Kim Novak Blogathon- “Pal Joey” (1957)

On February 13, 2022 the fabulous Kim Novak turned 89 years young! I’ve always been a fan of Ms. Novak, especially since she lives in my home state of Oregon. It is somewhat exciting to think that an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age lives a mere 4.5 hours away!

Kim Novak very well could have become a footnote in Hollywood history. She made her film debut in the film noir, Pushover, in 1954. Her co-star was Fred MacMurray. Kim made an indelible impression on audiences and her home studio, Columbia. Columbia went to work grooming Kim as a successor for their big star, Rita Hayworth, whose star was on the decline. The studio hoped that Kim’s blonde hair would bring them the same success as Marilyn Monroe had for Fox. However, what Columbia didn’t count on was that Kim had no desire to be a Monroe copycat.

Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in “Pal Joey.” Kim’s purple gown is amazing. I love the color! I love the sparkles! And the dress looks fabulous on her.

Kim Novak’s most famous role is probably her dual role as both Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton in Vertigo. Right before Vertigo however, she appeared in the 1957 film, Pal Joey, where she was third billed after Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra. Kim was re-teamed with Sinatra after their triumph in 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm. By the time Pal Joey was released, Kim had succeeded Rita as Columbia’s biggest box office draw. It is interesting that Rita received top billing over both Sinatra and Kim. Despite playing the title character, and having won an Oscar for his role in From Here to Eternity, Sinatra graciously ceded top billing to Rita, stating that she made Columbia what it was. Plus, he added, being “billed in between Rita and Kim was a sandwich he didn’t mind being stuck in the middle of.”

Pal Joey was a Broadway show which starred Gene Kelly in 1940. He was actually performing the titular role in this play when he was discovered. Gene made his way to Hollywood to appear in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland in 1942. By 1944, Gene was a big star and made the film Cover Girl at Columbia, starring their biggest star, Rita Hayworth. Cover Girl was a sensation and Columbia boss, the infamous Harry Cohn, promised to adapt Pal Joey for the screen to re-team Gene and Rita. However, nothing came to fruition and by the time the story was ready for the big screen, Gene was contracted to MGM. Rita was also deemed too old (at 37, my age ::sniffle::) for the role of the younger woman and took over the part as the older woman who acts as a “keeper” for Joey. Columbia cast their biggest star, Kim Novak, in the role of the younger woman.

Kim Novak makes her entrance in “Pal Joey.”

Pal Joey takes place in San Francisco. Sinatra plays the titular role of Joey Evans, a so-so singer (we just have to take the film’s word for it), who is more interested in women than he is having a career. He ends up falling for a young chorus girl, Linda English (Kim Novak), and actually may feel real feelings for her! Joey tries all his old tricks to seduce Linda, but she seems impervious to Joey’s “charm.” She is also presented as being somewhat naive to the fact that Joey is interested in her romantically, but she eventually catches on.

Eventually, Joey manages to finagle his way into escorting Linda home after an evening together. After spotting a “For Rent” sign in the window, Joey is able to worm it out of the landlady, Mrs. Trumbull (Elizabeth Patterson), that the empty apartment (with a shared bathroom) is next door to Linda. Joey, excited, rents the apartment immediately, and he gets to share a bathroom with Linda. She gets sick of his constant advances towards her and ends up tricking him into adopting a dog, which he names “Snuffy.”

Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, and Rita Hayworth in “Pal Joey.”

Later, Linda ends up taking Snuffy when she discovers Joey’s partnership with his ex-flame and ex-stripper, Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth). It is obvious that Linda has developed feelings for Joey. Despite his budding romance with Linda, a girl whom he really likes, Joey ends up taking up with Vera, who has since hung up her “vanishing veils,” and settled into life as a society matron and widow. Joey’s ulterior motive for romancing Vera is that he wants her to finance “Chez Joey,” a nightclub that he can own and perform at. Eventually it becomes apparent that Vera is hoping for more than a business partnership with Joey as she treats him like a “kept man.” This is obvious after Vera finally shows up to Chez Joey, she and Joey share a passionate kiss, and in the next scene we see Vera grinning in a negligee. Joey has mad skills, he hooked up with Vera after singing “The Lady is a Tramp,” which was very blatantly about Vera.

Once Chez Joey opens, Vera’s holding all the power. Joey is forced to submit to her every whim and demand. Vera becomes insanely jealous when she observes Joey watching Linda’s rehearsal of “My Funny Valentine.” Joey intently watches Linda, unable to take his eyes off of her. Vera learns that Joey is planning on featuring Linda as the main attraction at Chez Joey. She demands that he fire Linda. Not wanting to hurt Linda, Joey tells Linda that he’s removing her from the “My Funny Valentine” number and assigning her to a strip tease. Linda, rightfully, is angry and tells Joey that he should rename the club “Chez Vera.” Eventually, a drunk Linda shows up to Joey’s yacht and accepts the number.

Kim Novak performs an awkward strip tease, that begins with a Marie Antoinette-esque gown.

The time comes for Linda to rehearse the strip tease. She starts the number dressed in a Marie Antoinette-type dress, sans the powdered wig. As she removes the skirt, then the crinoline, then other pieces of the costume, she looks absolutely mortified. Eventually, Joey cannot handle seeing all the men staring at Linda and demands that she stop performing before her remaining clothes come off. At this point, Joey has to make a decision. Does he stay with Linda, the woman he loves, and lose Chez Joey? Or does he keep the club and stay with Vera, a woman who he doesn’t love?

I read other reviews of this film online, specifically reviews that reference Kim Novak’s performance. Many carry the same complaints, that she’s stiff, awkward, etc. I can understand those complaints, however, I think that she performed her part very well. Linda is a young woman who is presumably new to the world of show business. She suddenly finds herself the object of affection of a man who is a known womanizer. He is/was involved with a more worldly woman who knows not only the ins and outs of show business, but the ins and outs of everything else too. In the scene when Linda is rehearsing the strip tease, she is very awkward and looks completely mortified. However, Linda didn’t want to do the strip tease, nor is she the type of person who’d want to do a strip tease! Of course, she would be awkward and mortified. Kudos to Joey for recognizing this and stopping it; however, his kudos are a moot point because he’s the one who put her into this position in the first place.

While I can understand some of the complaints about Novak, I find her completely fascinating. She fits the cool, blonde mold; but there’s more to her. She always seems to have a vulnerability about her, like a woman who is about to break. She also has the most gorgeous green eyes; but there’s something behind those eyes. Behind those eyes are a sensitivity, a yearning. Kim Novak is not just a replacement Rita Hayworth. She is not a Marilyn Monroe copy. She is a very unique screen presence. She wants to show the audience a piece of herself, the real Kim Novak, or rather the real Marilyn Pauline Novak (Kim’s birth name). While I don’t know Ms. Novak personally, I feel like she deeply identified with her character, Madge, in Picnic. All Madge wants in life is to be thought of as more than just being pretty.

LINDA: “You cook?”
JOEY: “Well, you can’t go through your life on Wheaties alone.”

Favorite Performers: Kim Novak

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Kim Novak is someone who I discovered when I saw Picnic (1955) for the first time.  I had heard of her and knew what she looked like, but I had never actually seen any of her films until I saw Picnic.  She wasn’t my original draw to the film either.  I originally recorded it because I was a fan of co-star William Holden and I also love the overwrought melodramas of the 1950s.  My initial impression of Novak was that she was very pretty but she seemed somewhat stiff.  I began wondering if it was all style and no substance when it came to Novak.  However, as I kept watching her in Picnic, I noticed that she didn’t seem as stiff as she had in the opening scene.  I found myself warming up to her.

In Picnic, the crux of Novak’s character, Madge, is that she feels that she is only wanted and appreciated for her looks.  Her mother insists that Madge seal the deal with her rich upper crust boyfriend Alan, before her looks begin to fade.  Madge is 19, by the way.  Alan talks about and treats Madge like she’s a trophy on his arm.  Madge begins to resent everyone only focusing on her looks and not showing any regard for her wants, needs and desires.  Novak was very skilled in bringing the conflicted Madge to life.  On one hand, Madge doesn’t want to disappoint her mother; but on the other hand, she wants to live her own life and not skate by on her looks, even if that path looks uncertain.  Madge spends much of the film battling with her own wants and needs, versus those of her mother, boyfriend and the hot, mysterious, and exciting drifter William Holden.

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Kim Novak and William Holden dance in “Picnic”

After Picnic, I remember making a point of seeing Novak in some of her other films.  I saw Bell, Book and Candle co-starring James Stewart.  This film allowed the audience to see Novak as another type of character–a beautiful woman afraid to fall in love.  In this film, Novak plays a beautiful witch who lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.  Novak develops a crush on Stewart and ends up casting a love spell on him when she discovers he’s engaged to marry another woman.  The love spell causes Stewart to fall in love with Novak instead.  Soon Novak finds herself falling in love with Stewart and she’s faced with a choice to make: Fall in love with Stewart and lose her magical powers or keep her powers and let Stewart go.  Novak plays it cool in this film and is very adept at showing the progression of her character falling in love.  Despite being very beautiful and being labeled as one of the 1950s sex symbols of Hollywood, Novak’s characters are never overt in their sexuality, unlike someone like Marilyn Monroe.

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Kim Novak as “Madeline” in “Vertigo”

One of Novak’s most famous films is her turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Novak is cast as one of Hitchcock’s typical icy blondes, but she brings so much to her complicated, somewhat dual role.  In this film, Novak must portray the beautiful and tragic Madeline who Stewart meets and falls in love with.  Later, she portrays the small-town girl, Judy, who of course resembles Madeline, and agrees to allow Stewart to transform her into his lost love.  As Madeline, Novak plays the wispy blonde, who is so beautiful but with an underlying vulnerability.  As Judy, Novak plays a more average looking woman (more like a gorgeous woman wearing too much heavy makeup) from Kansas who is trying to make it in big city San Francisco.  She is brassier and more no-nonsense than Madeline. Of course there is more to the story than meets the eye and Novak was fascinating to watch.

Novak is a highly underrated actress who I believe wasn’t taken seriously because she was so beautiful.  In all her films, she brings charm and also an underlying vulnerability that makes her a joy to watch on screen.  Today, Kim Novak lives on a ranch in a small town in Southern Oregon.  It’s exciting to think that one of my favorite Classic Hollywood stars is still alive and thriving in a town only about 3.5 hours south of me.  Maybe someday, I’ll make it back down there and maybe run into Kim Novak on the street or something.  I can always hope!

My favorite Kim Novak films:

-Picnic (1955).  I already talked about this film above; but this film deals with a drifter (William Holden) who interrupts the tranquility in a small Kansas town.  Most of the action occurs at the town’s annual Labor Day picnic.  Novak portrays Madge, a beautiful nineteen year old woman who is dating Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), one of the town’s most eligible bachelors.  Novak falls for Holden, much to the chagrin of Robertson and her mother (Betty Field).

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Kim Novak and her cat, Pyewacket in “Bell, Book and Candle.”

Bell, Book and Candle (1958).  Described above as well.  This film depicts the story of a beautiful witch (Novak) who casts a spell on a man (James Stewart) whom she’s been admiring from afar.  Soon, she must decide whether to fall in love with Stewart and give up her magical powers, or let Stewart go in order to retain her powers.

Vertigo (1958).  Mentioned briefly above.  This film is so complex that it would be hard to describe it and do it any justice.  This is a film that has to be watched and watched intently, not casually.  A couple weeks ago, I watched this film in the theater and was fascinated by how much of the film I had forgotten or hadn’t pieced together the pieces of the story.  Once I had the story figured out, I found it amazing and captivating.  In a nutshell, this film tells the story of a man, James Stewart, who falls in love with a mysterious blonde and loses her in a tragic accident.  He meets another woman, Kim Novak, who resembles his lost love.  Stewart goes to work transforming his new girl into the girl he lost.

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Howard Duff and Kim Novak in “Boys’ Night Out”

Boys’ Night Out (1962).  This 1962 comedy is silly and definitely not worthy of any sort of award, but I love it.  There’s just something about early 1960s comedies.  In this film, Novak plays a college student who rents an apartment from a group of men (James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Morris and Howard Duff).  The men are all married, except for Garner.  The husbands are bored with their wives and their day-to-day routine and want to set up an apartment to have a fling.  They base their plan on the same tactics their boss uses to have his fling.  Novak rents the apartment not knowing of their plan to commit adultery and the men don’t know that Novak is pretending to romance them as a means to gather material for her college thesis on the sexual life of the middle class male. Hilarity ensues.

-Pushover (1954).  This is a really great noir and is Novak’s film debut.  Novak portrays the beautiful girlfriend of a man who robs a bank and both of them are now on the lam.  Fred MacMurray co-stars as an undercover cop who is tasked with setting up a stakeout in an apartment across the street from Novak’s.  While watching her, MacMurray ends up falling in love with Novak.  Soon Novak is trying to corrupt him to join her side and MacMurray is conflicted between his love for Novak and his duty to his job and the police department.

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Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray in “Pushover.”  She’s only 20 here!

Pal Joey (1957).  This is a musical starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Novak.  Sinatra portrays Joey, a singer and charmer who can make pretty much any woman fall for him.  The only problem is that he’s a complete cad.  Sinatra meets Novak, a chorus girl in one of his shows.  He genuinely seems to have real feelings for her. Sinatra dreams of opening his own nightclub but needs money.  He appeals to an old flame, Hayworth, who used to also work as a stripper.  She married a wealthy man and is now widowed.  Sinatra decides to romance Hayworth in order to convince her to give him money for his nightclub.  Throughout the film, Sinatra and Hayworth use each other and continues to romance Novak.  The love-triangle continues throughout the film until Sinatra is forced to make a decision.