Sunday, 16 November 2008

ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: Pal Joey



(#13: 1 February 1958, 7 weeks; 29 March 1958, 4 weeks)

Main Title/That Terrific Rainbow/I Didn’t Know What Time It Was/Do It The Hard Way/Great Big Town/There’s A Small Hotel/Zip/I Could Write A Book/Bewitched (Hayworth version)/The Lady Is A Tramp/Plant You Now, Dig You Later/My Funny Valentine/You Mustn’t Kick It Around/Bewitched (Sinatra version)/Strip Number/Dream Sequence And Finale: What Do I Care For A Dame-Bewitched-I Could Write A Book

I’ve recently been reading Appointment In Samarra by John O’Hara. I’d been meaning to read it for some time but until this year’s Vintage Classics reissue programme O’Hara’s novels had been hard to find, the occasional reprint of Butterfield 8 notwithstanding. This looks to have been due to a diminution in reputation for which O’Hara himself, who died in 1970, must take some responsibility. Although he lived much longer than BS Johnson, and his heart rather than his nerve gave way in the end, there are striking character similarities; each clearly believed themselves keeper of their respective literary flames and by brute honesty, or keening self-destructiveness, managed to alienate nearly everyone sympathetic to them. O’Hara has yet to receive his Jonathan Coe-type sympathetic ear and documenter (though one notable cheerleader has been John Updike, the author of the Introduction to the 2003 American Vintage edition of Appointment which I own). He thought himself equal, if not superior, to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and in light of his presumed sense of inferiority – he was unable to attend Yale for financial reasons (his father having died prematurely) and spent much of the succeeding half century not forgetting it – he went out of his way to make things difficult for himself, and not everyone was convinced that his prose justified the proselytising. He ended up, as a newspaper columnist, the precise right wing sourpuss his younger self would have trampled into the Gibbsville ground.

But Appointment In Samarra seems to offer little way out, or little in the way of solutions. His Gibbsville is far starker and sharper a prison than Joyce’s Dublin, all of its inhabitants compelled to act out the roles assigned to them. Essentially the book is the decaying story of Julian English, a socialite and moderately successful businessman who in the space of 48 hours sets about systematically destroying his life for no particularly tangible reason; it is telling that only one of the three key actions which destroy him is narrated in detail, or at all. Otherwise the book seems to be an extended would-be suicide’s reverie; there is no reason why he should end, but equally no reason why anyone touched by him should be affected by his ending. Gibbsville will tread on regardless of English, a Gatsby without greatness, a Diver without the vague redeeming qualities of a Dick.

The novel of Pal Joey (published in 1939) is differently structured – it tells its tale exclusively through letters – but connected, as the presence of a similarly initialled antihero, Joey Evans, and his principal love interest, Linda English, confirms. Joey is an ambitious shit who wants to run his own nightclub and is entirely willing to shit or be shat on by others to help further his ambitions. Linda is the poor novice whom he really loves, but Vera Simpson is older, more cynical and, crucially, richer; she can finance his club. So Joey more or less plays emotional table tennis with both, and in the wake of various plot twists, both Linda and Vera agree that he’s not worth the bother and walk away – as does Joey, with another woman whose identity is not the novel’s business.

O’Hara was called upon to write the book for the Rodgers and Hart musical a year later, and although the Broadway show’s director George Abbott made several key changes to the material, the antihero tone was retained; though the plot is simplified to some degree, Joey is once again abandoned by both women at the end. Interestingly the original Broadway lead was Gene Kelly; a good choice, given that calculating coldness which never quite vacated Kelly’s eyes on screen, the man who gleefully pulls the curtain up at the end of Singin’ In The Rain to humiliate two women simultaneously.

By the time the musical was filmed, however, in 1957, Sinatra was engaged to play Joey, and the plot, and indeed the point, was further simplified to a degree approaching absurdity. Several key characters are lost, and while Joey remains what the soundtrack album’s sleevenote describes as a “lovable heel,” the “lovable” takes precedence over the “heel” and he winds up with both the club and Kim Novak’s Linda at the end. Moreover, many of the show’s songs – those in the track listing with the less familiar or more obstinate looking titles – become merely orchestral interludes.

The key songs, however, are intact (though “There’s A Small Hotel” dates back to 1936 and originally appeared on Broadway as part of 1937’s On Your Toes); Nelson Riddle was on hand to do the arrangements although Morris Stoloff did the actual conducting. Pal Joey is the only Rodgers and Hart musical we’ll come across in this tale, which is something of a pity; the lightness and ingenuity of the songwriting here weighs tellingly against the rather heavy “depth” of Rodgers and Hammerstein – Hart’s death from alcoholism in 1943, two years short of fifty, hit Rodgers hard and it’s conceivable that he was subsequently less inclined towards “fun” with all the associated ponderousness that implies. Of the soundtrack’s eleven sung numbers, the “Sex-Tets” chorus girls get to do two (“That Terrific Rainbow” and “Great Big Town”), as does Hayworth (“Zip” and “Bewildered”). Novak’s one lead vocal I’ll return to later but Sinatra is given the remaining six.

His “The Lady Is A Tramp” is the same recording which appears on the CD of A Swingin’ Affair! (and thus the only track directly conducted by Riddle), and the song likewise saw previous Broadway action in the 1937 show Babes In Arms. It is the epitome of the ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra who prevails in Then Play Long, and it’s unclear whether Sinatra is satirising the song’s own innate sense of satire. He starts gently with only rhythm section backing, whispering the “girls” in the phrase “with the rest of the girls,” before Riddle’s arrangement compels him to step a little more forward. In his second reading “barons and earls” are replaced by “sharpies and frauds,” the whispered “girls” becomes a matter-of-fact “broads,” the non-U in Harlem earmines and pearls succeeded by “Lincolns and Fords,” though Sinatra is still careful to lean back and ride over the flute and strings of “free fresh wind” on both occasions (the second “fresh” sounding more yearning than burning) before strutting forth again for the big finish. His concluding, snarling “What Do I Care For A Dame,” which arises out of (and finally back into) an unsettling nightmare scenario of whole tone strings, acts as a hurtful bookend to “Tramp”’s deceptive throwaway nature (“I’ll make ‘em pay ‘til it hurts!” he roars terrifyingly at one stage before pulling himself together over a slow orchestral flourish and declaiming “I can see it plain” before exiting the picture.

His “Small Hotel” too is a characteristic easy midtempo wink of a swing; “I wish we were theeeeeerrrrrre” his tongue surfs over immobile, hourglass strings, while the backing in the second middle eight alternates rapidly between brass and rhythm and trapdoor strings (“Who needs…people?” he inquires of himself, although once again he recovers for a final rally of “Ring-a-ding sleep well”). But the remaining trio of performances offer the considered ballad Sinatra. His “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” doesn’t top Jimmy Scott’s reading on Falling In Love Is Wonderful – although few vocal performances of any stripe do – but Sinatra handles it more than adequately, from the rubato piano introduction with his fainting “Ohhhhhhh what a lovely time it was,” his plaintive “then you held my hand” over still strings, his comforting “Warm like the month of May,” his proud clinging to “grand, GRAND!,” his softly ecstatic downhill ski of “to be alive, to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone,” his self-startling triumph of “Say I’m alllllllllllll your own,” before the swing strikes up and his mood transfers from awestruck to smiling. Always he eases back at the right moment, like a carburettor drawing back into an unhurried first gear, and his grin at the line “I’m wise” declares radiant happiness.

Sinatra’s “I Could Write A Book” conveys a reclusive brand of gladness; the low string introduction indicates unwarranted gravity but is quickly alleviated by comforting flutes as Sinatra narrates his tale of how he wrote his book of love; his “whispers” is shadowed by a solo harp, his “so the world would never forget” securely heartfelt, the Billie Holiday bend and resurfacing of the long “my” in “as my book ends.” Impalpably motionless strings are counterpointed by Glenn Miller trombones as warm as July morning honey, setting the stage for Sinatra’s liquid descent of “I lovvvvvvvvvvvvvvvve youuuuuuu a lot.”

Before I talk about the remaining Sinatra performance I have to take Rita Hayworth’s two numbers into account; in many ways her Vera is the unspoken heroine of the film (and it’s little wonder that Sinatra allowed her top billing in what was in most senses her last notable film), cynical and perhaps as cold as Sinatra’s Joey feels her to be, but they speak the same language and her interpretation might be the more truthful. “Zip” was not written for Vera in the original show but as an erstwhile burlesque star (and as the character who sings the song onstage was excised from the movie altogether) she gets to do it in the film. In it she ponders, in a low, confidential turn on of a voice – actually the dubbed voice of one Jo Anne Greer, but it’ll more than do – about the conflicts between intellectual aspirations and the need to earn a living (“I had to earn a dollar!” she exclaims near the end of the song, the nearest she gets to anything approximating exasperation). Otherwise, the music seems to play games with her vocals and thoughts, the multiple percussion suggesting a low wattage, domesticated Yma Sumac; her Schopenhauer reference is answered by a rattle, her Freud by rattling timbales. Cowbells and even slide whistles also make their contributions as she wanders through an enclosed world which still manages to encompass Whistler’s Mother and Charley’s Aunt, rhyming Plato with Cato but still managing to sneak in a post-Hart jibe at Marilyn haters (“She not only acts, I hear she can think” she sneakily paraphrases).

Then, after Sinatra has written his book, comes “Bewitched” as Hayworth sees it; following an introduction of Vaughan Williams flute, oboe and strings comes her spoken voice, laughing at herself as much as, or more than, Joey: “He’s a fool and don’t I know it,” before throatily purring “like a babe in arms,” reviving that old Gilda sensuality, complete with elbow-length gloves. Although she refers to “this half pint imitation (of love),” and despite all that she knows, she’s a sucker for him, and she’s quietly enjoying it; “I’m wild again, beguiled again,” she giggles over candid celeste. “Couldn’t sleep…and wouldn’t sleep,” she smiles, careful to emphasise the “p”s. After acknowledging that “He’s a laugh, but I love it” she hums away to herself (“La dad a, daa da dee dum”) with the contented air of someone who doesn’t care who’s eavesdropping. “I guess the laugh’s on me,” she remarks, touched, before smiling through the stoned-sounding “I’ve tripped again” and the emphatic “unzipped again,” hovering between Jo Stafford stasis and Doris Day decorum, bringing out the sexuality inherent in both. Hers is not the more “profound” “Bewitched” but in its good humoured realness it is the more rationally truthful.

Sinatra’s “Bewitched,” however, emerges from the dark cobwebs of Where Are You? In his introduction, strings take precedence over flutes and he begins to sing immediately. “She’s a fool and don’t I know it,” he mourns, and his “don’t I show it, like a babe in arms?” bears the air of tragedy, the doors of doom closing. His prelude is longer than the Hayworth version; his “on the blink” is answered by a vertiginously descending staircase of strings (and we’re getting back to that crucial “vertiginously” in a moment). Like a firing squad target meeting his end in slow motion, Sinatra falls into the “I’mmmmmmm” which leads him into the song proper, his “wild again” sounding slightly scared (is he going to hurt Linda by saying yes to her? Will Vera pull his carpet away in that event?). His first “bewitched” is answered by a flurry of flute; magic dust the singer mistakes for falling leaves. While Hayworth resignedly sighs “Love’s the same old sad sensation,” Sinatra seems to be absorbing that sensation passively; her eager “and what would I do if I shouldn’t sleep?” is balanced out by Sinatra’s “Love came and told me – shouldn’t sleep.”

Then the orchestra falls away; Sinatra is left alone with closing time piano and knows he has to make a decision, and a life or death one at that; “Sheeeeee’s cold,” he shivers, like negotiating a frozen hump bridge in plus fours). “She might laugh, but I love it,” he ponders, “although the laugh’s on me,” but then the orchestra returns in descending whole tones, and the turnaround happens; somehow, somewhere – is it via magic? – the rest of the orchestra rises from behind the strings, and a new Sinatra, if not a new Joey Evans, rises with the sun, patiently but in fierce belief. “I’ll sing to her,” he declares, “Bring spring to her!” knowing that it is his last chance as the timpani roll, before making the astonishing ascent to “and long for the day that I’ll CLING to HER!,” going higher and higher, clinging to that extended CLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING as he’s never clung onto anything or anyone before in his life, to meet and bear the winds of the song’s thunderous crescendo. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in Sinatra’s discography.

But, in the end, we have to return to Linda, and hence to Novak, and hence to that “vertiginous”; I doubt that Pal Joey would have had quite so much resonance without knowledge of the film Novak went on to make the following year. The clues are all over the place; the string tonalities in the closing dream sequence so redolent of Bernard Herrmann (and thus doubling the irony of the Latin-tinged instrumental “Bewitched” and the tacked on choral “Book” happy ending which follow it, and in turn are bookended by melancholy Chinatown trumpet and gradually enclosing strings. Or Novak’s brief cameos as part of the chorus line, in “That Terrific Rainbow” with the express duality between “red hot mama” and “heart of gold,” or at the end of “Great Big Town” where she enthusiastically sings the praises of San Francisco.

And then, the one voice that she is given wholly on this record; so absorbed is she in herself and also in not wanting to be seen when she performs this in the film that it scarcely matters that she has been given the voice of one Judy Erwin, but then…Judy and Madeleine…a guitar meeting mournful strings mid-sky (anticipating Gil Evans’ “Where Flamingos Fly”), a voice so tentative you wonder whether it even needs to be heard, lower than any radar could reach, and a Valentine which had also seen previous service in Babes In Arms and (crucially) with the androgynous contralto of Chet Baker (not to mention the even more ambiguous gender of Miles Davis’ reading). But few readings have ever sounded as complete a lament as Novak’s; she knows he will never change, that he might still prove the Julian English to her Caroline, but the highness of her “WALK” sees a bridge of gold where Joey still only sees potential scrap metal. And there is the hint of terror: “But don’t change your hair for me/Not if you care for me” sounds petrified in the foreknowledge of how Scotty Ferguson will turn that around, especially in the more anxious second reading where she sobs that “care.” She ends with an extended, don’t-let-me-jump “stay” and a quiescent, out of tempo “each day is Valentine’s Day,” dissolving like an aspirin pill in the pool of Poseidon like the thinking, rescuable Marilyn that many still consider Novak to be; a bashful woman still capable of turning around in the market square in Baghdad and staring Death all the way back to Samarra for keeps.

1 comment:

david said...

Do you know, I don't think I've seen this film, at least not since I was a kid. And your piece makes me think that I really ought to read the novel first - O'Hara's a shocking omission in my C20 reading...