In the course of working on a cabaret show commemorating Lorenz Hart’s 100th birthday, I returned with trepidation to the 195 7 Columbia film of Pal Joey, with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak. It was just as lame as I remembered, if not worse. But Sinatra was much better than I had recalled — in fact, everyone else seemed lifeless and pale in comparison, as if traumatized by his infamous on-set behavior.
Sinatra was born to play Joey. In the stage version, Joey is a nightclub hoofer. He had to be — Gene Kelly originated the role. But a nightclub singer is a lot more sensible, and who better to fit that sleazy bill than Frank Sinatra? I always felt MGM was the wrong studio for him. It was too respectable, conventional, decorous, and polished for Frank’s street-fighter approach to performance. He looks strained in the movies in which he was teamed with the more experienced Kelly, playing a young innocent from the boroughs. (Give me a break!) It didn’t read for a minute, although he wasn’t a complete stiff, like some fellow crooners (Perry Como, Dick Haymes, Johnnie Ray). Still, put Frank at Harry Cohn’s studio and you’ve got a meeting of minds — no camouflage here, no hypocrisy. They’re both such crumbs.
Cohn had bought the screen rights to Pal Joey back in 1944, as a vehicle for Kelly and Rita Hayworth, the team that had just scored big for Cohn in Cover Girl. But MGM wanted too much money for another loan out of Kelly, and the project was shelved for 13 years, by which time Frank was bigger than Gene and poor Rita had to play the older woman rather than the ingenue for which she was once intended. The whole show — script and lyrics (thank you, Sammy Cahn, for nothing) — was strangely bowdlerized. Vera Simpson, the Hayworth part, was made a wealthy widow and former burlesque stripper instead of a married society dame. On the other hand, Kim Novak’s ingenue became a naïve chorus girl (is there such an animal? I mean outside Hollywood backstage musicals?) instead of a naïve stenographer, so she could wear revealing outfits.
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The film’s opening is deceiving. You think the picture might be fun. A siren blares over the Columbia logo, and the first shot tracks a police car racing to catch a train. Two cops have Frank/Joey in tow, and one of them tells him, “You entertainers are all alike. You think you own every dame in town.” (Well, don’t they? Didn’t Frank?) They hurl him onto the train as it pulls out of the station and the credits come up. Wow.
The locale has been moved from gritty Chicago to pretty San Francisco, the first noticeable mistake. Already the story has been softened, though Frank always looks great on location. Maybe because he wasn’t a true movie star, he never looked quite natural on a set — his small frame shrinking in the hothouse atmosphere of a soundstage. But put him in a raincoat and trademark fedora and have him walk the streets of metropolitan America, and he comes alive on screen. His cockiness and swagger make sense on a street.
The minute he steps into the Barbary Coast Club, however, we are too obviously on a Los Angeles set, and his star wattage goes way down as we get the first real taste of Joey Evans: weasely, low-rent opportunist. As fascinating as this kind of character is and despite the movie’s mellowing of him, Frank can’t make him lovable, can’t share his humanity with the audience. Except when he sings. He has no trouble capturing Joey’s unsavory qualities. Nobody laughs at his jokes (according to Shirley MacLaine, no one laughs at Sinatra’s either, though he keeps cracking them, which sort of earns our admiration), and he treats every woman as an object of scorn or sexual gratification. In fact, the only warmth Joey ever displays is toward his dog, Snuffy.
Anyway, here he is on stage: “This next song is dedicated to all the saloon keepers who have blown their liquor license — “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.'” Nobody laughs. Then he starts to sing — with just a piano, rubato. He looks askance at the mirrored ball, moves around the stage marking his territory and getting a feel for the club. Once again, Frank Sinatra comes alive, graceful, supernal. Every movement is measured: he closes his eyes, throws back his head, and though his singing voice is an extension of his speaking voice, now it has conviction. Now, somehow, he’s suddenly a decent human being. When the song kicks into tempo, that spirit is still there; he doesn’t sacrifice his sincerity to swing. Even the looks he gives the dub owner and band can’t detract from the song. He’s hired.
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We next hear him sing at a charity ball at Vera Simpson’s sumptuous Nob Hill mansion. Joey wears a red dinner jacket, just a member of the band sitting on the side, waiting for his cue. He gets up, shrugs his right shoulder, adjusts the microphone, and sings “There’s a Small Hotel” in a society dance-band arrangement that can’t diminish the pure magnetism of the moment. In a way, it’s easier to examine his extraordinary technique when it’s set off by a conventional background, gleaming as a diamond would in a plain metal box.
Frank was 42 when he made Pal Joey, maybe a bit too old for the part, but his age made the character’s hollow, lonely life that much more pathetic. While singing, he’s always checking out the “mice” — his quaint reference for desirable women. He sees Rita Hayworth on the dance floor and sings directly to her. He’s composed, confident, and unfortunately appealing. He has her number. In fact, Rita (who is undermined throughout the picture by unflattering mid-range shots and make-up so inept Cohn might have slathered it on himself) even allows him to humiliate her into doing a bump-and-grind. He pulls the same trick with Kim Novak. “I got plans for that doll. Ring-a-ding plans. This little mouse takes a special kind of baiting.”
“You’re wasting your time. She ain’t goin’ for it,” the club owner fires back.
“They all do.”
He walks on stage and sings “I Could Write a Book” — pulling Kim from the wings to sing the last chorus with him. Works every time. Though at first resistant, she finally caves in and loves it. With any other singer, the seduction might be less than convincing — a threadbare musical-comedy device. But because it’s Frank, the scene is believable and lethal. She’s doomed.
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Yet the “piece of resistant” as Joey puts it, is “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and it’s no accident that this was the hit of the movie. The song was interpolated from another show, Babes in Arms, nearly 20 years earlier, and in 1939 the word tramp had a different connotation than in the repressive 1950s: a Bohemian vagabond — as Hart’s lyric makes dear — rather than a slut. The song was conceived to be sung by a woman (Mitzi Green introduced it with much success) as an ode to her own independence. But Frank knew what he was doing; he had already recorded the number for an album, but delayed its release so that it would have greater impact in the film.
Rita Hayworth comes to the Barbary Coast Club and asks Joey for a song. The chairs have already been placed on the tables and the band has retired to the kitchen, but this is rich Mrs. Simpson, so they all hop to their marks. Frank starts singing at the piano and the first time Rita hears the word tramp, directed right at her, she flinches. This is seduction through insult. Frank stands up, shoves the piano away with his foot, exhaling cigarette smoke — a gesture ripe for parody, though he carries it off with such command that you don’t really mind how incredibly stupid it is.
He and the song are fantastic, the latter completely transformed to serve his purpose, a stroke of genius. Rita calls him “Beauty,” and his songful seduction is indeed a thing of beauty — cold and glittering and perfect. He has passed the test. And what’s his reward? He gets to follow Rita Hayworth out of the club carrying her wrap. Who says it isn’t a matriarchal society? After that flawlessly realized and forceful scene, the film slides down one of San Francisco’s steeper hills. Still, in that indelible moment, Rita Hayworth’s reaction is ours. She illuminates why a strong, independent woman has put up with so much bad behavior. This crumb could sing — beatifically. ❖