Pal Joey (1957): Musical Starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak

The John O’Hara-Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart Broadway musical “Pal Joey” created a stir during its original theatrical run in 1940 due to its “outre” subject matter and flawed hero.

The erotic nature of the plot and the double-entendre song lyrics (especially the original words for “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) were way ahead of their times as far as mainstream tunes go.

The musical is based on a character that O’Hara had created in several short stories published in “The New Yorker,” which he later published in novel form. The title character, Joey Evans, is a manipulative small-time nightclub performer whose ambitions lead him into an affair with the wealthy, middle-aged and married Vera Simpson.

Some of the songs, such as “I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” have become legendary. The original 1940 Broadway production was directed by George Abbott and starred Vivienne Segal and Gene Kelly.

O’Hara offered his stories to Rodgers and Hart for adaptation as a musical. Joey Evans, an unsympathetic but charming protagonist, deviated from the norm of most musical comedies.

The lead part was originally intended for Marlon Brando with George Cukor directing, but it was ultimately played by Frank Sinatra under the helm of George Sidney.

The protag, Joey Evans, is essentially a schemingly rotten, unapologetically upwardly mobile guy, who does not hesitate to dump his nice girl who truly love him, when she becomes an obstacle to his ambitious career.  Instead, he courts and has an affair with a  wealthy older woman (Rita Hayworth) in order to realize his dream of owning his own nightclub.

On Broadway, it was played by the very youn Gene Kelly, who was not a movie star yet.  Columbia bought the rights for the show as a vehicle for Kelly.  But by the time the film was seriously considered, Kelly had become a big MGM star.

Due to censorship (the Production Code) and moralistic times, “Pal Joey” could not be faithfully filmed back in the 1940s.  But in 1957, when the screen version was finally released, movie censorship was beginning to relax.

Sinatra, then at the prime of his screen career (he won the Supporting Actor Oscar for “From Here to Eternity”), is well cast as the ambitious and immoral lounge singer-dancer Joey Evans.

The relationship between Joey and his older benefactress Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth, who in real life was younger than Sinatra, but was beginning to age rapidly) is implied and suggested rather than overtly stated.

In fact, Columbia asked writer Dorothy Kingsley to retouch O’Hara’s riske scenario and turn Joey into a more amiable and nicer guy.

In contrast to Vera, chorus girl Linda English (Kim Novak, who would replace Hayworth as Columbia’s top female star) is decent and simple; initially, she is against doing a striptease.

Under Sidney’s helm, the Rodgers and Hart songs, which seemed cynical and ironic in 1940, are given the lavish and luxurious Hollywood treatment, but they offer some visual pleasure.

Among the popular tunes are “The Lady Is a Tramp,”  “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “There’s a Small Hotel,” which was borrowed from other Rodgers and Hart shows.

My favorite songs in the movie are: “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and “I Could Write a Book.”

Some of the original numbers, such as “You Mustn’t Kick It Around” and “Den of Iniquity,” were excised in order to please the PCA.

Needless to stay neither star could sing, and so, as was the common preactice at the time, Rita Hayworth was dubbed by Jo Ann Greer, and Kim Novak by Trudy Erwin.

Even so, just to watch the beautiful Hayworth and Novak sharing the same screen (and man) is delightful enough.

Pal Joey was a commercial hit at the box-office, one of 1957’s top-grossing films.

Politics of Billing:

Surprisingly, Rita Hayworth. Sinatra received top billing, though Sinatra was a bigger star, and he played the title role. Asked about the billing, Sinatra replied, “Ladies first,” quipping, about his name being placed between the two women: “That’s a sandwich I don’t mind being stuck in the middle of.”

Oscar Nominations: 4

Art direction-Set decoration: Walter Holscher, William Kiernan and Louis Diage.

Sound recording: Columbia Sound Department, John P. Livadary (sound director)

Film Editing: Viola Lawrence and Jerome Thoms

Costume Design: Jean Louis

Oscars: None

Oscar Context:

In 1957, “Sayonara” won the Best Art Direction and Sound Oscars.  Peter Taylor received the Editing Oscar for David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which swept the awards, including Best Picture.  Another musical, “Les Girls,” directed by George Cukor, won the Costume Design for Orry-Kelly.


Directed by George Sidney
Produced by Fred Kohlmar
Screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley, based on story and novel by John O’Hara
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Edited by Viola Lawrence and Jerome Thoms
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date: October 25, 1957
Running time: 109 minutes