My parents did not go to the movies too often, though when they did they generally took me along. Sure my Mom did take me to the Disney movies of the day like Tammy and the Bachelor, Dumbo and whatever other family fare was out there during the summer, but as a family, meaning my Dad came along, it was not too often. I can remember family viewings of The Bridge on the River Kwai, The King and I and a little gem called The Joker is Wild. I was only about nine years old at the time, yet the film had a memorable impact on me. What made it so unforgettable was Frank Sinatra. We didn’t have a record player at the time but our home was always filled with music on weekend mornings with the sounds of Jerry Vale, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and a lot of Frank Sinatra. There was a radio show on WNEW-AM called The Make Believe Ballroom with D.J. William B. Williams. Williams played a lot of what he called The Great American Songbook and tops on his list was Sinatra. I bring this all up because, as far as I can remember, The Joker is Wild was the first movie I ever saw with Frank and there is a certain scene where Sinatra, as Joe E. Lewis, is badly beaten up by some mobsters. This all happens off screen but you see the aftermath which resulted in a scarred face, a cut tongue and an amazed little kid in the theater.
So who was Joe E. Lewis? Practically, all but forgotten today, as is this film, Lewis was a nightclub comedian and singer whose career began during the days of prohibition in the 1920’s in Chicago. That should tell you Lewis knew the mob since they owned most, if not all, the speakeasies at the time. And that’s where the film begins.
Directed by Charles Vidor, with a screenplay by Oscar Paul and based on Art Cohn’s biography The Life of Joe. E. Lewis, we meet Lewis as he performs in a speakeasy owned by underworld kingpin Georgie Parker, menacingly played by Ted DeCorsia. When another club owner offers Lewis more money, he leaves Georgie despite the threats from Parker that if he splits he will not live long. Soon after Lewis opens at the new club, a couple of Parker’s henchmen unexpectedly come to visit him in his hotel room where they beat him up badly including cutting his throat.
Remarkably, Lewis survives the attack, though his recuperation takes a long time. After his recovery, he disappears, leaving behind his faithful piano player, Austin Mack (Eddie Albert) and, what he feels, is a dead career. However, as Lewis discovers, you can’t hide forever. Playing a clown in third rate vaudeville acts he is lured back to the spotlight by old friend Sophie Tucker. What Lewis discovers is that while he is no longer the singer he once was he did have a sharp sense of humor and a rapid delivery. His career is revitalized, now a comedian with some singing on the side.
Along the way he meets a couple of women (Jeanne Crain and Mitzi Gaynor) who love him. However, Lewis is a haunted man who can’t be happy when he’s not on stage with a drink in his hand. At one point, after his wife Martha (Mitzi Gaynor) leaves him, Austin Mack suggest he take a little time off from show business and try to save his marriage. Lewis, unable to contemplate not being on stage, sadly responds “What would I do?” It’s a poignant moment, one you feel also applies to Sinatra himself and how he would have responded during his own dark days when he thought his career was over.
The film is surprisingly faithful to real life except for a few instances. Most glaringly are the gangsters who are all fictionalized. In real life the slashing of Lewis’ throat was executed by underlings of Al Capone specifically, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, a lieutenant of Capone’s.(1) It was a deed implemented without Big Al’s consent. Apparently, the Chicago boss man liked Lewis and would not have ordered this done. Additionally, Lewis’ wife is made out to have become a big movie star making what seems to be one film after another. In reality, Martha Stewart was a minor actress. She appeared in nine films mostly small. The best known films she appeared in were Daisy Kenyon and In a Lonely Place.
Joe. E. Lewis’ legacy can be viewed as a comedic pioneer in the mode of future comic alcoholics like Foster Brooks and Dean Martin. Lewis’ famous line on stage…”it’s post time.” In real life, Sinatra and Lewis were friends. In the early 1960’s, after Frank created his own record label (Reprise records), he signed on his longtime friend to the label.
The film, without a doubt, belongs to Sinatra. Now considered a serious actor, with films like From Here to Eternity and The Man with the Golden Arm behind him, Sinatra is the center in which all others circle around. It’s one of his finest dramatic performances. True, his comic delivery during the nightclub scenes will not make you forget how good his best pal Dean Martin was at it, but he does not embarrass himself. Last and best, we get the hear The Voice” sing a series of songs including his classic All the Way.
- Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn has been portrayed in various films including The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Clint Ritchie) and Capone (Carmen Argenziano). McGurn, real name Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi, died in 1936. Poetically, he was machine gunned down. Who killed McGurn remains unknown but speculation has always focused on revenge for his part with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.