Saturday Night Cinema: The Joker Is Wild (1957)


We continue to celebrate Frank Sinatra’s birthday with tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic The Joker is Wild in what is one of Sinatra’s best performances. Directed by the great Charles Vidor, the 1957 film biography of nightclub entertainer Joe E. Lewis, also includes Mitzi Gaynor, Jeanne Crain, Eddie Albert, Beverly Garland, Jackie Coogan, Harold Huber, Barry Kelley, Ted de Corsia, Ned Glass, Mary Treen and Sid Melton.

Frank Sinatra offers one of his better performances as the troubled but popular 1920s-era Chicago nightclub singer and comic Joe E. Lewis in this tuneful biopic. Joe’s career as a singer is going fine until he derails it all by politely refusing to do a gig at a rival club. Unfortunately, that club is run by Al Capone and he doesn’t like to see his offers refused and so sends out his boys to teach Lewis a lesson. They catch him and slit his throat. Lewis survives, but during the trauma his vocal cords were almost destroyed and he can no longer sing. Once healed, Lewis works on becoming a comedian and thanks to the help of Sophie Tucker succeeds. Along the way, he falls in love with a socialite and a chorus girl. He marries the latter, but secretly loves the socialite. Despite his success at work, Lewis becomes despondent and eases his pain with plenty of alcohol. As his drinking increases, the quality of his patter diminishes, but still he remains popular but only because he is an entertainingly pathetic and obnoxious drunk. When he takes his act home once too often, his disgusted wife takes a powder, as does his best friend who can no longer stand by and watch Lewis destroy himself. Fortunately, Lewis bottoms out soon afterward, quits the booze and opts for making amends to those he most loves.

Sinatra Plays in ‘The Joker Is Wild’; The Cast

Sept. 27, 1957

Credit…The New York Times Archives

FRANK SINATRA is reportedly a friend of the comedian, Joe E. Lewis, and the Capitol’s new picture yesterday shouldn’t change things. Paramont’s “The Joker Is Wild,” has Mr. Sinatra portraying his pal, in a frankly affectionate valentine, based on a biography by Art Cohn, with a nice supporting cast that includes Eddie Albert, Mitzi Gaynor and Jeanne Crain.

This is the story of a cocky young Prohibition-era singer, almost ruined by a gangster, who switches to comedy, and drinks his way to night-club renown, as two loving ladies lose him to show-business legend.To get right down to cases (along with Mr. Lewis), the valentine is disarmingly personable and realistic for about two-thirds of the way. Sentiment it has—also salt.

Unfortunately, and with all respect to Mr. Lewis, a very likable hero, as Mr. Sinatra plays him, he eventually turns into a flabby, tippling night owl vaguely promising to perk up. Methodically tapering off, the picture ends on this indulgently listless note.Backing up, there is plenty to be said for a show-business tribute as trimly organized, well-acted and honest as this one. Mr. Saul has snugly ticket off a series of admirably lean vignettes for Mr. Sinatra that carry him from a bleak Chicago hole-in-the-wall to his present-day club eminence.

Charles Vidor’s direction is as alert and flavorsome as the generally smoky backgrounds of Samuel J. Briskin’s production. Mr. Albert, as a loyal accompanist; Beverly Garland, as his wife; Miss Crain, as the society belle who leaves the hero, and Miss Gaynor, as the bouncy chorine who bravely is married to him—these people all rate bows.But perhaps the brightest thing about the picture is the excellent dialogue—peppery, amusing and sensitive in turn. Add, certainly, the consistently fine acting of Mr. Sinatra, on view virtually every minute, armed to the hilt with period songs.Mr. Lewis’ friend has made him seem such a winning guy, it’s too bad we have to leave him methodically wearing a bottle, like a tired albatross.

The CastTHE JOKER IS WILD, screen play by Oscar Saul, from a book by Art Cohn; directed by charles Vidor; produced by Samuel J. Briskin for Paramount Pictures. At the Capitol.Joe E. Lewis . . . . . Frank Sinatra
Austin Mack . . . . . Eddie Albert
Martha Stewart . . . . . Mitzi Gaynor
Letty page . . . . . Jeanne Crain
Cassie Mack . . . . . Beverly Garland
Swifty Morgan . . . . . Jackie Coogan
Georgie Parker . . . . . Ted de Corsia



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