In 1957’s Pal Joey, Rita Hayworth makes an indelible impression as a screen siren, as sexy as in her ’40s heyday.
By Gerald Peary
Rita Hayworth’s last decent movie was Pal Joey (1957), the film version of the Rodgers and Hart 1940 musical, showing at the Brattle Theatre in 35mm on Monday, August 20. She got top billing as Mrs. Prentice Simpson, a middle-aged ex-showgirl who married into money and craves the extra-marital love of nightclub performer, Joey Evans (Frank Sinatra). But Joey only flirts with her because he wants her to invest in a nightclub that he would run. He is all eyes for a no-talent ice-blonde — instead of talented redheaded Rita — because the blonde babe is young Kim Novak, being pushed to stardom by Columbia Pictures’s horny president, Harry Cohn. No matter that the pre-Vertigo Novak is an awkward, uncertain cinema presence.
Hayworth is something else though, flashy and attractive as an ex-dancer (“Vera of the Vanishing Zipper”) displaced among the rich and leisurely of San Francisco, bored and frustrated as she breakfasts alone on her magnificent Nob Hill terrace. She wants to regress to her past of bumps and grinds, as when she breaks up a stolid charity ball with a rousing version of “Zip!” She sensuously removes her long and lithe white gloves — both a return to her Barbary Coast strip queen past and a moving homage to, a decade earlier, her torchy, iconic “Put the Blame on Mame” musical number in Gilda (1946).
Pal Joey’s finest scene is Joey’s seduction of Mrs. Simpson by crooning to her, and about her, “The Lady is a Tramp.” Sinatra’s version here is his classic recording, one of his supreme hits. Backed by a tiny jazz ensemble, he plays on the ambiguities and ironies of Lorenz Hart’s tangy, cynical lyrics, both insulting and praising Rita simultaneously, and winning her in the process. In a memorable long shot, Rita and Frank are shown by director, George Sidney, in a doorway at the right, while the left half of the frame is, in perspective, a long vertical line of jazz musicians serenading the equally jazzy couple on the way to a night of love.
Hayworth is granted one extra sequence of excitement, “singing” a very downbeat — and very dubbed — rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” as she languidly patrols her bedroom. The sequence begins when she awakens in her filthy rich bed and stretches across the frame in a calendar pose, imitating her legendary first Life magazine cover. The scene ends even more erotically. Mrs. Simpson steps into a Romanesque shower and little sprinklers spray her torso, seen from the cleavage up. As the song winds down, she leans forward and pushes a startlingly bare bosom against the only half opaque shower glass.
Before an audience can recover from sensual shock, the scene fades out. This is the Hollywood Code 1950s after all. But, in Pal Joey, Rita Hayworth makes an indelible impression as a screen siren, as sexy as in her ’40s heyday, winning the audience’s favor if not that of the Kim Novak-smitten Mr. Blue Eyes.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.