“Pal Joey” began as a series of short stories in the New Yorker by once-prominent writer John O’Hara (Appointment in Samarra, Butterfield 8, From the Terrace) centering on a womanizing second-rate entertainer in Chicago of the late-1930s named Joey Evans. The stories were gathered into an epistolatory book and the book for a Broadway musical for which Richard Rogers wrote the music and Lorenz Hart the music that starred Gene Kelly in the title role.
The protagonist was far too amoral for the Hollywood Production Code to permit its filming. Also Gene Kelly signed with MGM, which was unwilling to lend him to Columbia. Its head, Harry Cohn bought the rights and wanted to cast Columbia’s biggest star of the 1940s, Rita Hayworth, as Linda, the girl with whom Joey becomes emotionally entangled. Purportedly, Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard) wanted to make a movie version with Mae West as Vera, the older woman whose boytoy Joey becomes.
Eventually, in what turned out to be the last movie she made for Columbia, Hayworth played the older woman. She received top billing in an act of gallantry from Frank Sinatra, who played the title character, has the most screen times, and most songs. Columbia’s big star of the 1950s, Kim Novak (who had been featured in the version of Nelson Algren’s National Book Award-winning novel about a heroin junkie, The Man with a Golden Arm, directed by Otto Preminger (who was engaged in a long-running crusade against the Production Code censors).
As usual for Novak, her character (Linda) was unhappy with being regarded as a sex object, though at least in the first half of the movie, during which she is fending off Joey’s seduction, she seems fairly confident and is wily at thwarting him.
Hayworth had her own history of restiveness about her glamour (#1 pinup for wartime US military personnel in a famous negligee photo), rueful about men who wanted to bed Gilda (the archetype Hayworth screen siren) and woke up with Magarita Cansino. Hayworth had married up to Prince Aly Khan, but was not a widow like Vera, but a divorcée (several times over). Hayworth started as a dancer, Vera as a stripper (“Vanessa the Undresser”). I don’t think Hayworth was a man-eater like Vera, and I find it unlikely that anyone would have called Sinatra “Beauty” as Vera does. Vera tries with some success to buy Joey by financing a Nob Hill (San Francisco) night club, “Chez Joey,” but insists that he fire Linda (who was to be featured singing the great Rogers and Hart song (not from the stage version of “Pal Joey,” but from the 1937 “Babes in Arms”), “My Funny Valentine.
Linda was a chorus girl in a more downscale (San Francisco) Broadway night club and Joey took its manager, Mike Miggins (Hank Henry, who would also appeared with Sinatra in “The Joker Is Wild,” “Ocean’s 11,” and “Robin and the 7 Hoods”), and the whole troupe of dancers and musicians along on his ride up the social ladder. Vera senses that Linda is serious competition for the affections of the man she has tried to buy.
To put it mildly, the movie softens the play and book, even providing a walking off into the sunset (on the way to Sacramento?!?) conclusion after Vera has put the other two together. (Joey is alone at the end of the play.) Indicative of the Hollywood removal of the Broadway edge are some of the lines cut form Hart’s lyrics for the musical’s best song, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” such as “Horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best” and “Vexed again, Perplexed again/ Thank God I can be oversexed again.”
(BTW, the other great Rogers and Hart song in the movie, “The Lady Is a Tramp,” which Joey sings at Vera, also derived from “Babes in Arms.” I have to say that I’ve never understood why various attributes such as never arriving late at the theater indicate that the supposed “lady” is really a “tramp.” Joey’s usually successful m.o. is to treat ladies like tramps and tramps like ladies, though he does not treat Linda like a tramp, or at least cannot follow through when he tries to. I don’t think that “I Could Write a Book” has achieved the status as a “standard)
There is a lot of Sinatra in his early 40s in the movie (he was actually three years older than Hayworth, eighteen years older than Novak) in the movie. He won a best actor in a comedy or musical Golden Globe award as Joey, and the movie was nominated for four Oscars (editing, sound, costume design, art/set decoration).
The songs are productions in/for nightclubs rather than advancing the plot (a lot of the production numbers in musicals are about putting on performances on stage or screen, including “The Band Wagon,” “Singing in the Rain,” “42nd Street,” and “Cabaret,” so that the proceedings don’t screech to a halt for characters to sing at each other.)
Novak holds her own dancing, and Trudy Erwin who dubbed her singing sounded like Novak(‘s speaking voice). Hayworth was first and foremost a dancer. Her singing sounds like that in other 1950s musicals (“Affair in Trinidad” and “Miss Sadie Thompson”) because it was dubbed by the same singer, Jo Ann Greer (the fit with speaking voice is not as seamless as Novak/Erwin).
(This is the fourth in my retrospective of 1950s Novak’s films that involved her in acquiescing and/or loving much older male stars, starting in 1954 with “Pushover” (with Fred MacMurray, 25 years Novak’s elder), continuing with the 1956 “Picnic,” (with William Holden, who was fifteen years older than Novak, and the 1959 “Middle of the Night” (with Fredric March, who was 36 years her elder). The latter two, like “Pal Joey,” were adaptations of stage plays.