Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Palling Around with Rita, Frank and Kim

Faithful translations of Broadway musicals to film are rare—and trust me, Pal Joey (1957) is definitely not one of them. It does, however, retain a few elements of the original 1940 Broadway production with score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, based on a book by John O’Hara (Butterfield 8)—and the talent and charisma of its three bright stars makes it a memorable movie musical experience.

Back in Hollywood’s golden age, it was common practice to buy the rights to the latest Broadway extravaganza and dispense with the original score and libretto, tack on a brand new story, add songs from other source material, maybe salvage a hit song or two from the original, tailor it to the talents of the stars involved—and then use the original title as a marketing come-on to draw in audiences. 

In the 1957 film directed by George Sidney, eight of the original 14 songs are used in the film version (some as background orchestrations), and quite a few well-known Rodgers and Hart standards added, including “My Funny Valentine” and  “The Lady Is a Tramp” (from Babes in Arms) and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (from Too Many Girls) and  “There’s a Small Hotel” (introduced in On Your Toes).

Rita Hayworth as Mrs. Vera Simpson 

The chemistry of three megawatt stars, gorgeous San Francisco locations, and some of the most beautiful music ever written by American songwriting legends Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, made Pal Joey a solid hit when it was released. The film helped launch the legend of Kim Novak, solidified the comeback of superstar Frank Sinatra, and marked a career transition for Columbia Pictures’ all-time top-grossing star Rita Hayworth in her final musical role.

The racy story of an amoral con man named Joey Evans who finds a meal ticket in a rich older older woman Vera Simpson while concurrently romancing a young ingenue, Pal Joey received mixed reviews in its initial Broadway run but it launched the career of a young song and dance man named Gene Kelly, who was plucked from obscurity and promptly signed to star opposite Judy Garland in the MGM musical For Me and My Gal. 

Frank Sinatra in the title role of Joey Evans

Columbia Pictures bought the rights to Pal Joey a year or two later, when it was planned that Kelly would star as Joey opposite new Columbia star Rita Hayworth in the ingenue role. The role of the sugar mama/rich cougar was reportedly offered to some of filmdom’s most glamorous grande dames, including Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, but both turned it down, and the film would not be made for more than a dozen years. (Kelly, of course, would eventually star with Hayworth in 1944’s Cover Girl.)

For her role as stripper turned Nob Hill society matron Vera Simpson, Rita Hayworth garnered top billing above the title for the last time in her career, as per the terms of her Columbia contract. Superstar Sinatra good-naturedly waived his own usual top billing, so his name would appear between Hayworth and Novak.“I don’t mind being the meat in that sandwich,” he cracked. 

Hayworth evokes the Love Goddess magic that made her a star with her first song, the burlesque satire “Zip.” Though the number was in the original play, it was performed by a character not in the movie, a female journalist who spoofs Gypsy Rose Lee. (In the 1952 revival, the role was played by Elaine Stritch, who brought down the house night after night with her wry interpretation of the lyrics.) In the film, it’s the perfect opportunity for Rita Hayworth to resurrect the ghost of Gilda a decade before, peeling off her elbow-length glove and tossing it to the crowd while undulating to the bumps and grinds of the burlesque drumbeat with the aplomb of a lifelong professional dancer (which she, of course, was).

Kim Novak as Linda Christian

Dressed by her Gilda costumer Jean Louis—who also designed for Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day and Susan Hayward among others—and still oozing glamour and sex appeal, beautiful Rita is in the flower of radiant maturity here, although in the second half of the film she wears an overcoat and a severe older-woman short hairstyle—appropriate for playing the “heavy” who comes between Sinatra and Novak and keeps them apart. 

But earlier, Hayworth’s languid and sensual rendition of “Bewitched” in Vera’s bedroom has her in silky lingerie, hair wild and free…and as Rita dances into her enormous spa bath, she disrobes and steps into the shower, pressing her bare bosom against the frosted glass of the shower at the end of the number—a startlingly sexy moment for 1957 Hollywood.

Hayworth captivates her audience with a rousing rendition of "Zip"

A love triangle pas de deux dream sequence was choreographed by Hayworth’s pal Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s personal choreographer who had staged their dances together in You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier.

Despite her luminous performance, Pal Joey turned out to be the swan song of Hayworth’s musical film career and last glimpse of the Love Goddess image she had created. She was only 39, but in those days the age of 40 sounded a death knell for a female glamour star. Moving forward with her career, Hayworth had a few interesting dramatic films yet to make including Separate Tables and The Story On Page One, but she was no longer a leading lady, and her “older woman” roles became smaller and smaller, and during her final decade in film she ended up playing harridans and alcoholics. (But she imbued even these throwaway roles with humanity and vulnerability.) Hayworth retired from film in 1972 and passed away in 1987 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.   

A rapturous Rita in the shower after performing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"

Linda Christian is somewhat of a thankless role for Kim Novak, who had had meatier roles in Picnic and The Man with the Golden Arm (opposite Sinatra) and would soon become an icon herself with Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle (both with James Stewart). But Miss Novak (still with us as of this writing) is a lovely and incandescent presence here, holding her own opposite the two veteran stars.

Joey and Linda: "I Could Write a Book"

As Joey Evans, Frank Sinatra puts on film unforgettable renditions of, among others, “Lady Is a Tramp,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “There’s a Small Hotel,” his sublimely silky delivery as iconic as the Rodgers and Hart standards themselves. (Hayworth’s and Novak’s song vocals were dubbed, by Jo Ann Greer and Trudi Erwin, respectively.)

Sinatra won the Best Actor Musical or Comedy Golden Globe for his performance in Pal Joey, solidifying the A-List superstar status that he had almost lost at the beginning of the decade. In the late 1940s, Sinatra’s popularity as the darling of the bobbysoxers had begun to wane, despite appearances in MGM films like On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. 

Hayworth, Sinatra and Novak in Hermes Pan's dream sequence

His personal life was in turmoil, amid rumors of mafia involvements, the dissolution of his marriage to first wife Nancy and his volatile relationship with new flame Ava Gardner. His record sales plummeted. Depressed, stressed and down on his luck, Sinatra literally lost his voice for a time and thought his career was over. But he fought his way back. He took a non-singing supporting role in 1953’s From Here to Eternity and earned a well-deserved Academy Award, revitalizing his career. And the famous voice came back—better than ever, in fact.

Some of Sinatra's most iconic musical numbers are found right here in Pal Joey
Though it veers far from the Broadway original, the film version of Pal Joey is a glossy, splashy, tuneful Technicolor extravaganza that’s delightfully diverting and packed with star power—perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon and a pint or two of your favorite ice cream. 
Happy 100th birthday, Miss Rita!

This essay was written for the Rita Hayworth is 100 blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I look forward to reading everyone’s entries about our beloved Love Goddess! 


  1. I haven't seen this in years, but reading this wonderful article has me excited for tonight's screening on TCM. Three great stars indeed and a finer showcase could not be devised.

  2. Hi Caftan Woman...thanks as always for stopping by and for your kind words! Do see this lovely musical...I think you’ll really enjoy! Good timing that it’s on TCM tonight!!
    - Chris
    - C

  3. I truly adore this film, and your fine review! I wrote about Pal Joey a few years ago and it's still one of my favorite things I've written. It's such an interesting musical with an insane pedigree and a very rich history. How wonderful that it should be Rita's final musical.

    Thanks for contributing to my blogathon!

  4. Hi Michaela - thank you for hosting this wonderful event to celebrate the talent and beauty of our Rita on her 100th birthday!! And I am on my way to your blog to read your take on Pal Joey...

    Looking forward to reading all the Rita Hayworth blog posts this week!
    - Chris

  5. As usual Chris, a great write-up on this movie, and, as usual, you've made me want to see it again. I saw a revival of the show on Broadway not too long ago with Bebe Neuwirth (I think!?) and I was reminded what a really good show it is with excellent songs. The only updating was they made the character of the club manager secretly gay. I have the recording of the revival with Harold Lang but there's someone else doing "Zip" besides Elaine Stritch. (I don't have the Gene Kelly recording but Lang has a better voice anyway.) I remember the movie version as being very different from the show, of course, but entertaining and well-acted. I've always thought that Kim Novak was under-rated as an actress.

    Good show, Chris!

  6. Hi Bill - thanks so much, and I am delighted you enjoy this film as much as I do. The songs alone are worth the price of admission! Awesome that you got to see that revival with Bebe Neuwirth. The play has such a rich history. I believe Stritch left the show to do a national tour of Call Me Madam, which is why there is someone else on the recording. That is what I remember from Stritch's one-woman show, which I was privileged to see...Elaine did "Zip" in the show and she was hilarious...

    Bill, as always, I am so honored by your support and readership!

  7. I think Rita's performance is the best part of the film for me, although Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak give terrific performances too. It's been easily 10 years since I've seen this film, and I think I need to see it again. I really enjoyed your insightful review.

  8. Hi Silver Screenings - thanks as always for reading and commenting! I agree, Rita is so self assured here and has come into her own as an actress. Last night, I watched her in Affair and Trinidad and Miss Sadie Thompson--and I marvel at her command of character, as well as her electric dancing and performing.
    Thanks again for stopping by!

  9. Strange that this is one film I've yet to ever see all the way through. No real aversion to it, just never allowed myself time to settle down and watch it beyond small bits I'd catch here and the from its television broadcasts. Stranger still, since my parents had the film soundtrack and Broadway cast albums, and Hayworth's rendition of "Zip" alone is enough to freeze anyone in their tracks and hold them captive.
    Because I enjoyed your post so much, with it's backstory and history, perhaps I'll be inspired to commit to watching the DVD copy my partner has been trying to get me to watch for the longest. I mean, the vision of Kim Novak in that quilted valentine IS pretty irresistible. Thanks, Chris. Always a pleasure!

  10. Hi Ken! Thanks so much for stopping by...lucky that your partner has the DVD, I think you will enjoy this...not only is it a great Hayworth performance but iconic Sinatra as well, and to experience Kim Novak warbling My Funny Valentine in that throaty breathy voice (reportedly dubbed but sounding just like throaty breathy Kim!) in that quilted heart is an unforgettable moment!

    I treasure your support, Ken, thanks as always, my friend!

  11. Excellent article! "perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon and a pint or two of your favorite ice cream" I agree! I only saw this film once, but it was on big screen! I remmeber quite enjoying it, including Kim Novak's performance (I'm normally not really a fan of her). Rita is fabulous of course! Interesting of you to tell us the differences with the Broadway Play.

  12. Hi Virginie! Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Would loved to have seen this technicolor extravaganza on the big screen! It is a visual feast! It was a friend of mine who is a Broadway aficionado who first got me interested in comparing play and film versions of the same source material.
    Thanks again for visiting!

  13. Chris,
    Funny, I was thinking of writing about this film and you beat me to it!
    This has been at the top of my watch list for awhile, and now I shall check it out after reading your review.

    Frank was quite the gentlemen to both ladies, and later in life, when Rita had her horrible breakdown on a plane in the '70s, Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor were the first two stars to step up and offer the much-liked Rita support.

    One thing that irked Rita was the critics then already carping about her age, when in fact, Hayworth was 3 years younger than Sinatra's boy toy Joey!

    Not a huge Novak fan, but I will definitely check out these three great stars soon...though I think I might skip the ice cream, as I've finally lost some weight!


  14. Hi Rick - yayy, me too, I have cut the carbs and am slimming down a bit!
    Hayworth hated Hollywood's superficiality...when she was filming Fire Down Below a year or two after Pal Joey, the director of photography was setting up a location close shot of Rita, and someone asked why the setup was taking so long. The DP said he wanted to make Rita look as beautiful as possible, and the assistant director said "You're not a miracle worker" or some crack like that, and Rita cringed. She hated feeling like a piece of meat anyway, and always slouched around in jeans and t-shirts far before it was fashiobnable, even when she was Princess Aly Khan...

    Rick, thanks as always for stopping by and commenting - and please do write your take on this movie. I LOVE your blog and your taste in classic film!!

  15. Very nice analysis of this film. I watched it a few years ago, and your complete descriptions refresehd my memory. Although it differs from the play, Palm Joey is still an enjoyable movie.

  16. Hi Le — thanks so much for reading! Glad you too like this film.
    As always, I r kind comments, and I love your Critica Retro blog!
    - Chris