Saturday, February 4, 2023

The Joker Is Wild

Er, not quite....

Another movie which was sitting on my DVR for quite some time is The Joker Is Wild, which got a TCM airing back in September 2021 in honor of Mitzi Gaynor's 90th birthday. In a very nice move, they even aired the interstitials Gaynor did with Robert Osborne back in 2014, which were a hell of a lot more worthwhile than Ben Mankiewicz's "insights", but that's a topic for another day.

The movie tells the story of the story of Joe E. Lewis (Frank Sinatra), not the heavyweight boxer but a singer-turned-comedian (and part-time actor) whose career started in the 1920s in Chicago. Now, as you can probably guess from the place and date, that's during Prohibition, and the Mob is involved in some way. In Joe's case, that means the club where he's performing is owned by the Mob, and the contract he's signed is one that it's going to be difficult to get out of unless his bosses explicitly send him away.

Those bosses have no such desire, while Joe wants to go off on his own, so since his contract is coming to an end, he decides to take another offer despite the bosses' plans to renew the contract whether he likes it or not. When Joe doesn't get the hint, the boss sends a couple of thugs to rough up Joe, which they do by beating him and slashing him, scarring his face and severing his vocal cords in the attack. I thought it was surprising that all of this would happen in the first 30 minutes of what would be an over two-hour movie, but in looking up the real story Lewis was slashed in the late 1920s and his career success would in fact come many years later.

In the real world, Lewis wound up with a gravelly voice, but that wouldn't do when your star is Frank Sinatra, so the movie doesn't have Sinatra change his voice all that much. Instead, it focuses more on his journey to burlesque, doing what would basically have been the bottom rung of vaudeville back in the 1920s. In burlesque, he's discovered by Sophie Tucker (playing herself uncredited), and that gets him into a career doing the nightclub circuit.

Seeing him in burlesque is a slumming socialite, Letty Page (Jeanne Crain). She meets Joe after the show, and the two start an on-again, off-again relationship. Meanwhile, Joe rises through the ranks, thanks to a show that involves dancers and a piano accompanist, Austin Mack (Eddie Albert). The show also involves a lot of drinking, something to which Joe turned in much higher quantities to deal with the physical and emotional scars of having been attacked. Joe thinks of marrying Letty, but he can never quite bring himself to pull the trigger. World War II decides the issue for him, as Letty goes to Washington where her father has taken one of those dollar-a-year jobs, while Joe and Austin go on a USO tour.

One of Joe's dancers is Martha Stewart (the actress, not the domestic lifestyle expert), who is played by Mitzi Gaynor, thus the showing of this movie to honor Mitzi. Martha had become a slightly larger part of the act than the other dancers when she shows herself adept at comedy, but that's the extent of the relationship. That is, until Joe decides he's finally going to pull that trigger with Letty, only to learn she's already gotten married. So after the war he marries Martha, but they each have their own careers and Joe's drinking is getting progressively worse.

The Joker Is Wild is another challenging performance from the 1950s for Sinatra, who had wanted to change his image leading to take the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity back in 1953 and jump-starting his career. It gives Sinatra some chance to sing -- he even sings an Oscar-winning song, "All the Way" -- but it's much more of an uncomfortable character study at the same time it's a biopic. Synopses that refer to The Joker Is Wild as a musical are, I think, not quite accurate.

In any case, Sinatra is up to the task and gives another good performance. Gaynor and Albert are also pretty good in support. The only thing that would be nice would be to have color; it also doesn't help that Paramount provided TCM with a panned-and-scanned print. Still, The Joker Is Wild is definitely worth a watch.

1 comment:

Birgit said...

OMG! I used to watch that game show. That man's hair could be a star on its own. Obviously his acting career didn't go anywhere. Now i like to see more episodes.
Happy 90 to Mitzi! I hVe not seen this movie but I will look out for it.