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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.