Frank Sinatra plays Joe E. Lewis, a famous comedian of the 1930s-50s. When the movie opens, Lewis is a young, talented singer who performs in speakeasies. When he bolts one job for another, the mob boss who owns the first speakeasy has his thugs try to kill Lewis. Lewis survives, but his vocal cords are cut and he cannot sing.
Several years later, his buddy tracks him down and tries to help him with little success. That attempt, though, leads to Lewis meeting Letty Page (Jeanne Crain). They fall in love and she inspires him to follow up on an offer to become a comedian (a result of his buddy's failed attempt to rejuvenate his singing career). Lewis has problems, though. The assault that nearly cost him his life also helped turn him into an alcoholic and an inveterate gambler. These two character defects become the basis for his act and help to make him a smash success.
Unfortunately, they also work to wreak havoc in his personal life.
Frank Sinatra ... Joe E. Lewis
Mitzi Gaynor ... Martha Stewart
Jeanne Crain ... Letty Page
Eddie Albert ... Austin Mack
Beverly Garland ... Cassie Mack
Jackie Coogan ... Swifty Morgan
Barry Kelley ... Capt. Hugh McCarthy
Ted de Corsia ... Georgie Parker
Leonard Graves ... Tim Coogan
Valerie Allen ... Flora, Chorine
Hank Henry ... Burlesque comedian
"The Joker Is Wild" gives us Frank Sinatra playing Joe E. Lewis playing Frank Sinatra. At least that's my read of this entertaining and rather revealing look at a performer's life.
In the 1920s, Lewis is a singer on his way up. Then he tries to part ways with a mobster who thinks he owns the singer and threatens violence if the singer thinks otherwise. Sure enough, Lewis's bid for freedom ends with his larynx slashed and his head busted in. Years later, Lewis re-emerges as a popular nightclub comic, but he's still haunted by what could have been, not to mention a taste for the bottle he works into his stage show a lot better than he does into his life.
Sinatra likened himself to Lewis; he jokes about the two of them forming an Olympic Drinking Team with Dean Martin on his classic "Sinatra At The Sands" album. Perhaps he saw a chance to portray a kindred spirit and a close friend on screen, but watching Sinatra's gritty, unsentimental performance, given at the peak of his career, suggests a deeper agenda. Even Sinatra's friendliest biographers say the man had a dark side, and certainly that is Lewis's situation here, a celebrity who falls into a deeper gloom the more he succeeds, lashing out at those who love him. He's fundamentally decent, but a manic-depressive streak runs deep inside him, coiled around his heart like a rattlesnake.
There's a scene, just after Lewis's wife leaves him, when his faithful pianist Austin Mack (Eddie Albert) suggests Lewis cancel the show. Lewis's reply is the classic entertainer's problem: "What would I do instead?" I get the feeling Sinatra knew that all too well.
Charles Vidor directs this film with assurance and a deft touch, giving Sinatra's early scenes the proper brooding background and his later ones a sense of instability as he amuses his audiences with his cocktail-fueled banter while worrying his friends, who hear the cynicism-bordering-on-nihilism just beneath the surface. The irony of Lewis's life is the bleaker it becomes, the funnier he gets. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he says after passing out on a nightclub floor. "It's you people that are spinning around."
The surrounding cast is competent enough, but this is Sinatra's film, and he carries it off very well, digging into the layers of Lewis's (and his own) tortured, schizoid persona. It's a fair criticism to call this a star vehicle (as Moonspinner55 does in an earlier review here) because Sinatra is sucking up all the oxygen on screen and every scene is designed to showcase his performance. Yet Sinatra's performance merits the treatment, because he serves the story. Watch the scene when Lewis wakes up in his hospital bed and realizes his voice is gone, a scene that works not only because it is so tautly acted but because we all know that's "The Voice" in that bed not able to muster enough vocal power to call over a sleeping friend. Watching him bang a wall in frustration is one of the lumpiest scenes in Sinatra's film career, ironically shot out of focus just like the famous card-showing sequence in "The Manchurian Candidate."
There's also great music, like "All The Way," a Sinatra classic that won an Oscar for this film and is showcased three different times, each in a different way, most effectively the last time, when Sinatra can barely get the words out. You could call this film "Star Is Born For The Straight Guy"; there's plenty of macho melodrama as we watch Lewis charging toward his own alcoholic doom while assaulted with dodgy lines like "I don't know what you're looking for in that bottle, but the faster you run toward it, the farther away it gets."
But the film does have the courage to end on a boldly downbeat note, one that leaves us wondering both about Lewis and the man who plays him. Is showbiz literally worth dying for, as Lewis seems to tell his doctor? Does that make a career like Lewis's heroism or suicide? The best part of "The Joker Is Wild" is the way it leaves you hanging. Was it a cry for help from the Chairman of the Board, or just him letting us know what's what? Your guess is as good as mine.
Movie about singer stand-up comedian Joe E. Lewis with Frank Sinatra in the leading role as the beloved and at the same time tragic entertainer who survived a vicious knife attack in Al Capone's Chicago that ended his singing career.
Alone and forgotten years later Joe E. is spotted at the Belmont Race Track by his old friend Swifty Morgan, Jackie Coogan, who thinks that his velvet voice is back,or never really left him. Swifty offers Joe. E a job in a Broadway song and dance number with Sophie Tucker. It turns out that Joe E. is nowhere the singer that he used to be but he had developed a very sharp sense of humor and rapid-fire delivery. That together with a couple of stiff drinks on the stage, to loosen him up, had the night club costumers rolling in the aisles.
We get to see Joe E. Lewis go from being almost forgotten to reaching the top of the entertainment world and then slowly destroying himself and those who loved and cared for him. Like he did to the blood-blooded socialite Letty Page, Jeanne Crain, who wanted to marry Joe E. but finally gave up when Joe E. left her for two years during WWII doing shows and getting drunk, overseas. Marrying showgirl Martha Stewart, not the one that you think but someone else,(Mitzi Gaynor) lasted just two years. As Martha was getting parts in motions pictures Joe E. got drunk doing his night-club act and in the end turned their home into a card playing casino and horse room. With dozens of Joe E.'s friends in attendance where Martha felt that she was a stranger in her own home.
Martha just about had it when she came to visit Joe E. in Vegas, in the middle of making a movie, and got the cold shoulder from him. Joe E. was more interested with the goings on the crap table then with the emotional state of his own wife. Hurt and humiliated by Joe E.'s actions Martha got herself gloriously drunk on a half dozen cocktails told him good-by for the last time and ended up walking, or better yet staggering, out on him for ever.
Joe E. on the stage doing his act really gets hot under the collar when one of the drunk, like himself, and abusive patrons in the audience makes a nasty and snide remark about him and is drunken wife, Martha. That leads Joe E. to get off the stage walk up to him and lay him out together with his friend and on stage piano player Auston Mack, Eddie Albert, who tried to intervene.
"The Joker is Wild" is a movie about the self-destruction of a talented entertainer who was trapped in a bottle because he needed it to preform on stage. At the same time turned him into a drunken an abusive personality that eventually proved to be his biggest enemy by far. More then any of the abusive and obnoxious customers that he had to deal with while he was preforming on stage.
Frank Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis has a chance to sing a number of his biggest hits notably the movie's theme song "All The Way". Sinatra's acting as the troubled and alcoholic comedian is among his best. There's a somewhat up-beat ending with Joe E. seeming to see the light and turn his life around which Joe E. did and outlived the predictions of his doctors who told him that if he didn't stop drinking he'd never live past middle-age. It had been reported from those close to him at the time that in the last years of his life Joe E.Lewis did his night-club act while downing glasses of tea not booze. Still it was obvious that the many years of heavy drinking took a toll on Joe E. Lewis and was a major reason in his not so sudden but very shocking physical deterioration and death.
P.S Joe E Lewish 1971 death certificate it stated that he died of among other things acute alcohol related complication's.
Tremendous 1957 film showcasing the life of Joe E. Lewis. After a brief singing career ended, due to Chicago gangsters, Lewis finds another voice in comedy. Nevertheless, he was left an embittered person unable to even be happy around those who loved him dearly.
After playing a junkie in 1955's "The Man With the Golden Arm," Sinatra again gives a wonderful performance as the alcoholic Lewis. He belts out "All the Way" the way that song was supposed to be sung.
Jeanne Crain is in fine form as the wealthy woman who loved him dearly but did not marry him due to his behavior and the advent of World War 11.
The real surprise here is the wonderful supporting performance of Mitzi Gaynor as the chorus girl that Lewis wed on the rebound. Gaynor proved that she could really act as well as sing and dance here. Her drunken scene where she told Lewis off was great.
Eddie Albert got plenty of practice being around alcoholics when he appeared with Susan Hayward twice in "Smash-Up The Story of a Woman," as well as "I'll Cry Tomorrow." Albert plays the part of Lewis' understanding pianist with conviction.
The ending may be a downer but is true to life. At least, Lewis was ready to stand on his feet despite being alone.
# In real life, Danny Cohen owned the club in which Joe E. Lewis first worked. When Lewis defected for more money, Cohen gave mobster Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn (real name: Vincenzo Antonio Gebhardi), a lieutenant in Al Capone's mob, a 25% share in the club in return for his persuading Lewis to stay. McGurn's method of persuasion was the beating which Lewis received.
# For some unknown reason, Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn is portrayed in this film as "Tim Coogan."