Artist EXPOSE' JOE E LEWIS!
SINGER, COMIC, LEGEND! THE JOKER IS WILD! RSS FEED
FRANK SINATRA And The Production Of 'THE JOKER IS WILD'
by Stu Leventhal
'The Joker is Wild’ is the biographical story of Actor, Comedian, Night Club Singer, Joe E Lewis who was a major attraction in nightclubs from the 1920s to the early 1950s. The bestselling book was authored by Art Cohn and publish‘ed by Random House (1955). ‘The Joker is Wild’ was adapted into a movie in the form of an American musical drama in1957, directed by Charles Vidor and starring Frank Sinatra, Mitzi Gaynor, Jeanne Crain and Eddie Albert. The movie won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Original Song, for Frank Sinatra’s heartfelt rendition of "All the Way" by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. When the film was re-released some years later, the title was changed for a period to All the Way in order to draw off of the immense popularity of the film's theme song, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard. In the public’s eye, the title of the song ‘All the way’ from the moment of its release would, from then on, become synonymous with Frank Sinatra’s attitude and philosophy for living life and the moxie with which Sinatra conducted himself privately and publicly.
The ambience of living life ‘All the way’ would stay with Frank Sinatra throughout the rest of his career, till the end of his life (May14, 1998). The ‘All the way’ mantra was reinforced and cemented in later years when Frank added to his repertoire, a song that would become his signature tune for eternity, ‘I did it my way’ song lyrics by Paul Anka and set to the music of the French song ‘Commed’habitude’ by Claude Francois and GillesThibault. To this day, ‘My Way’ is the most covered song in history.
Frank Sinatra read Art Cohn's best selling book and was immediately taken by Joe E Lewis’s story. When Joe E Lewis turned down a reported $150,000 from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the film rights to his life story, Sinatra decided to buy the rights to the book himself. Variety reported in November 1955 that Paramount Pictures would finance what was, for all intents and purposes, an independent feature film which was headed by Joe E Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Director Charles Vidor and Author Art Cohn. Each of the four partners were paid a reported $400,000, along with 75% of the film's net profits. The New York Times would report that Sinatra's share was in the region of $125,000 along with 25% of the film's profits.
The Joker Is Wild opened to mostly favorable reviews:
Los Angeles Times reviewer Philip K Scheuer. “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.”
Films and Filming reviewer, Gordon Gow, “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 un-anonymous alcoholic.”
Variety commented on the “Major job Sinatra does…alternately sympathetic and pathetic. Funny and sad.”
Sinatra and Lewis became very close friends during the filming of the movie and their friendship lasted many years after, until their deaths. “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)
Joe E Lewis used to enjoy chiding Frank with comments like, "You (Sinatra) had more fun playing my life than I had living it."
The Joker Is Wild - (1957) Paramount Pictures Corp. A.M.B.L. Productions
Frank Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis Mitzi Gaynor as Martha Stewart
Jeanne Crain as Letty Page Eddie Albert as Austin Mack
Beverly Garland as Cassie Mack Jackie Coogan as Swifty Morgan
Barry Kelley as Captain Hugh McCarthy
Ted de Corsia as Georgie Parker Leonard Graves as Tim Coogan
Valerie Allen as Flora, Chorine Hank Henry as Burlesque Comedian
Frank Sinatra plays Joe E. Lewis, a famous singer turned comedian of the 1930s-50s working the night club circuit. The movie opens in gangster run Chicago in the midst of Prohibition. Joe E Lewis is a young, talented singer performing in speakeasies managed by the Mob. Joe’s main, steady gig is singing at the 777 Club a speakeasy owned by Gangster Georgie Parker, where Joe has begun to build a nice following and is fast gaining a reputation as a fine performer. Joe’s popularity comes to the attention of another Mobster from a different mob family who owns the Valencia a classy night club on the other side of town. The owner of the Valencia offers Joe the high liner spot if he comes to sing at his place. Mobster Georgie Parker (played by Ted De Corsia) warns his lead singer not to try to leave his club to sing for his competitor. “This is America.” Joe declares. “I got a right to sing where ever I want.”
“You got a right to die where ever you want.” Is the reply Joe gets.
Ignoring his current employer’s threat Joe goes to sing at the classy, Valencia night club taking his piano player Austin Mack (played by Eddie Albert) with him. Mobster Georgie Parker quickly sends his thugs to kill Lewis. Lewis miraculously survives a brutal attack but his vocal cords are cut and he cannot sing. Several years later, his buddy tracks him down, discovering Lewis has been supporting himself by playing the comedic stooge in low budget vaudeville acts. Joe’s buddy tries to help him rejuvenate his singing career with little success but while on stage, Joe is unable to hit the big notes. Realizing he’s losing his audience, Joe attempts to sway them by tossing out a few jokes and discovers he’s got a natural talent for improvisation comedy. Slowly as his confidence grows Joe’s act becomes more and more about jokes interspersed with his singing. Lewis meets Letty Page (played by Jeanne Crain). They fall in love and Letty inspires Joe to follow up on an offer to become a standup comedian. Lewis rebuilds his show business career but never quite gets over his addiction problems; smoking, drinking and gambling which he developed during his long recovery period after his attack, while he was falling in and out of bouts of self-doubt and depression. Ironically his addictions became the basis for the punch lines he uses in his comedy routine which help to make Joe a smash success. Unfortunately, the addictions also work to wreak havoc in his personal life.
In the Michael Freedland biography of Frank Sinatra, All the Way, Film Composer, Walter 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.” (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.
Sinatra sings his heart out in 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."
‘The Joker Is Wild’ features one of Sinatra's best dramatic performances since his 1953 career comeback in From Here to Eternity. Watching the movie, one can’t help noticing the parallels between Joe E. Lewis, the gangland connected entertainer Frank Sinatra portrays and rumors of Sinatra’s own possible connection to the Mafia that surfaced throughout his career.
*Fans can catch a glimpse of the real Joe E. Lewis, performing as Lancelot Pringle McBiff in the 1942 army musical, Private Buckaroo or playing himself in the Frank Sinatra detective drama, Lady in Cement (1968).