“Some guys have a system with horses, and I got a system with dames. It’s a snap. You treat a dame like a lady, and you treat a lady like a dame.”
Columbia reaches into the depths of their catalogue to release a lesser-known musical comedy, Pal Joey. It’s a fun little romp that exceeded this reviewer’s preconceived notions.
The two film reviewers I most respect are Roger Ebert and Harry Knowles. One trait that you will see in their reviews is that they bring their personal baggage to the review when warranted. For me, with this movie, it is definitely warranted. My sister and I did not necessarily have conventional viewing habits while we were growing up. Not many 14-year-olds go to the video store week after week renting Hitchcock films. We both grew up steeped in films of Hollywood’s better days. As we grew older, she remained with the classics while I moved on to more current fare. She particularly loves musicals, so I’ve rather unwillingly seen snatches of quite a few of them. So, it was with her favorite musicals in mind that I sat down to watch Pal Joey.
Pal Joey has a considerable pedigree. It was based upon a racy stage production that premiered in 1940. It had to be toned down considerably to bring it to the silver screen. It was directed by George Sidney, who had previously directed Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, and Anchors Aweigh (which featured Gene Kelly’s famous dance with Jerry of Tom and Jerry), and would go on to direct Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas. It featured music by Richard Rodgers, who had already written the music for some of the great musicals of stage and screen: The King and I, Oklahoma!, and State Fair. He would go on to write South Pacific and The Sound of Music. And of course, there’s the cast. By 1957, Rita Hayworth had been seen in 52 films, including Blood and Sand and The Lady From Shanghai. Frank Sinatra had made his mark in musicals such as High Society and Guys and Dolls, and in dramatic films such as The Man With The Golden Arm and From Here to Eternity (for which he had won an Oscar). Kim Novak had not quite made her mark yet. That would not come until the following year, when she put in a mesmerizing performance opposite James Stewart in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo. With this kind of cast and crew, how can you go wrong?
There are two kinds of musicals: those where the songs move the plot along, and those where the songs are merely there. Pal Joey is the latter. The plot seems to come to a halt to allow the characters to sing. That is the thing that annoys me about musicals the most. You wouldn’t think it would cause a problem here, because the movie is about singers, but it does cause something of an identity crisis for the film. On one hand, it’s trying to be a big-production musical, but on the other hand it’s also trying to tell a very human story. Here’s the plot.
Joey Evans (Sinatra) is a crass, womanizing hustler, and happens to be a great singer. After being thrown out of another town (for romancing the mayor’s underage daughter), he arrives in San Francisco and proceeds to look up an old friend to weasel his way into a singing gig. Joey sweet-talks all the female employees at the club, but he is most attracted to the nice girl who sees through his façade, Linda (Novak). Joey moves into a room at a boarding house next to Linda, and the two slowly become friends.
At a singing engagement in the ritzy part of town, Joey hustles his way into the good graces of a rich widow, Vera Simpson (Hayworth). It is mentioned that Vera used to be a singer and stripper, but that particular plot thread isn’t followed (perhaps due to the restrictions of Hays Code Hollywood). Joey charms Vera into financing his dream of owning his own nightclub, while at the same time his friendship with Linda is chipping away at that façade and is bringing out his human side. Joey brings all the employees at the club where he worked to his new place, including Linda. When Vera sees that there is something of a bond between Linda and Joey, she forces him to fire Linda. This brings Joey to his hero’s dilemma: side with Vera, and in turn get to keep her money and his dream, or side with Linda, lose his club and go back to low-paying singing gigs? I’m sure you can guess which path he chooses.
The songs in Pal Joey are adequate, but they lack the impact of the song-and-dance numbers of the great musicals. For the most part, the songs are sung by characters who are singers in the course of practicing their profession, but they do cause the plot to come to a halt. Had some of the less-memorable songs been left out and more interaction between the characters added, it would have been a more interesting film. But, don’t get me wrong. I liked this musical more than those “great” musicals, because it refused to stick to trite plot conventions. Most musicals use the stale boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back formula. This movie, while also romantic, presents the antagonist with a moral dilemma that he must unravel to make the right decision. This role for Sinatra was perfect, because it allowed him to use his considerable dramatic acting talents. When I was finished watching the movie, I started it from the beginning again and breezed through the chapter stops. It made me reflect that the movie had taken me in a different direction than I thought it would at the beginning, and I appreciated that.
I’m unsure what kind of work went into releasing Pal Joey on DVD. On first viewing, I was impressed with the picture quality of a movie of such a vintage. When I rewatched it with a more critical eye, I saw quite a bit of edge enhancement. The first reel or two have noticeable dirt and scratches, but after that they aren’t particularly obvious. Other problems, such as the soft picture, grain, and muted palette, I’ll chalk up to the limitations of the source material. Audio is presented in mono, and is lively enough for mono, so why belabor the point? Extras include two full-frame trailers, one for Pal Joey and one for The Loves of Carmen. The trailer for Pal Joey clocks in at just under five minutes, and is of poor audio and video quality. It features Frank Sinatra explaining Joey’s lingo and mannerisms. The other trailer has fared much better, and is only two and a half minutes long. They are notable mostly for the extreme differences between them and modern movie trailers. Rounding out the special features are still shots of three posters used to advertise the movie, and cast and director bios. Audio is presented in English and Portuguese, and the movie is subtitled in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai. Strange choices for a Region 1 disc.
The judge has already noted his quarrels with the film. I wonder why Columbia chose to release this musical, rather than better-known musical titles from their catalogue such as Bye Bye Birdie or Funny Girl.
I’m unsure how to recommend this movie. Unless you’re a big Frank Sinatra fan or a musical buff, Pal Joey is not something that is going to add anything significant to your collection. I’d be very surprised if many rental outlets would stock such an obscure title. I would recommend that those who want to see a slight piece of film history and an enjoyable musical give it a try.