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Among the many films that Frank Sinatra made, The Joker Is Wild (1957) is best remembered for the Oscar®-winning song "All the Way" that became part of his regular repertoire and as synonymous with the singer's image as his later signature song, "My Way." What is rarely noted about the film anymore is that it features one of Sinatra's best dramatic performances since his 1953 career comeback in From Here to Eternity. It also reveals some obvious parallels between Joe E. Lewis, the gangland connected entertainer he is playing, and rumors of his own possible connection to the Mafia throughout his career.
Based on the best-selling biography by Art Cohn, The Joker Is Wild is set in Chicago in the late 1920s when Prohibition was in full swing. At the time, Joe E. Lewis was a rising singer with a regular gig at Club 777, a speakeasy owned by the gangster Georgie Parker. When the owner from the Valencia, a much classier nightclub, offers Joe the headliner spot at his place, Lewis leaps at the opportunity, despite a dire warning from his current employer, and takes his pianist Austin Mack with him. It's a decision that almost cost Lewis his life. A few weeks after his premiere at the Valencia, Lewis was attacked in his hotel room, severely beaten (his skull was fractured) and left for dead with his throat cut. He miraculously survived but the throat slashing ended his singing career. In an attempt to support himself in the only business he knew, he began working as the stooge in comic vaudeville acts. His career hit a turning point though when he was encouraged to sing on stage again by the legendary singer Sophie Tucker. With his voice too obviously damaged to hit the high notes, Lewis used his self-deprecating humor to disarm the audience and suddenly realized his talent for impromptu stand-up comedy. Even though he builds a new career for himself as a nightclub comedian, the psychic scars left by his maiming run deep and drive him to alcoholism and self-destructive behavior. His uphill battle for self-control ends up taking a considerable toll on his personal and professional relationships and marriage before he finally decides to embrace sobriety.
As usual with film biographies, some liberties were taken with the facts in Lewis's story. According to journalist Hazel Flynn, who knew Lewis in the early days of his career, the entertainer was not a particularly gifted singer and was always more talented as a comic. She also pointed out that the owner of the Rienzi Cafe (renamed Club 777 in the film) had invested a lot of money in promoting Lewis (he bought him clothes and took him on vacations) and had even refurbished his nightclub for his star attraction when Lewis walked out on him. So his vendetta against the entertainer was not merely a matter of pride over losing him to the Rendezvous, a rival establishment (identified as the Valencia in the movie). Interestingly enough, Lewis was said to be the only Chicago comedian who could make gangster Al Capone laugh. Yet it was Capone's close associate, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn who ordered Lewis's near-fatal attack.
The making of The Joker Is Wild turned out to be fortuitous for two members of the production - songwriter Sammy Cahn whose hit "All the Way" would win the Best Song Oscar® thanks to Sinatra's heartfelt rendition and musical director/composer Walter Scharf who was hired by director Charles Vidor due to Sinatra's insistence. Scharf, who already had several Oscar® nominations to his credit, would go on to greater success, accumulating three more Academy Award nominations for Funny Girl (Best Music Score, 1968), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Best Music Score, 1971) and Ben (Best Original Song, 1972). In the Michael Freedland biography of Frank Sinatra, All the Way, Scharf recalled that the filming of The Joker Is Wild centered completely around Sinatra's schedule: "We did things the French way - which sounds a lot more sexy than it really is. It meant that we started work at noon and worked through to about seven in the evening." Not everyone liked this routine since it often meant missing dinner with their own families but Sinatra laid down the law, saying "My theory is, actors are creators. Anyone else who creates something is allowed to do it when he wants to. What we have to do - playing a love scene, for example - is difficult to do at nine a.m. I work better, sing better, later in the day. That's why I only record at night."
For all of the musical numbers in the film, Sinatra demanded that they be recorded live in a real nightclub in order to capture the spontaneity of the performance. Lip-synching was not acceptable to him. "When I do a concert and someone coughs, I like that," Sinatra remarked. "I like the scraping of chairs. You get the feeling that it's really happening. I've always thought Lewis was one of only about four or five great artists in this century - one of them was Jolson - and I remember him screaming like the devil when he made a soundtrack." (from All the Way: A Biography of Frank Sinatra.)
As for Sinatra's performance as Lewis, Scharf noted that the singer "was consciously studying Joe E. Lewis. He finished sentences with a question mark. He would take an adverb and use it as something he would say afterwards." He certainly captures the comedian's cynical side on stage with such cutting lines as "A friend in need is a pest" or makes light of his own alcoholism with such famous remarks as "You're not drunk enough if you can still lie on the floor without hanging on." In fact, the least convincing aspect of The Joker Is Wild is Sinatra's recreation of Lewis's stage act; it's more likely to arouse pity than laughter. Jokes about inebriation, hangovers and gambling might have been funny during Prohibition but now they seem like desperate cries for help. Certainly what works best in the film is Sinatra's morose self-pity and despair which hits a peak in an early scene when he returns to consciousness after his hospital ordeal. Seeing his bandaged head and barely able to speak, the full impact of what has happened to him hits and he begins to claw at the door, moaning like a wounded animal. It's as powerful a moment as anything he did in From Here to Eternity or The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).
The final scene in The Joker Is Wild is anti-climactic in more ways than one. Talking to his reflection in a glass window, Lewis vows to clean up his act and stop drinking after his wife has left him. In real life, Lewis never quite managed to quit the bottle and eventually died in 1971 from alcohol-related causes. For those who want to catch a glimpse of the real Joe E. Lewis, you can spot him as Lancelot Pringle McBiff in the 1942 army musical, Private Buckaroo or playing himself in the Frank Sinatra detective drama, Lady in Cement (1968).
As for those who prefer Sinatra the singer to Sinatra the actor, there is still reason enough to watch The Joker Is Wild which includes Frank's versions of such popular standards as "I Cried For You," "If I Could Be With You," "Chicago," "Swinging on a Star," and "Out of Nowhere." Unfortunately two songs were omitted because of their sexually suggestive lyrics - "Greatest Little Sign in the World" by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn and "The Bird Song" by Ben Oakland and Eddie Maxwell.
In addition to Sinatra, The Joker Is Wild is well cast with particular standout roles for Eddie Albert as his loyal accompanist Austin, Beverly Garland as Austin's no-nonsense wife Cassie, Jeanne Crain as Letty Page, the beautiful socialite that Lewis drives away, and Mitzi Gaynor as Martha, a chorus girl who becomes Lewis's wife.
The Joker Is Wild opened to generally favorable reviews with most critics praising Sinatra's performance. Los Angeles Times reviewer Phillip K. Scheuer wrote that Sinatra "catches the bitter inner restlessness almost too well...When Lewis, highball in hand, is reciting them [the drunk monologues] his natural clown's grin takes the curse off their cynicism; from Sinatra the gags come out bitter and barbed." And Gordon Gow in Films and Filming noted that "One consolation in the glossy gloom of this downbeat drama is that Frank Sinatra has sufficient talent and taste to break through the wall of embarrassment that is bound to arise between an audience and the film case-history of an unanonymous alcoholic."
One final bit of trivia: Sinatra and Joe E. Lewis were friends in real life and socialized frequently but following the premiere of the film Sinatra publicly snubbed his old friend in a famous incident. Lewis was performing at the El Rancho Vegas with Sinatra and his date Lauren Bacall in attendance in the audience. When Lewis asked Sinatra to join him on stage with a song, the singer refused and left the club. It was common knowledge in Las Vegas that Sinatra never performed anywhere in that town except the Sands (was this his rule or a Mafia edict?) but Lewis apparently had forgotten that. At any rate, Sinatra later apologized and patched up their riff.
Producer: Samuel J. Briskin, Charles Vidor
Director: Charles Vidor
Screenplay: Art Cohn (novel), Oscar Saul
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Film Editing: Everett Douglas
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Chauncey Gray, Harry Harris, Walter Scharf, Jimmy Van Heusen
Cast: 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).
by Jeff Stafford