The year is 1957.
Seventeen years after its release, Columbia Picture’s cinematic ‘dictator’ Harry Cohn is dying to bring the romantic dramedy Pal Joey to the silver screen.
Filled to the brim with sexual explicit scenarios and slick dialogue, it took Cohn numerous re-writes and several years to finally have his pipe dream realized.
Cagney, Grant and even Gene Kelly (due to Louis B Mayer‘s greediness) all turned down the lead role before Cohn settled on ole’ blue eyes, himself.
By the time Sinatra came into the fold, the script had been through various iterations, eventually ending with the finished, cleaned up product that moviegoers know as 1957’s Pal Joey.
The film starts off in San Franciso with noted womanizer Joey Evans (played by Sinatra) stepping off the bus in search of new employment. He’s a drifter, a playboy, irresponsible, but that doesn’t stop women from falling for his ‘sweet nothings’.
While walking down the North Beach pier, Evans spots an advert featuring an old friend, bandleader Ned Gavin. He diligently writes down the address and quickly saunters over to the nightclub, hoping to run into Ned; what finds instead, is the club’s owner, Mike Miggins.
Knowing he needs work, Joey haggles Miggins into giving him a job as a singer – which Evans exceeds at. During one his many performances, his warbling catches the eye of a young, blonde chorus girl named Linda (played by Kim Novak.) They get along well, which leads Joey to harass her until she accepts his advances.
Later that night, during a charity auction, a wealthy, older woman shows up to the event, stealing the gaze of every onlooker. Vera Simpson, played by Rita Hayworth, a former stripper who Joey recognizes immediately, turns out to be the sponsor of the auction and the sole investor of the club.
Joey, rudely, suggests that she does another performance for “old time’s sake” which earns him a swift slap to the face.
After striking out with Vera, Evans offers to walk Linda home. She’s hesitant to succumb to his wanton ways but, tolerates him when she finds out that they’re sharing an apartment together.
This doesn’t stop Joey from chasing after the older woman, however. Despite using insults as a disguise for flirting, Vera welcomes him back with open arms.
She reciprocates his advances which gives Joey an ego boost. When Vera returns to the club one night to make amends, he gives her his unbridled attention. Vera toys with him, and at the end of his session, she leaves without paying her astronomically large bill.
Guess who gets fired because of his indiscretions?
Luckily, Joey gets to redeem himself if he’s able to get Vera to return her investment in the club.
At this point in the film, Linda’s cold shoulder begins to warm gradually, and the thought of dating Joey seems to appeal to her.
Oooh, but wait! Not so fast.
You can never teach an old dog new tricks.
Linda breaks things off with him after he misses a dinner date they planned the night before, presumably the night he was meeting with Vera.
Joey couldn’t care less.
A couple of lies and champagne bottles later, Joey succeeds in seducing Vera and they begin to ‘go steady.’ But, their relationship is based on mutual gain rather than one that’s based on love.
Joey uses Vera for cash, and she uses him for companionship. Joey reveals to Vera that he wishes to have his own club one day. That intrigues Vera and she slyly suggests that she could invest in this new “project.”
The new place, dubbed “Chez Joey” is already a step up from his old place of employment. Decked out in chiffon, lace, and a multilevel stage, Joey’s already large ego doubles in size, essentially biting the hand that fed him. Taking matters into his own hands, Joey shrugs off Vera and reconnects with Linda, promoting her as the featured act.
Vera, naturally, is upset at this display of dominance and orders Joey to fire Linda. Instead of doing the honest thing and letting her go, Joey demands her to turn her singing act into a stripping one, knowing that it would make her uncomfortable.
Linda catches on to Joey’s charade and deduces that Vera is forcing him to do this. She takes matters into her own hands when, later that night, she finds Joey waiting for Vera on a ‘houseboat’ of sorts.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Linda gets revenge by sloppily attacking (or kissing, really) Joey until she passes out in a drunken stupor.
The next morning, Linda apologizes for her behavior and agrees to perform the ill-suggested strip tease for Joey. Later that night during Linda’s performance, the men in the crowd get a bit too rowdy for Joey’s liking.
Pangs of jealously ring through Joey’s chest.
He yanks Linda off the stage and tells her to perform a song instead, much to her delight.
Vera, however, can’t believe what she just witnessed. Angered at Joey’s disobedience Vera threatens to pull her funds from the club thus forcing its closure.
For the first time in his life, Joey keeps his integrity. He lets it close.
Linda has other ideas, though.
She reconvenes with Vera to discuss the situation. She suggests that if Linda were to leave town, she would reconsider. Obviously, that’s not feasible so, Linda gives up and goes to find Joey.
While driving around downtown San Franciso, Linda finds Joey walking out of ‘Chez Joey,’ bag in hand. After reflecting on his time spent drifting through the Golden State, Joey realizes that it may be time to settle down and live an honest life. And with that, he suggests that he and Linda continue their act as ‘Linda and Joey Evans’ leaving Vera alone, troubled and companionless.
Take an up and coming starlet whose studio is desperately trying to turn her into the next Marilyn Monroe despite her objections and pair her up with an ‘aging’ femme fetale who’s grasping on to the last vestiges of fame before the Hollywood machine™ puts her out for good and you get the musical comedy-drama Pal Joey.
Directed by George Sidney and spearheaded by Harry Cohn, this iteration of Pal Joey is the watered down version of the stage play of the same name.
In the stage play, Joey is a real piece of work.
He uses and abuses the two women, and in the finale that leaves with nothing but his suitcase and a bruised ego. In the classic ‘Hollywood-ified’ version, in the end, Joey and the much younger Linda run off together, leaving Vera and her millions in the dust.
This difference is the main reason why Harry Cohn had such a difficult time adapting this to the silver screen.
Fortunately for Columbia and Cohn, the film still managed to earn multiple Academy Award nominations, including ones for Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Pal Joey is truly an underrated film. One of Novak‘s best, it’s a shame not many people know about it.