Sinatra gets to show his acting chops in this biopic based on the life of Joe E. Lewis, the prohibition era singer forced to make an abrupt career change after turning his back on the Chicago mob.
This was an interesting choice for Sinatra, whose career was marked by rumors and innuendo linking him to the wiseguys.
Indeed, Mario Puzo borrowed from one of the classic underworld Old Blue Eyes tales when he wrote The Godfather. The “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” negotiations and the character of singer Johnny Fontane were built around Sinatra underworld folklore.
In reality, it was a similar type of mob-inspired “persuasion” that got bandleader Tommy Dorsey to release Sinatra from his contract with the Dorsey band so that he could pursue a singing career on his own. North Jersey mobster Willie Moretti supposedly offered Dorsey two alternatives. Either Dorsey would sign the release or Moretti would blow his brains out.
Sinatra also showed up in Havana in 1946 with some Chicago wiseguys visiting Lucky Luciano and the mob’s Cuban casinos in the pre-Castro days.
In 1963, he lost his Nevada casino license and had to give up ownership of the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe after allowing Chicago gangster Sam “Momo” Giancana to stay there. Giancana was wooing girlfriend Phyllis McGuire, one of the singing McGuire Sisters headlining the casino at the time.
There was also a notorious photo of Sinatra backstage at the Premier Dinner Theater in Tarrytown, N.Y., surrounded by eight avid admirers in his dressing room. The crowd included mob boss Carlo Gambino, his soon-to-be successor Paul Castellano and several other major players in the New York crime family.
The Joker Is Wild offers a dark and violent picture of organized crime. So while Sinatra may have had personal ties to mobsters—both before and after making the film—those relationships apparently did not impact his artistic decisions.
Gangsters are present only during the first third of the film, but none of them is shown in a sympathetic light. These are angry, greedy and treacherous individuals playing by their own set of rules.
The movie opens with Joe E. Lewis, then a hot young singer, performing at a mob-run speakeasy in 1920s Chicago. When he gets an offer to move to the Valencia, an upscale nightclub, he jumps at the chance, raving about the kind of fans he will draw.
“They’ve got great audiences,” he tells his best friend and piano accompanist Austin Mack (Eddie Albert), “not like these reunion clubs from Leavenworth.”
Mack realizes that leaving the mob speakeasy might not be the healthiest career move. But Lewis is undaunted. In his first verbal confrontation with the owner of the speakeasy he says, “This is America. I’ve got a right to work anywhere I want.”
To which the mobbed-up club owner replies, “What you got is a right to be buried anywhere you want.”
Lewis’ decision to go upscale costs him his career, the first indication of which comes when he receives a funeral wreath from the mob in his dressing room opening night. With a record deal in the offing and just three weeks into a successful gig at the Valencia, he is viciously attacked in his hotel room. His skull is bashed in and his throat and vocal chords slashed.
The rest of the movie revolves around Lewis’ rebirth as a stand-up comic and how the friends and the women he loves try in vain to support him as he battles alcohol and gambling addictions brought on by the loss of his singing career. Both vices figure prominently in his stand-up routines and both contribute to his personal downfall.
A New York Times review accurately calls the movie a “frankly affectionate valentine” that is “disarmingly personable and realistic for about two-thirds of the way.”
An attempt to end the story on an upbeat and positive note, however, undermines the personal struggle and tragedy of Joe E. Lewis—a man who thought he could turn his back on the mob.
HIT: Any movie in which Sinatra sings has something going for it. In this one, before his character has his throat slit by the mob, Sinatra manages to belt out a few, including “All the Way.” Written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and became part of the Sinatra songbook.
MISS: Some of the comedy is forced, especially the censored letters home from Austin Mack as he and Lewis travel on a USO Tour during World War II.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Sinatra obviously couldn’t be made to look like Lewis and Lewis’ style of delivery is unique. But these are minor reservations in light of the major job Sinatra does—alternately sympathetic and pathetic, funny and sad. . . . Under Charles Vidor’s direction, Joker plays out in a well-organized and smooth fashion. But it goes overboard on length.”—Variety
REALITY CHECK: The gangster who sent henchmen to “persuade” Lewis to return to the mob-run speakeasy he had quit was Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, a member of Capone’s Chicago Outfit back in the 1920s. The mobsters were supposed to convince Lewis to return to their club. Instead, they beat Lewis so badly he had to abandon his singing career and leave Chicago. The McGurn character in the movie is named Tim Coogan.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The full name of Mitzi Gaynor’s character is “Martha Stewart.” But there are no home design or table-setting tips from the young and shapely chorus line dancer.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: If you like Sinatra in a serious role, this is one worth revisiting from time to time.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Sinatra bought the movie rights after reading the book The Joker Is Wild: The Story of Joe E. Lewis by Art Cohn. Old Blue Eyes was in serious actor mode at the time, having reignited his career with an Oscar-winning performance (Best Supporting Actor) in From Here to Eternity (1953).
BEST LINE: Mack first tries to talk Lewis out of leaving the mob speakeasy, warning that the singer could get killed if he did. Lewis jokes about it, but Mack is serious and says he will quit as his piano player.
“Maybe I can’t stop you from getting killed, but I’m not gonna provide the accompaniment,” Mack says.
Later, against his better judgment, he shows up and continues to play for Lewis.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: The only violence, other than Lewis boozing his way from one personal disaster to another, is the offscreen beating and throat slashing that occurs early in the movie.
BODY COUNT: One. A newspaper headline announces the murder of mob kingpin Tim Coogan.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”