It is quite apparent at this point in my month of musicals that George Sidney will be the most problematic of directors, in that his films possess notable issues of misogyny and in earlier films appropriate racism. At least when it came to Show Boat era could forgive some of the missteps, as problematic as they be and in the later film Viva Las Vegas, the element of teachability for the male gaze makes it considerably more engaging. Unfortunately, Pal Joey is somewhere between these to and in no way is this a good thing. It is an absurdly misogynist film that promotes male promiscuity in a manner that is not even remotely ironic or satirical. It is clear that the film intends to fully embrace the transitional figure of Frank Sinatra as the lead, here a far cry from his wide-eyed second man roll in something like On The Town and while his performance is certainly worthwhile, given the context of his debonair and libertine ways within the film it leads one towards more points of frustration than feelings of positive execution. Musically, the film is rather exceptional, but that is hardly to Sidney's benefit, as both the earlier mentioned films also possessed great music, one by a popular musical powerhouse and the other by the duo who is perhaps most synonymous with musical theater and film. Under the veneer of all these problems could very well lay a great film, but without a context of knowing irony that emerges in works like Funny Face or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the attempts at humor and endearing misogyny fall flat and manage to affirm patriarchal principles in a musical space that is already suffering from heteronormativity in a wild and inconceivable way. I think the greatest tragedy of the films is that it could have been the musical equivalent of a Hitchcock film, particularly with some of the more surrealistic bends the film takes in the back half and only doubly so with the inclusion of Kim Novak in the cast, but wherein the psychosexual tension at play often obscures clear gender norms in the great auteur's work, here it is yet another device that does not hit its mark with any sense of intent or clear message. Pal Joey suffers from being far too narrow in its ideology and focus.
Pal Joey begins with the title character Joey Evans (Frank Sinatra) being tossed onto a train out of town after a revelation that he was caught in a room with a woman, who just happened to be underage and the daughter of an influential politician, thus setting into motion his own relationship with a narrative wherein his philandering ways, as incredibly troublesome as they may be, become point of narrative connection between viewer and subject. Joey, returning to his old stomping grounds attempts to gain a job as a lounge singer, immediately meeting up with not only some of his former lovers, but various big shots in the entertainment industry, some of whom he has less than stellar relations. The former fling Vera (Rita Hayworth) is particularly interesting to Joey's past as he recalls her from his time as a a singer in a burlesque club, wherein Rita would perform various stripteases, a revelation, Joey manages to make real during a high end charity dinner, using the power of money and philanthropy to get the hesitant Vera to recreate her former self. This act, while initially frustrating to Vera, does cause the two to begin a rekindling of their relationship, but when another young artist named Linda (Kim Novak) enters the picture, Joey migrates towards her ingenue stylings and general impressionability. This movement of affections on the part of Joey, leads to Vera throwing herself at Joey in figurative ways, both agreeing to sell her club and even marry Joey if he will agree to stay with her, however, Joey chooses to pursue a life with Linda, one that involves them opening their own night club together, although in its initial inception, Linda is less than pleased with the idea and allows for the overly optimistic Joey to travel to Sacramento alone. Eventually, realizing her own equal feelings for the singer, Linda follows Joey. Joey the constant trickster attempts to ignore the advances of Linda, pretending to be over desiring her affections, but he eventually gives into her and the two are shown walking hand-in-hand in the closing moments of the film.
This film is decidedly frustrating because it places the burden of the failed relationships not on the philandering Joey but on the respective women of the film, even going so far as to visually suggest that it is understandable for Joey to want to navigate between a use of both bodies, because they are both things to be looked at and objectified. For Vera it is in the classical fixed camera sense, where her burlesque is done in a more theatrical styling, whereas Linda's involves constant and frenetic zooming of the camera to add a haptic feeling to the relationship between looking and desire that is to be appropriated both to the viewer and to Joey. Essentially, the film is positing, through these various gazes that Joey is being masculine and is privileged to choose between either, or both if he pleases and it is wholly the responsibility of the respective women to deny or deter such possibilities. If either of them fail to do so, at least as Sidney's film suggests, it is not to be the fault of Joey, indeed, the film almost laughs at his mishaps, even when the appear to be nothing short of statutory rape. I knew from the opening moment of the film that it would be a bit of a bumpy ride, when after being tossed on the train for his near sexual encounter with an underaged girl, the film throws in a knowing comedic look by Sinatra and enough slapstick musical cues to make Billy Wilder roll over in his grave. George Sidney, is clearly going for comedy, but it is comedy that is entirely constructed from a place of privileged pretense, one that affords indifference to the possibility that rejecting the love or misusing any love that is accrued by Joey could have very dire results for the respective women, particularly when they are asked to become vicious towards one another over a man who, in all likelihood, will continue his philandering only moments after settling into his new relationship. While, Joey's mock refusals are to be taken lightly in the closing moments of the film, they too show that he could step away from such a relationship with equal levity, moving away and towards the things he desires in a way equally frenetic as the camera work of the film.
Key Scene: Rita Hayworth's musical number is quite provocative, rather humorous and one of the only real saving graces of this film, but this can be chalked up entirely to the performance and not the work of the filmmaker.