The Kim Novak moment in Hollywood--1955 to 1960--is amply represented by the five movies in The Kim Novak Collection, a vivid portrait of an ingénue at the top. Novak's rise, under the forceful tutelage of Columbia boss Harry Cohn, was incredibly rapid; but then, nobody could miss her movie-star aura after seeing her performance as the small-town beauty in Picnic, in only her second year in movies. Picnic, the first film directed by stage veteran Joshua Logan, is a special experience, a Kansas summertime daydream invaded by a rail-riding wayfarer (William Holden); Novak's pretty homecoming queen is the film's key source of poignancy. ("I was Madge. I was that girl in the Midwest," Novak says in an interview here.) Her starring role in Jeanne Eagels (1957) looks like an attempt to establish Novak as a serious actress, which is one reason it doesn't work. In portraying the addictions and irresponsibility of a famed silent-era actress, Novak's limitations are on display, and the film's overripe melodrama has aged badly.
While Pal Joey (1957) is not a masterpiece, it does have a brilliant song score (the Rodgers and Hart classics include "Bewitched" and "I Could Write a Book") and glorious star power: Frank Sinatra is the breezy bad-boy singer caught between older San Francisco aristocrat Rita Hayworth and chorus girl Novak. As she reveals in an interview included in this boxed set, Novak did not do her own vocals on the sultry "My Funny Valentine"--yet her winsome performance makes the song her own anyway. As for Sinatra's take on "The Lady Is a Tramp," well, there's no question whose for-the-ages vocal that is. After making Vertigo with James Stewart, Novak reunited with him for the fun Bell Book and Candle (1958), director Richard Quine's cocktail-era version of a hit play by John Van Druten. Talk about "bewitched": Stewart's a straight-arrow drawn into the world of Greenwich Village witchcraft, of which Novak, Jack Lemmon, and Elsa Lanchester are key practitioners. Middle of the Night (1959) was a project Novak fought for, a serious Paddy Chayefsky script about a 56-year-old garment exec (Fredric March) falling for a 24-year-old receptionist. The rueful tone, full of mortality and regret, is pure Chayefsky, and a de-glamorized Novak is very touching as a lost soul.