You might assume, in a cougar vs kitten fight, that the sweet widdle puddy tat will be reduced to tufts of fur and one fingernail. Not necessarily. If the right sucker comes along, the awwwwwwww factor wins out and the cougar is kicked to the curb. Pal Joey is a painfully true diva duel to the death, a marvelous showcase for Sinatra’s crooning, and possibly, a rare instance of Jean Louis having an off day.
When Rita Hayworth came to Columbia Studios in 1935, Harry Cohn made her his particular pet, bedecking her with the best gowns, providing the finest in hair and makeup, and generally setting her up as queen of the lot. She was his protégée, and the best parts were granted her without question.
That is, until Kim Novak blew into town in 1954. Harry fell hard for her, making her his “lavender blonde” and foisting her into parts that were often beyond her capabilities, and generally touting her as the next Marilyn Monroe (interestingly enough, Marilyn is her given name).
Exit Rita. Her lovely parting gift—top billing in this all-too-true saga. Note: Harry Cohn originally wanted Rita to play Kim’s part and–get this–Mae West to play the stripper-turned-society dame. Imagine that!. (Even Rock Hudson thinks that’s hilarious.)
Any viewer with discernment can see the underlying vulnerability in both these beautiful women—their tremulous, childlike voices; their frequent near-nakedness; their tentative, downcast glances from slightly sad eyes. Love predators can spot a doe-hearted woman a mile off and both Rita and Kim have sweet, soft hearts just ripe for the squashing.
Which is exactly what makes the casting of this film so brilliant. Two needy women warring for the same rag, bone, and hank of hair. Talk about art imitating life! Which brings us to the bone(head) in question: Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“Once a heel, always a heel…”
Joey, as played by Sinatra, is a “likeable” hustler with a heart of rust. He’s got one true love, himself. The film veers from the downbeat Broadway script to imply that Joey grows into a real live boy, but for my money, this little wooden head remains a heel from start to finish.
Gene Kelly originated this role on Broadway–he specializes in smart-alecky heels that fall in love and have a change of heart. Boy, was he steamed when buddy Frank got the film!
Despite the lush Sinatra canon that cleverly illustrates Joey’s cynical outlook, I frankly loathe Joey and am puzzled why anyone would fall for this creep.
But, hey, that’s entertainment, right? All Frankie Baby has to do is show up, and women swoon into his underdeveloped arms, apparently.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the casting in this film is that both women, while hardly behemoths, come across as considerably more substantial than frail Frankie. I was more than a little worried when Joey had to haul Linda’s dead weight around—it was clear he was struggling.
I guess we’re supposed to be impressed that Joey doesn’t take advantage of Linda when she’s at her most vulnerable, but saying “my hero” because he refrains from assaulting a drunken woman seems a prime example of damning with faint praise.
Anyhoo, let’s forget seedy hero for a moment and move onto the diva dust-up.
In this corner, the former pin-up champion of the world…
Since she got top billing (via Frank Sinatra’s generosity), let’s look at Rita first. Costumer Jean Louis had a real challenge on his hands—how to make the luscious Rita look matronly in her role as the stripper-turned-society dame, Vera Prentiss-Simpson.
He succeeded (mostly) by cloaking her graceful, still gorgeous body in heavy fabrics and boxy silhouettes. Jean Louis’ designs inform us of Vera’s wealth and position–99% of the time she’s in upper crust neutrals: beige, ivory, black, gray, taupe, cream, the palette by which rich ladies (or wannabees) prove they’re not vulgar.
Vera has a horror of reverting to her stripper roots, so she’s adopted the conspicuously subtle wardrobe of a Nobb Hill grande dame.
We first encounter Vera in a trademark Jean Louis stunner–a heavy, lustrous satin strapless column gown in ivory and black with twin tails descending from the mid-back.
Vera manages to pull off a quasi-strip routine in this hydraulic gown with a bodice that dips and cavorts as she wiggles through her number.
Joey calculates this dame has the goods to help him reach his goal–a nightclub of his own.
The exceptional quality of Vera’s dress highlights the cheapness of Kim Novak (Linda English)’s bargain basement markdown red “evening” dress.
To make the contrast between the two women all the more obvious, Linda is never comfortable in her tacky red evening dress–she’s forever fidgeting, adjusting a strap, hoisting a skirt, plopping down with a gauche lack of grace.
Vera floats; Linda flounces. (See? She’s hauling up her strap right there!)
It’s nearly impossible to conceive of Rita as a bitchy woman. To compensate for Rita’s inherent sweetness and vulnerability, Jean Louis concocted a string of overpowering or dull outfits, designed to disguise the glaring fact that Rita has more class and glamour in her pinkie than Kim does in her whole body. (With a few knock-out gowns to keep the ladies in the audience happy, of course.)
Jean Louis wisely smothers Rita’s still-enviable figure in heavy wools and constrains them with rigid silhouettes. Vera is as uncomfortable in these country-club clothes as Linda is in the increasingly abbreviated garments in her strip number.
Audience members knew Rita as a very sensual woman; seeing her mummified in matronly get-ups is downright painful.
One of the few glimpses we have of the recognizable Rita is the marvelous “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” number, when she swans about in a golden yellow chiffon mille-feuille negligee with a lace-overlay bodice and a floaty peignoir of matching chiffon with white fur cuffs and collar.
Now, the “real” Vera emerges…sensual, colorful, earthy, sexy. We start to see other reasons Joey sticks around.
To remind audience members who they’re looking at, Rita is positioned against a quilted headboard, her unbound waterfall of wildly wavy hair running amuck as she mouths painfully revealing lyrics. It’s a pose that should feel slightly familiar.
(Yes, that’s right, neither of the leading ladies in this musical sang a note of their parts. Amazing.) This is the Rita we’ve been waiting for–the revealing lace bodice, that astonishingly beautiful body framed by lush bedding, the trappings of glamour for this ravishingly glorious movie star.
She doesn’t need him, she only wants him.
When Vera gives Joey an ultimatum, a portrait of her younger days is in full view–a particularly cruel reminder to Vera that her days as a voluptuous catch are numbered.
Later, she’s encased in a shimmering, metallic sheath dress with a sharply pointed and dangerous-looking winged bodice that is somehow more reptilian or avian than feminine.
This bulletproof design–along with the majority of her upper-crust wardrobe–defy anyone to come in close contact with her, least of all her minion and boy toy.
Rita’s Cougar Cues: If you haven’t got youth, you’d better have something else–wealth, crazy-good skills in some department, power. In this case, Vera has all three. Plus she’s still GORGEOUS.
But this film states any cougar has to face the fact that no matter how much money, power, fame or skills you’ve got, you can’t beat biology. Youth and breeding potential usually wins the day. The upside of this? Eventually, most cougars get tired of spoon-feeding Junior–only younger women have the patience to endure the selfish shenanigans of the Joeys of this world.
And in this corner, Little Orphan Kimmy
According to folks like Edith Head, Kim Novak REALLY liked to provide input on what she wore, which costume designers just LOVE. Jean Louis, it is to be hoped, put up a fight on some of these ensembles. Brash colors, rigid fabrications, off-kilter, baggy sweaters–some of Linda’s streetwear is far from flattering.
In fact, I was so convinced this could not be the work of genius costumer Jean Louis I contacted his official biographer, fashion-in-film expert (and dear friend) Kimberly Truhler of GlamAmor.com. Kimberly generously sifted through her copious research materials and was able to confirm that at least Rita’s costumes were indeed designed by Jean—the jury (at this writing) is still out about Kim’s clothes. Maybe Kim was given carte blanche by Harry Cohn to indicate her preferences, especially color, and Jean Louis had to scramble to ensure the plot and character were supported by her choices. You can see Jean Louis’ beautiful touch here and there, but then there are times…
What’s new, Pussycat?
Kim Novak has a very, very delicate, fair skin and beautiful green eyes. Her “lavender-blonde” hair provides zero contrast to balance the harsh, primary colors she prefers, so when she’s wearing Kelly green or stop-sign red, we see the dress first, then the face.
Her frothy, whisper-pink “Funny Valentine” dress…
and her lavender/soft blue polka-dot blouse and periwinkle skirt are far kinder to her soft coloring.
NOTE: If you, like Kim, have skin-hair-eyes all in the same soft coloring, don’t let loud, boisterous colors overpower you.
I get it, I do. We want to point up Linda’s youth and inexperience (we can’t exactly call her innocent, although the script tries hard) with childish fabrics (corduroy!) and designs.
But many of those clothes are hard to take. I especially hate her bright red Little Orphan Kimmy dress with the white Peter Pan collar.
To add insult to injury, she teams it with an awkwardly belted jacket mysteriously accessorized by a school-girl plaid scarf. Her pale little face floats above it like a white balloon hovering over a fire.
Her gym class sailor-collared sweaters…
…that immovable Kelly green side-seam-stripe dress with a backwards sailor collar..
the cheap, ill-fitting boxy suit with the Buster Brown buttons—good lord!
You’d never know it in these clothes.
She even has to inform him that she’s “stacked” (in case he missed that in her satin jammies and the Merry Widow chorus girl get-up).
Kimmy’s Kitten-in-Training Tips: If youth and beauty are your best weapons, make like Linda and accentuate the positive.
Don’t hide your light (or your “built”).
Identify with his world, in this case: cheap materials, tacky cuts and ill-fitting clothes are reassuring to your standard down-on-his-luck target male.
Dress (or undress) for lack of success. (Incidentally, you’ll note that Kim Novak is CONSTANTLY making faces and rolling her eyes in this film–indicators that she was very uncomfortable. The word on the street is that Sinatra stayed in character and made the already fragile Kim feel unsteady in her acting and in the part. Which, oddly, worked perfectly for the film.)
Who wore it best?
Jean Louis plays an interesting game with our dueling divas–he puts the women in corresponding ensembles or accessories. Both women wear fragile, collar-length necklaces, both wear boxy suits with large button accents, both have matching hairstyles, both sport chiffon at some point, and reveal their generous charms in showgirl bodices–but Jean cleverly points up the class differences with materials.
Vera’s got fur-lined everything; Linda’s overworked trench coat looks pretty dreadful no matter what she pairs it with.
By doing this, Jean has made it sartorially possible for Joey’s monogrammed everything to outclass the woman of his choice.
Good call, Linda. Smart kittens know there can be only ONE star in every relationship–and Joey must be that or he’s not interested. “Nobody tells Joey what to do.” Having an incompetent sweetheart makes it pretty unlikely that she’d have the nerve to criticize or complain. She’ll take whatever crumbs fall from the master’s table–and I do mean crumbs!
I like to believe Jean Louis was able to make intentional costume choices for Kim’s character–and if he did, the sales-rack suits and tatty satin pjs serve the film well by pointing up Linda’s lack of both funds and good taste. Of course, the best proof of the latter is Linda’s continual, pathetic submission to Joey.
You’ve got to feel bad for BOTH women in the nightmarish “dream” sequence. Both women swing into place clamped around a set piece (an unflattering, unnecessarily graphic position, but perfect, considering the source–Joey’s brain).
A horrid fake ponytail is attached to Kim’s head and she’s stuck in an awful one-armed, capri-length get-up.
Rita is hampered by a pudge-producing leotard that’s been bedazzled into next week.
Jean Louis did his work brilliantly here. After all, it’s Joey’s dream and this is how he dresses his women; in obvious, revealing clothes. This is how Joey sees his women–one represents money, the other sex. How touching.
Neither of our divas come off as dancers–Rita is surprisingly flat-footed and stiff, and Kim doesn’t seem to know her steps. Thankfully, it’s over quickly.
Linda’s “Funny Valentine” ballad exudes tender, hopeful romance.
In both instances, Jean Louis employs lace, the ultra-feminine fabric of revelation and seduction, to disclose each woman’s true heart. Linda’s scoop-neck, lace-tiered dress is pure prom princess.
Vera’s spaghetti-strapped, lace-bodiced negligee is sumptuous, womanly sensuality–and both have plenty of flesh evident! And both are cleverly framed to reflect their characters–Vera in a mirror; Linda in an empty heart.
The winner and still champion–Joey
Is this film a cautionary tale? Seems to me Harry Cohn’s treatment of both our divas is illustrated neatly by this tuneful, tawdry tale that begins with a police siren wailing and the worst possibly angle to present San Francisco–a rust-rimmed, decrepit harbor entrance–more symbolism? Aging Rita bumps and grinds her way out to pasture while naïf Kim minces onto the scene with itty-bitty baby steps. In the film, cougar Vera deeds Joey to sex-kitten Linda. Vera knows her time is up. In real life, this was Rita’s final top-billing film.
My wise eldest daughter taught me that men will tell you in the first 5 minutes of your initial encounter exactly who they are, so listen up and believe them. Joey’s first encounter with Linda includes coarse bragging about sexual conquests of other men’s girls, an off-color joke, a hateful remark towards a woman, and forgetting her name (which he does repeatedly).
Linda continually begs Joey for love, swatting aside every warning he provides, including a particularly nasty one: “I’d probably brush you off before we even got to the station!” Her dogged persistence (very much like Audrey Hepburn’s in Love in the Afternoon–some girls just can’t take no for an answer) is more pitiful than admirable.
Linda believes Joey’s better than he repeatedly states that he is. To seal the deal at film’s end, Jean Louis visually unites the couple by putting them in matching beige poplin raincoats–a balmacaan for Frankie and that weary, tightly belted trench for Kim. Whew, thinks the audience, see? They ARE a couple.
But, Frankly, neither of our dueling divas is the breakthrough woman, even if the ending hints otherwise. We get the feeling Pal Joey will eventually find another, younger mouse and leave Linda holding the bag (or, in this case, the leash). After all, “every hokey dame is the same.”
This post is proudly part of the 2015 Dueling Divas Blogathon. Visit Lara Gabrielle Fowler’s wonderful Backlots blog to see other fun and fabulous explorations of classic cinema catfights!