Sinatra at 80: Pal Frank

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. ❖


Be As You Are

Well, shit—who wouldn’t marry Kenny Chesney instead? A laid-back little fella, he’ll wash if you dry, sniffle proudly at your daughter’s graduation, whisk you off to Tim and Faith’s beach house for the weekend. Sure, one Amstel Light too many can instigate a 4 a.m. Billy Joel sing-along with his Lambda Chi bros, but at least he won’t sulk Saturday night away in the attic alphabetizing Blind Blake wax cylinders by gas lamp. And any juniorette Joan Rivers who refuses to condone a Stetson at the altar should check Jack White’s latest promo glossies. You’d prefer your groom decked out like a Hasidic Johnny Depp piloting the TARDIS to 19th-century Spain?

Not to belabor the Page Six subtext, but hey, celebrity is as celebrity does. If White repeatedly lunges chin-first into songs of romantic disappointment, well, isn’t he just begging for a Gawker link to his Live Journal? On the first four tracks of Get Behind Me Satan an emissary from the unfair sex discolors Jack’s flowers, salts his wounds, leaves his doorbell unrung, and allows “everybody’s reactions” to distract her from his undying love. And a rebound marriage to redheaded supermodel Karen Elson makes White’s whine of “I wanna get a piece of hair” in “Take, Take, Take,” his stalker ode to Rita Hayworth, that much creepier. The control freak who once approvingly echoed C.F. Kane’s disinterest in gold mines, oil wells, shipping, and real estate surely knows how Orson Welles asserted his husbandly prerogative over Hayworth’s luxurious red curls—with a pair of shears and a bottle of dye.

To be fair, White, like Welles, is some kind of wunderkind formalist. After the humid Van Lear Rose illustrated White’s facility with a full palette, his return to checkerboard basics on “Blue Orchid” feels even more deliberately austere, and “Instinct Blues” is a more effective (because more concise) exercise in single-riff shredding than Elephant‘s “Ball and Biscuit.” Even with the marimba flourishes and thudding piano that expand his rhythmic and dynamic range, White never colors carelessly outside the blocky lines that Meg, bless her metronomic heart, stolidly provides. At their core, after all, the White Stripes remain a wickedly righteous design scheme: a perfectly realized minimalist art project that rocks. So maybe when White croaks lovesick demands with the high-strung self-regard that smart women learn by their mid-twenties not to mistake for passionate vulnerability, his persona is merely a cubist rendering of romantic obsession?

Sorry, Ms. Hayworth—he is for real. White no longer dances around his faux-chivalrous urges with the same passive-aggressive agility that made White Blood Cells such an achingly hopeful breakup album. Sometimes his bitterness crystallizes into a pithy phrase like “You think not telling is the same as not lying, don’t you?” Sometimes he’s not even bitter—”My Doorbell” is as charming as solo McCartney always should’ve been. But throughout he amplifies his pain to lure you inward, as though true love might blossom out of a sympathy fuck. Maybe it will. But I’ll be damned if he’s taking my sister canoeing in Brazil.

Good thing I don’t have a sister then, because White splatters his soul atop his two-toned arrangements of raw power and folksy rudiment too cannily for me to stop listening: Until we boys get our own Courtney Love, he’s the most calculated yet visceral exemplar of self-laceration in his gender class. Meanwhile, White’s own simulated sibling, who happens to be his ex-wife, is entrusted with the album’s hidden moral, a 32-second warning to girls. “Don’t just succumb to the wishes of your brothers,” Meg cautions. “You need to know the difference between a father and lover.” Tell it, sis: Moody artsy types can be a blast to fool around with. But once they start talking “forever,” maybe it’s time to pack up your toothbrush and birth control, change your cell number, and find someone who’ll remember to pick the kids up from soccer practice. Maybe that nice Keith Urban is still unhitched.


You Give Me Fever

Anthology’s Halogen Canticles program presents a rare chance to see three staggeringly unstable movies—chlorotic, tumescent features made in all good faith by clammy journeymen gone mad in high fevers—and, programmed alongside each, the landmark short films derived from them by back-alley emulsion doctors with secret, sadistic needs of their own.

Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936, 19 mins.) is an enigmatic, mischievous rearrangement of shots culled from George Melford’s lush compost heap of tropical jungle-adventure tropes East of Borneo (1931). Perfervidly obsessed with the peculiar deciduous fineness of the movie’s lead, actress manqué Hobart, Cornell slices out all obstructive plot from Borneo, and transforms it by the camera obscura of his famously boxed-up brain into a glorious parade of decontextualized portraits of his lissome fixation. By this method, virginal Cornell desired “to release unsuspected floods of music from the gaze of the human countenance in its prison of silver light.” The boner quotient is indeed high in this primitive and loving ejaculation from America’s most important basement boy.

If not actually the very first found-footage film (Chaplin must have reconfigured some actress screen tests for personal use years earlier), Rose Hobart‘s wondrous brilliance has undeniably inspired thousands of filmmakers to try their hand at this sometimes fecund practice. Pity, then, to take the contrarian stance that Cornell committed an act of butchery rivaled only by that of RKO’s upon Ambersons. East of Borneo is sublime in its original, unmangled form. See for yourself the seductively engorged hybrid of an early Von Sternberg love triangle (Hobart sleeps in drag within a tent of mosquito netting stretched across a crocodile-infested equator of the mind) and the Halperin brothers of White Zombie vintage, whose willful use of rear-screen, impenetrable murk, stock footage, and music loops conjured aromatic continents that National Geographic could only expose as banal disappointments.

In Her Fragrant Emulsion (1987, 10 mins.), American filmmaker Lewis Klahr immolates himself in the androgynous presence of another marginalized actress, nitro-burning funny-car diva Mimsy Farmer (Hot Rods to Hell, Riot on Sunset Strip), whose smile Klahr was seduced to regard as “a little too believable,” convincing him that Farmer was “genuinely wild and having too good a time” on screen, and that this quality sealed her fate as a B-movie actress. He decided to stalk her, retroactively, through her filmography. Admittedly inspired by Cornell, Klahr’s methods differ decidedly. He glues onto clear film leader tiny sliced strips and celluloid shrapnel bits of Her Mimsiness clawed and gouged out of the 1969 shot-in-Italy hippie-noir incest-o-rama feature Road to Salina. The images in Fragrant Emulsion barrage the viewer exclusively with elusive and erotic glimpses of this somewhat Sebergian former star of what can now be wistfully called skin flicks. The 8mm textures and enervated color of the serrated images rip open a piñata of sad nostalgias, and the oft-repeated sight of Farmer springing nude from a beach into the sea evokes the slippery sensation of struggling to remember all at once every lineament of a dead beloved. A most ardent necrophilia of a still-living actress.

The 96-minute Road to Salina features a Murderer’s Row cast of Robert Walker Jr. (the skittish look-alike ghost of his own father, remembered from Strangers on a Train), Rita Hayworth (a confused ghost of herself wandering around in another woman’s body, only the voice consistently recognizable from when she lived in Gilda), and mealy-faced über-Borgnine Ed Begley. Its groovy film vocabulary defining the era, this is a picture Spike Jonze might have studied compulsively. An orgy of zooms!! Brazen dubbing—even the cars seem to rumble out-of-sync in a foreign language!! Hardcore spaghetti-psychedelic score!! Free love, with your sister!! Rita Hayworth smokes a joint and boogaloos with Begley!! (Fred Astaire always said Hayworth was his best partner. Perhaps already suffering undiagnosed from the Alzheimer’s that killed her, Hayworth is rumored to have preferred Begley.) A spectacular vintage car wreck of a movie.

Influenced in turn by Klahr, Austrian Peter Tscherkassky has made two films cannibalizing Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 Barbara Hershey horror film The Entity, the story of a woman who is continually assaulted and raped either by real ghosts or by awfully adept repressed traumas. Furie’s original feature, to be screened in a freshly minted print, is a crude and sometimes stupid contemporary of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, with Val Lewton allegorical aspirations and lurid lapses in taste—all of which make it damned disturbing. Incest and spousal abuse invisibly haunt the house in which one views this movie.

Tscherkassky’s two short glosses on the picture are respectfully unworshipful of the tortured pre-collagen Hershey, but of all the females under scrutiny discussed here, certainly no woman’s face is offered up more intensely than that of this woeful victim, the former Miss Seagull. The screen literally explodes with a tumult of Hershey faces, shattering Steve Burum’s original cinematography into shards of frightened eyes, trembling hands, and violent outbursts of self-defense, presented in multiple exposures too layered to count, too arresting to ignore. Each frame is further entangled with details revealed by a jittery effect (a primitive traveling matte?) which spills fluttering ectoplasmic lightpools from one cubist aspect of the woman to another. The filmmaker mimics the action of nightmares by condensing the original imagery of the feature and displacing it into a new narrative—as in dreams, a narrative not explicitly linked to actual events, but emotionally more true than any rational explanation. Tscherkassky’s shorts are actually considerably more terrifying than the original material.

So it is that from unstable, unloved, unremembered films come even more unstable and obsessive and timeless works. Now fully inspired to participate somehow in the thread of history so unspooled by the Halogen Canticles, I shall plop on my filmmaker’s hat and wait some 10 years before releasing my own reassembly of Undercover Brother, featuring the long-overdue coronation, high upon the gilded and jewel-encrusted found-footage throne, of luminous and deserving Denise Richards. Long live the queens of Cinema Rejecta!!


The Heat Is Off

Although its Hays Code sanitizing is mitigated somewhat by the glorious extravagances of 1950s cinema (it’s a Technicolor, 3-D star vehicle with musical numbers), Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) is a scoured version of Rain (1932), also based on W. Somerset Maugham’s tale of a wanton woman. The earlier film boasted a divinely louche Joan Crawford as a strumpet stuck on Pago Pago for a week in between ships; Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson is not so much a doxy as she is a gal with moxie. José Ferrer’s zombie-eyed missionary man, Alfred Davidson, hopes his Christian zealotry will enrich the South Seas natives—depicted here as simple folk untainted by the materialistic malaise afflicting whitey. Davidson preaches his own brand of Hays Code morality to Sadie, who all too willingly succumbs to his redemption song, but his heart of darkness soon prevails: He rapes her and then kills himself. Sadie ultimately does find salvation in the form of a marriage proposal from pit bull marine Phil O’Hara (Aldo Ray). Hayworth’s prolonged hand-wringing over whether or not her dissolute swain will ever be able to forget her checkered past is a prime example of ’50s double standards, especially when compared to Crawford’s nonchalant swagger.

Notwithstanding its paternalistic sexual politics and cultural fetishizing, Miss Sadie Thompson is a fascinating case study of stardom; think of it as the coming of middle age in Samoa for Rita Hayworth. Although her musical number “The Heat Is On” almost reaches the show-stopping caliber of Gilda‘s “Put the Blame on Mame,” Miss Sadie marks the beginning of the end. Four years would pass before Hayworth appeared in another film, this time eclipsed by rising Columbia starlet Kim Novak in Pal Joey.


Behind the Screen

In the gutsy black-and-white noir fable Gilda (1946), the sultry title character (Rita Hayworth), just married to a casino’s sinister owner, meets up with her old flame, Johnny Farrell, now her husband’s best friend. Two hours of plot twists later, they end up in each others’ arms. But before that, Gilda must disclose her devastating secret: she used to be a stripper in New York. She gives the audience a peek of her past by strutting onto the casino stage, peeling off first one elbow-length black satin glove, then the other. This being ’40s Hollywood, Gilda doesn’t get very far. But the camera adores her alone out there on the dark stage, catching light off her hair and her slinky black dress as she rips a diamond choker from her neck and lobs it into the audience like a grenade. It’s a vivid moment in American film, imagining a potent piece of public undressing as both our heroine’s victory and her defeat.

Today, striptease is called erotic dancing, and it’s become a sexy mainstream trend. According to a story last year in U.S. News and World Report, the number of strip clubs has roughly doubled since 1987, and Americans now spend more money annually at these clubs than they do at the theater, the opera, the ballet, and jazz and classical music concerts combined. Academics hold ultraserious conferences on the meaning of striptease, and former strippers are writing tell-all books. In the Mojave desert, there’s a museum and hall of fame devoted to striptease. And it has taken root in Hollywood and on television talk shows, as well as in the rage for literary memoir, which translates into a cry to ”take it all off.”

The trend is heating up with the evolution of online striptease, which made its first appearance several years ago and mutated into phone sex for the eye. The Internet has made it possible–for anyone who will pay around $5.99 a minute–to download ”live” women (and men), via videoconferencing, from studios in Las Vegas, Massachusetts, or Silicon Valley.

So-called adult videoconferencing boasts ”interactivity.” And at no other time have late-20th-century voyeurs actually been able to go so far, commanding the ”models” (as they are known in the business) what to take off, and how, and when. The technology is in its infancy, though, so most of these sites fall back on the humble keyboard to transmit a command. The models switch between disrobing, pounding out lewd answers to keyboard queries, and controlling the camera angle with a mouse. (Sometimes, a second person in the room acts as a kind of prompter and types their responses.) Some sites are more ambitious, using a speaker box so ”clients” can talk directly to the models, but this is about two years away from workable quality.

All this disconnected action gives online stripping the same tragicomic frenzy that Charlie Chaplin adapts when the assembly line speeds up on him in Modern Times. Now the models are typing ”I’d love to take it off,” now they’re flexing into an improbable position, now they’re flipping from pan to zoom to tilt. Half the time it’s impossible to see the picture, and if there’s sound, the words get garbled. Yet these sites are already phenomenally profitable–a rarity on the Web. One popular business called Virtual Dreams will pull in over $12 million this year.

”People like to see naked women talking to them,” says Danni Ashe, who runs one of the most popular sites, the Los Angeles–based Danni’s Hard Drive. After two and a half years in business, Ashe has a staff of 14 and expects to pull in $3 million this year. ”When the technology finally gets together,” says Ashe, ”this is going to be really big.”

But there’s more to it than naked girls. The Internet draws in people you’d never find working in the live ”sex tease” industry, as the loose network of strip clubs–strung across the nation like so much slack telephone wire–is called. The possibility of making money without leaving home attracts part-time housewives in Washington, paralegals in Malden, Massachusetts, single mothers trying to make an extra buck, college students, former IBM techies. And the callers defy the stereotype of the curious trench coat wearer, coming in from all over the world, anywhere there’s Internet access.

In fact, the trench coat wearer was always less ubiquitous than reformers claimed. From the moment striptease burst onto the scene in New York around 1900, it’s been a populist American diversion. By the Jazz Age, when modern movie star Louise Brooks publicly announced that she liked to drink and fuck, striptease attracted new immigrants, sailors on leave, working men and women, transvestites, and gay men. Yet ”high lowbrows,” as Chaplin called the sybaritic Algonquin Table crowd, also thronged to Coney Island, Second Avenue, Union Square, and, during the Depression, Broadway to devour striptease’s brassy, steaming sensuality. Striptease emerged in many unexpected places in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, from This Side of Paradise to Big Money and the last wretched moments of Studs Lonigan; from the winking thriller Lady of Burlesque to Can Can; from irresistible, hummable Pal Joey to Imogene Cocoa’s cooing nightclub acts.

#Even after the Depression closed Broadway shows, striptease remained popular as a bawdy, anarchic spirit. When the rhapsodic poet Hart Crane wrote in his mystical epic The Bridge that a Second Avenue strip joint ”wakened salads in the brain,” he meant that it overturned oppressive Victorian mores. In the ’60s, the same rebellious impulse resurfaced as a political strategy that tried to be more than one person’s erotic experience. Julian Beck, founder of the Living Theater, disrobed in front of an audience and asked them to do the same. Striptease was now radical, a countercultural act, an attempt to moon uptight ’50s conventions. Nudity could set you free.

#After that, feminism, with good reason, told us it couldn’t. And still later, political correctness agreed. Today, though, companies like Danni’s Hard Drive are riding the wave of so-called sex-positive feminism, arguing that ”adult videoconferencing” is an empowering act. ”We give dancers a chance to take advantage of their own careers and provide them with role models,” Ashe maintains, explaining that some adult videoconferencing services provide employees with a good salary and even benefits. (Virtual Dreams has paid $50,000 a year.) But others are skeptical, pointing out that some online services actually pay less to cyberstrippers than live ones. (Low-end estimates range from $7 to $10 an hour.) And, says Jane No, a member of the Exotic Dancers Union, Local 790 in San Francisco–which earlier this year successfully ratified a union contract at the Lusty Lady Peep Show–the Internet allows people to record, reuse, and even sell images without compensating the performers. ”It plagues the industry,” she says.

Then too, the Internet has made certain decisions about whom striptease’s audience will be. Once democratic, striptease on the Web is pitched to a different audience. After all, $5.99 a minute adds up. And whereas the concave screen has merits, safe sex–wise, the Web has failed to solve a great need of our times. To paraphrase a great female entertainer in a different line of work, we want to be alone, but not by ourselves.