Pal Joey was made in the in-between phase of Sinatra’s career when he was no longer the number one pin-up (by 1957, that was Elvis Presley), but still not old enough to be a living legend, so he has to settle for second billing after Rita Hayworth.
Originally a Broadway show with songs by Rogers and Hart and book by John O’Hara, it’s the story of nightclub singer, Joey Evans, who is established in the opening scene as a bit of a rogue when we see him being thrown out of a small town for dallying with the mayor’s daughter. But he’s a lovable rogue and Sinatra shines in a role which suited his somewhat bad-boy image.
Like many musicals, the story is slight. Joey winds up in San Francisco and meets society wife, Vera Simpson (Hayworth), a former exotic dancer. Mrs Simpson takes a bit of a shine to our Joey and offers to set him up in his own club. But Joey finds himself falling for good girl, Linda English (Novak), one of the singers at his current club. So, he has to choose between love or career. It’s a musical, so degrees in rocket science are not required to figure out what happens.
Rita Hayworth undeniably exudes glamour, even though they’ve straight-jacketed her in severe grey suits. She wasn’t even 40 yet when the film was made, but she’s made to look older. Then again, if 40 is considered a difficult age for an actress even now, she must have been considered pensionable back in 1957. Kim Novak, meanwhile, does her best with essentially a characterless role. The movie also marked the end of Hayworth’s reign as Columbia’s top female star and the start of Novak’s ascendency, so there’s an element of passing the flame.
But, it’s not really about plot or character. It’s about the songs. Rita Hayworth singing ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, Sinatra singing ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ and ‘I Could Write a Book’. Also featured are ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ and ‘Zip’. Complementing the atmosphere set by the score is the location shooting, in which San Francisco shimmers in the summer sun.