to her role and quickly became disenchanted with the film. Although they had previously worked together in The Eddie Duchin Story (1956) and Jeanne Engels (1957), she and Sidney did not relish their reunion. Novak was still exhausted from the prolonged shoot on Jeanne Engels, fainting in her dressing room during her first week on Pal Joey.

Pal Joey was one of Sinatra's few pictures released after From Here to Eternity (1953) pictures wherein he did not receive top billing, which surprisingly went to Hayworth. At the time, Sinatra was a much bigger star than Hayworth and his title role was obviously predominant throughout the film. Consequently, he could have insisted on taking the top spot for himself, but he seemed perfectly happy placed between his two leading ladies: «If it's billing, it's okay to make it Hayworth/Sinatra/Novak. I don't mind being in the middle of that sandwich.» It has been claimed that Hayworth's contract with Columbia stipulated first billing, yet «she was currently a little short of front-office goodwill.»

Before releasing the film, and hoping to score a major hit, Columbia supplied theaters with a specially shot trailer, in which Sinatra explained «Joey's jargon» and philosophy to prospective audiences. Pal Joey premiered simultaneously in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles on October 25, 1957 to instant critical and commercial success, eventually becoming one of the ten highest grossing films of the year. Variety called it «strong, funny entertainment,» praising Frank Sinatra's «potent» performance and his «powerful delivery» of «The Lady is a Tramp.» For his part, A. H. Weiler of The New York Times commented, «There is no doubt that this is largely Mr. Sinatra's show. As the amiable grifter with an iron ego, he projects a distinctly bouncy likable personality into an unusual role. And his rendition of the top tunes, notably 'The Lady Is a Tramp' and 'Small Hotel,' gives added lustre to these indestructible standards.» At the 30th Academy Awards held in March 1958, Pal Joey received nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording. In addition, Sinatra won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in Comedy or Musical.

Frank Sinatra by John Frayn Turner (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004)
Musical Stages: An Autobiography by Richard Rodgers (Da Capo Press, 2009)
Sinatra in Hollywood by Tom Santopietro (St. Martin's Press, 2009)
The Frank Sinatra Film Guide by Daniel O'Brien (B T Batsford Ltd, 2014)
The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television by Thomas S. Hischak (Oxford University Press, 2008)
TCM's article on Pal Joey
The New York Times review by A. H. Weiler
Variety review by the Variety staff


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