Classic Film Guide

Joker is Wild, The (1957) - full review!

Directed by Charles Vidor, with a screenplay by Oscar Saul that was based on Art Cohn's biography, this film is "The Story of Joe E. Lewis", a singer whose life was changed during the depression when he refused to follow a nightclub owning gangster's instructions not to sing in another club. Frank Sinatra plays Lewis, whose vocal chords were slashed during the retribution beating, but years later became a comedian with a drinking problem. This above average drama features a solid lead performance from Sinatra, who also sings the Academy Award winning best song "All the Way", among others. The cast also includes the movie alcoholic's best friend, and piano playing buddy Eddie Albert as Austin Mack; Beverly Garland plays his wife, Cassie Mack. Jeanne Crain and Mitzi Gaynor play two of the women in Lewis's storied life, debutante Letty Page and dancer Martha Stewart respectively, and Jackie Coogan (starting to look very much like Uncle Fester, seven years before TV's The Addams Family) plays another of Lewis's friends, Swifty Morgan.

In the late 1920's, singer Joe E. Lewis (Sinatra) works with his piano playing accompanist Austin Mack (Albert) in Georgia Parker's (Ted de Corsia) Chicago speakeasy, an establishment where people can enjoy a show while enjoying alcoholic drinks during prohibition. After a night when another speakeasy owner Harry Bliss (Harold Huber, uncredited) comes to watch Lewis's show, Parker has his muscle Tim Coogan (Leonard Graves) threaten Lewis not to leave his employ for Bliss. But soon Lewis, who refuses to kowtow to the gangster's instructions, and Austin are working at Bliss's nightclub, under the temporary protection of the local police captain Hugh McCarthy (Barry Kelley). Lewis records several hit records including "All The Way". Later, however, Coogan and several of his thugs arrive at Lewis's apartment to deliver a near fatal beating which includes cutting his vocal chords, effectively ruining any future hopes the singer may have had for a continuing career. Austin and another friend Swifty Morgan (Coogan) help Lewis through his long hospital recovery, but the day he is discharged, Lewis leaves his friends behind to leave for New York. His friends decide to do the same, even hoping to find Lewis.

Years pass (Coogan is found slain, FDR is elected and reelected, prohibition ends, etc.) before Swifty runs into the physically (and mentally) scarred Lewis at a racetrack. Though Lewis is happy to see an old friend, he also quickly excuses himself when he learns that Austin is in "The Big Apple" too. Swifty follows Lewis and finds that he's playing the dummy clown in a burlesque show in a seedy part of town. He brings Austin, who's been having some success in the city playing for other singers like Sophie Tucker (who appears as herself, uncredited), to the burlesque where they see Lewis get slapped around as the "pie in the face" half of a comedian's (Hank Henry) routine. Austin uses his influence with Tucker to get the burlesque act invited to appear at her charity event, after which she introduces Lewis to the audience as the singer who refused to let gangsters tell him where to sing. Even with Austin at the piano, Lewis is unable to sing, but he does entertain the philanthropist crowd, which includes debutante Letty Page (Crain, looking as beautiful as ever), with self deprecating jokes. After the performance, Austin tries to convince Lewis that he's got a career as a standup comedian. They are interrupted by a woman who Lewis unintentionally insults before Austin introduces her as his wife Cassie (Garland). Lewis, who doesn't want to believe that his "former" friend is being sincere regarding his talent for humor, dismisses them both but later meets Letty, who soon becomes his supportive friend and love interest.

When Letty is ready to introduce her boyfriend to her wealthy developer father (Walter Woolf King, uncredited), they go to the burlesque one evening for a show but find that Lewis has quit. However, she does find him and with her (and his other friends’) support, Lewis begins a career as a standup nightclub comic with Austin as his accompanist on the piano. Unfortunately, Lewis drinks before, during, and after each show, so the inevitable problems follow. Even though he becomes more and more inebriated during his shows, he is able to handle the hecklers (like Don Beddoe with Mary Treen and, later Wally Brown, all uncredited). Naturally the relationship between Lewis and Letty devolves, though his friendship (well, at least the support he receives from him) with Austin, and Swifty endures. Cassie is able to tolerate him too, most of the time. Lewis's fiancé relationship with Letty never progresses to the altar, and finally ends while Lewis and Austin are on a USO tour during World War II; Letty marries another. When the friends do return, Lewis's doctor (Ned Wever, uncredited) tells him the comedian he must stop drinking if he wants to live any longer. Martha Stewart (Gaynor) had become a regular girl in his show by then, and so Lewis "settles" for her as the one to wed. She's fairly superficial though, and receives an offer to "act" in films which interrupts their honeymoon plans. Lewis, his drinking and his ever present friends (including an uncredited Dick Elliot, caught shaving in Martha's bathroom), make their hasty match a casualty in among the ranks of married couples. The film ends with Lewis walking among his memories.

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