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The Joker Is Wild

The Joker Is Wild(1957)

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The working title of this film was The Joker. The opening credits include the following citation: "Specialty Songs and Parodies by Harry Harris." According to Time, the real Joe E. Lewis' greatest claim to fame was that he was one of the very few comedians on the Chicago nightclub circuit who could make noted mobster Al Capone laugh. However, Lewis ran afoul of "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, who had the nightclub performer's throat slashed and his skull fractured, as depicted in the film.
       In a September 1957 article in Beverly Hills Citizen, newspaperwoman Hazel Flynn, an old friend of Lewis from his Chicago days, refutd some of the details of Lewis' life, as depicted in The Joker Is Wild. She stated that Lewis was never a talented singer, having been a comedian from the very beginning of his career. Further, she argued that Lewis was not almost killed over his right to work where he pleased, as portrayed in the film, as most cafs in prohibition-era Chicago were owned by gangsters. In actuality, the owner of Rienzi Caf had spent a great deal of money promoting Lewis and had even gone so far as to remodel the club for the comedian. In addition, the club owner felt personally betrayed by Lewis, as he had befriended the up-and-coming nightclub performer, buying him new clothes and taking him on vacations. Lewis, however, left Rienzi for another mob-run nightclub simply to make more money and gain greater exposure. Flynn stated that she was at Rienzi the night the remodeled club reopened without Lewis and overheard gangsters openly talking about killing the comedian. However, when Lewis opened without incident at the new club, she and other Chicago reporters of the time assumed the mobsters had a change of heart. Weeks later, however, Lewis suffered his near-fatal attack, as depicted in the film.
       In October 1955, Los Angeles Times reported that Lewis turned down $150,000 from M-G-M for the film rights to his life story, instead opting to have it produced as an independent feature by his old friend, Frank Sinatra. Variety reported in November 1955 that Paramount had agreed to finance the independent production, which was to be headed up by Lewis, Sinatra, director Charles Vidor and Art Cohn, author of the Lewis biography The Joker is Wild, under the corporate name A.M.B.L. Productions. The studio agreed to pay the four partners $400,000, along with seventy-five percent of the film's net profits, and assigned Samuel J. Briskin to oversee the film's production. According to New York Times, Sinatra's share of the partnership was $125,000, along with twenty-five percent of the film's profits. The Daily Variety review points out that supporting actor Hank Henry was the "perpetual motion comic at Las Vegas' Silver Slipper."
       According to the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the songs "Greatest Little Sign in the World," by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, and "The Bird Song," by Ben Oakland and Eddie Maxwell, were submitted to the PCA for use in The Joker Is Wild, but were rejected outright for their sexually suggestive lyrics. Van Heusen and Cahn received an Academy Award for their musical composition "All the Way," which became one of Sinatra's signature songs.
       Hollywood Reporter news items include Percy Helton in the cast, but he was not in the print viewed. The Joker Is Wild marked the last film of long-time character actor Harold Huber (1904-1959). Modern sources add the following names to the crew credits: Orchestration Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes.
       Modern sources also report that a controversial event occurred following the film's premiere in Las Vegas, when Sinatra and his date, actress Lauren Bacall, walked out of Lewis' show at the El Rancho Vegas after the comedian, contrary to a prior agreement with his old friend, asked Sinatra to join him on stage and sing a song. It was claimed that a drunken Lewis had forgotten that Sinatra made it a policy never to perform anywhere in Las Vegas other than the Sands.