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    Merry Joeymas

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    On Christmas night in 1940, Broadway musicals got a bit more grown-up with the arrival of a show with a book by John O’Hara, a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, direction by the canny George Abbott – and a coldly ambitious, skirt-chasing loser as its hero. But Pal Joey worked not just because of the incredible skills of its creative team or due to its ideally cast leads, Broadway newcomer Gene Kelly (smart-aleck Joey) and Main Stem veteran Vivienne Segal (worldly socialite Vera), but because it offered, in adapting O’Hara’s New Yorker stories, “a breakthrough in character writing,” according to Ethan Mordden in his marvelous chronicle Beautiful Mornin:’ The Broadway Musical in the 1940s. “Pal Joey has the bite of mean reality, an extraordinary lack of warmth, and bitterness for fun. There had never been anything like these two in a musical, speaking and even singing in their own hard-and-tight vernacular.” It was a mild hit 75 years ago, an even greater one when revived in 1952, and finally the racy material could hit the motion-picture screen five years later, not as pungent as its original form but still provocatively entertaining. Although The New York Times’ A.H. Weiler assessed that “purists…may take issue with the fact that Joey has grown a mite more benign with the passage of years,” he still went on to pronounce Pal Joey (1957) “a swiftly-moving, cheerful and adult musical play that is one of the season's best.” Indeed, with Kelly’s three-time movie musical co-star Frank Sinatra commandeering the title role, even the dirtiest dog who sings like Old Blue Eyes must have some redeeming qualities. The character of Vera was now in the sinuous guise of screen goddess Rita Hayworth, and as the relatively innocent Linda, Joey’s potentially more solid romantic attraction now turned into a sympathetic chorus girl in his nightclub act, there's recently christened movie star Kim Novak. Not only did filmgoers get the cream of the stage Pal Joey’s songs (Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, I Could Write a Book, Zip, What Is a Man? and That Terrific Rainbow) but also a great interpolated cross-section of the Rodgers and Hart songbook (The Lady Is a Tramp and My Funny Valentine from Babes in Arms, There's a Small Hotel from On Your Toes and I Didn't Know What Time It Was from Too Many Girls), all playfully integrated into the proceedings by screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley and director George Sidney to great box-office success. Although Pal Joey of 1957, available on a deliciously swinging Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, is not the devastatingly sharp Pal Joey unveiled on Broadway 75 years ago this evening, it certainly provides a tuneful bounty of sexy and tangy entertainment for anyone desiring a holiday break from the heartfelt sentiment of the Holiday Inn/White Christmas variety.