powered by AFI
In prohibition-era Chicago of the late 1920s, up-and-coming nightclub singer Joe E. Lewis is the top attraction at Club 777, a speakeasy owned by gangster Georgie Parker. Ignoring the warnings of his friend and accompanist, Austin Mack, as well as a death treat from Georgie's henchman, Tim Coogan, Joe leaves Club 777 and accepts a job from Harry Bliss, the owner of an upper class nightspot, The Valencia. After opening at the new club, Joe signs a recording contract with Blue Label Records, but his rising career comes to a crashing halt weeks later when his throat is cut by Coogan. Though he survives the gangster's attack, Joe's vocal cords are permanently damaged, ending his singing career. Soon after his release from the hospital, Joe disappears and Coogan is murdered, but Austin and Swifty Morgan are both relieved to learn from the police that their friend was not the killer. Years later, in 1937, Swifty runs into Joe at a New York racetrack. Discovering that Joe has been reduced to working as a silent clown in a burlesque house, Austin and Swifty arrange for their old friend to appear in a Variety Club benefit being headlined by Austin's new boss, Sophie Tucker. When he tries to sing, however, Joe is unable to hit his high notes, so he does an impromptu stand-up routine instead. His performance is a big hit, especially with socialite Letty Page. Despite his insecurity about the differences in their social backgrounds, Joe and Letty are soon seeing each other regularly, and Joe starts a new career as a nightclub comedian, with Austin once again his accompanist. On the closing night of his highly successful Miami run, Joe announces two new engagements: his upcoming New York opening at the Copacabana, and his marital engagement to Letty. After returning to New York, however, Joe is told by his physician that his chronic alcoholism is killing him, and then learns his Copa opening has been cancelled following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Joe breaks his engagement to Letty and leaves on an overseas U.S.O. tour with Austin. Returning stateside months later, Joe has a change of heart and decides to settle down with Letty, only to learn from Cassie, Austin's wife, that his ex-fiancée has already married someone else. On the rebound, Joe marries Martha Stewart, one of the dancers in his nightclub act. Rather than leaving on a honeymoon, the two immediately go back to work, with Joe returning to the nightclub circuit, while Martha pursues an acting career in Hollywood. The newlyweds see little of each other, as she works all day, and he performs, drinks and gambles all night. Realizing that her marriage is in shambles, Martha follows Joe to Las Vegas, and, in a drunken stupor, she asks him for a divorce. That night, Joe attacks a heckler who insults Martha, and in the ensuing scuffle, he mistakenly punches Austin. With both his wife and his best friend lost to him, Joe returns to Chicago after a three-week hospital stay, where he visits the boarded-up Club 777. As visions from his past haunt him in various storefront windows, Joe is finally forced to look at himself and realizes that there is a life beyond the bottle. Having spent much of his life making others laugh, Joe now pledges to find humor and enjoyment in life for himself.