Her first name was (I mean, is … Kim is still with us) Marilyn, but that couldn't be used for obvious reasons, so Columbia boss Harry Cohn landed on Kim. The studio brought her along slowly with the idea that eventually she'd replace Rita Hayworth as Columbia's resident "Queen of the Lot." Pal Joey, which is one of those movies that has backstories related to everything from the source material to each of the stars was meant to be the moment where Rita more or less passes the torch to the younger star. And while that seems to take place, the movie rests firmly on the narrow shoulders of Frank Sinatra.
I don't like Kim here. Pal Joey was her second film with Frank Sinatra after their success three years earlier in The Man with the Golden Arm. The role is simply too straight, and calls for an actress with more a more deft comedic touch than Novak had at that time, or ever. It's easy to criticize Hayworth as an actress, but, had she been younger she would have hit a home run in Novak's role. Kim is simply too much woman for the diminutive Sinatra, too sultry for her good-girl character, and she looks uncomfortable in almost every scene. Her very next film would be her most famous, and it's easy to understand what doesn't work about her and Frank together in Pal Joey by looking at what does work between her and James Stewart in Vertigo. The Hitchcockian restraint, the mystery, the elegance, and even the leading man suit her better.
Sinatra lovers rejoice, he's at the top of his game. (I know, you've seen this many times already.) And I don't mean as an actor, or as somebody hitting his marks and speaking the lines — it always seems to me that Sinatra mailed it in in that regard. I'm thinking of the musical numbers, especially the ones in which he appears on the nightclub stage. The guy really comes to life under the hot lights. He works the audience and looks like a man who knows what he's doing and loves it. Of all Sinatra's pictures I think this one gives the best impression of how he must have appeared on stage in one of his Vegas shows — albeit in a much smaller way. Watch Pal Joey and think swagger, without the bullshit rat packers hanging on his pant legs.
There's a melancholy feeling that one gets watching Rita Hayworth in this film. Although out of respect Sinatra conceded top billing to her, she has the smallest and least affable part of the three leads. She's the older woman — a gold digger who scored to boot — who plays sugar daddy to Sinatra's dream of owning his own club and consequently keeps him away from Novak, the girl he really belongs with. Rita loses out in the end, but she does it with class. There's one great moment early on when we are reminded of her signature number in Gilda, but it's fleeting. Instead we are left with the impression that this is an actress getting put out to pasture, and there's something in the pursing of her lips that lets us know she doesn't quite like it. She's as beautiful and talented as ever, but Hollywood was even more fickle in those days than it is now and the parts just weren't made with her in mind anymore. Like Kim, Rita's next film was a heavyweight, though admittedly Separate Tables is an ensemble film, and Rita would never again appear in a production of this magnitude.
Pal Joey doesn't add up to the sum of its parts, but it's an enjoyable musical and something of a minor essential.
Pal Joey (1957)
Directed by George Sidney
Starring Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, and Kim Novak
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 111 minutes
Availabilty: Widely on DVD.