Frank Sinatra. A movie star since the 1940s, Sinatra hit his groove as a dramatic actor in the mid 1950s in films like From Here to Eternity. How about 1957's Pal Joey? Based off a novel turned stage play, it allows Sinatra to show off that dramatic side while also playing a role that ain't so far removed from his real-life persona.
Kicked out of one town after another, second-rate singer and performer Joey Evans (Sinatra) arrives in San Francisco on the train with a few bucks in his pockets and the clothes on his back. A performer and singer, Joey wants nothing more than to have his own club, his name in lights outside, but his own troubles with women always derail those plans. He does manage to get a job at a small club where he meets Linda (Kim Novak), a naive, young dancer who still manages to see Joey's act. Undeterred, Joey still has his eyes set on her when he meets Vera Prentice-Simpson (Rita Hayworth), a former stripper turned lonely widow looking for a project. Getting along with Vera and more, Joey has a chance to hit the big time if he plays his cards right, but his old ways are just waiting to make an appearance, ruining everything.
A book turned highly successful musical turned highly successful movie, 'Pal' has quite the history. By the time it reached theaters in director George Sidney's film, it had undergone quite the transformation. Characters have been completely removed, some plot lines thrown by the wayside, other characters tweaked and turned to help make a pretty involved stage play more manageable. Sidney's film version picked up four Oscar nominations (but didn't win any) and two Golden Globe nominations, Sinatra winning for Best Actor. It is a fine example of a time and era in Hollywood long since past, stylish and cool without ever really trying too hard.
Here we are though, an issue I think I will have with every musical ever made. The singing, and more importantly, the out of left field, random, unexplained singing where everyone knows the words spontaneously (including the dance numbers). How does 'Pal' solve that issue? All the songs are naturally in the film's story, Joey, Linda and Vera all singing because the story requires it. Novel concept, huh? Sinatra gets his chance to sing, showing off that natural, easy-going stage ability, including The Lady Is a Tramp (HERE) and I Could Write a Book (HERE) among others, with Novak also getting a chance to sing/perform, Hayworth as well (performing but lip-synched). The best thing going though is simple. The songs are catchy, whistle-worthy songs that will be in your head for days. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it works here.
The Wikipedia entry for this flick is spot-on, many critics pointing to it as the definitive Sinatra flick. Sinatra does a fine job making a pretty despicable character at least mildly tolerable and even likable at times. Is it a stretch for him to play a smooth-talking, extremely talented, schmoozing entertainer? Um.....no, but he brings it to life. There are times you just want to slap the character, but that would be too perfect. It's Sinatra playing Sinatra with a slight twist. With several characters completely wiped from the play, the focus remains on Sinatra, Novak and Hayworth. Novak as Linda is in sex kitten mode, singing with that sultry voice and dancing with.....well, not much on (watch HERE). Hayworth as the slightly older, very smart and been there, seen that Vera is a scene-stealer as well, manipulating and twisting things as she sees necessary. A fine trio to lead the movie's smallish cast.
Also look for Barbara Nichols as Gladys, the conniving dancer/performer Joey bristles at, Bobby Sherwood as Ned, the bandleader who knows Joey's past and typical transgressions, and Hank Henry as Mike Miggins, the club owner who not so willingly gives Joey a shot at his club when he makes a high-reaching promise.
Having seen the play on the North Side of Chicago with the girlfriend in April, I was surprised to see how much was in fact snipped, cut up and prodded along to turn it into the film version. A lot has been changed. Most of the changes were wise choices in hopes of keeping the movie doable in a 109-minute final product. It is a 1957 movie, and the ending is basically the complete polar opposite of the play. For any sort of reality, it's dumb, basically washing away any character study we've developed up to this point with the Joey character. For the sake of a happy ending though, it works....I suppose. It drags a little in the second half, but the talents of the cast make up for some of the slow going. Long story short, it's Frank Sinatra being as cool as he ever was.
Pal Joey (1957): ***/****