Stage To Screen: Pal Joey

paljoeyposter
Stage and Cinema

OK, so I know I said I was going to do a Stage To Screen about The Sign of The Cross, but once I started researching everything I decided to scrap it and write about Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey instead.

This decision was made for two reasons. First of all, there’s not enough verified information about the Cross stage production to make a compelling read (except for why Wilson Barrett wrote it and how the public took it), and secondly, it’s kind of depressing, even if it is inspirational. Watching the silent version was pretty fun, but anyway, something a bit more lighthearted sounds really good right now.

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Playbill

And now on to Pal Joey. In a nutshell, its title character is an anti-hero from a time when anti-heroes were frowned upon unless they were redeemable.

The plot of the show is this: Joey Evans is a social-climbing lethario who causes trouble wherever he goes. He not only talks himself into an emcee job at a nightclub, but he works his way through the chorus girls. Nothing is serious, though, until he meets Vera Simpson and Linda English.

paljoeyGene
Broadway At Its Best

These two ladies couldn’t be more different. Vera is a rich widow and former singer who walks out in a huff when Joey plays cat-and-mouse with her. However, Mike the club manager makes a deal with Joey: If he can get Vera to come back, he’ll get a raise. If not, he leaves without pay. Long story short, Vera comes back and she and Joey start an affair.

Linda English, on the other hand, is a fresh-faced kid who meets Joey outside a pet shop and falls for his lines. She gets a job at the club too, and she and Joey become sparring partners with the promise of something more.

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John O’Hara. (The New Yorker)

Vera and Joey, along with the staff of Joey’s current club work to open a new club, Chez Joey, but it’s an extremely bumpy road with a few casualties. As is the case with the eternal triangle, the big question is who will be left standing at the end.

According to Broadway.com, the show began life in 1939, when writer John O’Hara wrote a letter to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart about turning a serial he wrote for the New Yorker into a musical. Rodgers and Hart hesitated because the subject matter was a wee bit racier than their customary offerings, not to mention Joey was a world-class slimedog. However, they had to admit the idea was certainly unique.

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BBC Radio 2

The idea may have been unique, but the show followed accepted tropes in other ways, as it wasn’t an integrated musical in the true sense, although many of the songs advanced the character arcs in some way. Unfortunately, though, there was a lot of infighting before the show was ready.

The title character was played by none other than Gene Kelly, who Rodgers spotted playing Harry the Hoofer in The Time of Your Life. Rodgers asked Kelly’s agent, Johnny Darrow to bring Kelly in for an audition, and despite Kelly committing the cardinal sin of auditions (he initially sang a Rodgers song), he was a shoo-in. It was his first lead and a prestigious one, too; among Kelly’s fellow cast members were Van Johnson, Stanley Donan and June Havoc.

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Kelly with his co-star, Vivienne Segel. (Playbill)

Pal Joey opened on Christmas Day of 1940 and ran for three-hundred seventy-four performances, closing on November 29, 1941. Reviews were mixed, but no one was indifferent, mainly because people weren’t sure what to make of Joey. Kelly remembered later that he didn’t feel like the audience liked his character until he started singing. What he loved about the role was that it was a blank slate. Joey allowed Kelly to dance the way he wanted and project the image he wanted, and that was very freeing for him. It was a major career push for him also, as the show netted Kelly an MGM contract.

Here’s a sample of the show taken on eight millimeter film by June Havoc:

However, when the time finally came to turn Pal Joey into a film, Kelly was unable to reprise his role because MGM wouldn’t let him out of his contract. By then it was 1957 and he was obviously a big star, so MGM’s reluctance isn’t surprising, but Kelly was bummed because the film would have allowed him to work with his former Cover Girl co-star, Rita Hayworth, who would be playing Vera.

There were changes made, as there usually are. The show was set in Chicago but the film moved things to San Francisco. Ten of the Broadway songs were used in the film, along with a few Rogers and Hart songs from other shows, and some of the story points were tweaked to make it more Production Code-friendly. Put it this way: The film ends happily. The stage show, not so much.

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As much fun as it would have been to see Kelly in the role that got him to Hollywood, it’s fitting that Joey was played by his one-time protege, Frank Sinatra. As a slightly younger man playing opposite the made-up-older Rita Hayworth, it ups Vera’s cougarness and Joey’s status as a kept man. On the other hand, though, Sinatra’s chemistry with his other co-star, Kim Novak was negligible; there just didn’t seem to be much for the two of them to do except exchange pleasantries and otherwise while sharing the care of a Cairn terrier named Snuffy.

Hayworth was a different story, though. While the two of them danced to “The Lady Is A Tramp,” Sinatra had a very involuntary, um, adult reaction. Hayworth plays it cool, but even she can’t mask the uncomfortable look on her face. Apparently Sinatra tried to literally hide things by grabbing Hayworth’s fur stole on his way as they went for the door.

paljoey2Pal Joey turned out to be one of those rare movies that both the public and the critics loved, although some of that love may have been conditional. A.H. Weiler of the New York Times was enthusiastic. Clyde Gilmour of Maclean’s said that the show lost some of its zip in the translation, and that Novak’s acting wasn’t worthy of a high school operetta. Ouch. Variety called “Lady And the Tramp” a “wham arrangement,” but remarked that Hayworth was “no longer an ingenue.”

In the years since, Pal Joey has been revived on Broadway several times (such as this one from 2008), albeit with updates to the script, which always gets pegged as dated otherwise, but its zip remains intact.

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My post for Gill’s Wilhelm Scream Blogathon is on the way Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you then…


Pal Joey is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. It is also free to stream for Prime customers.

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Bibliography

Yudkoff, Alvin. Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams. New York City: Back Stage Books, 1999.

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