The Joker Is Wild (Charles Vidor, 1957)

Joker Is Wild 4I’ll be writing about a few Frank Sinatra films between now and the end of the year – I can’t promise to update very frequently, but hope to cover a few movies. After having seen little-known biopic The Joker Is Wild on TV recently, I just can’t understand why it isn’t available on DVD. For my money, this is a great movie of its kind, and Sinatra gives a compelling performance which is up there with his roles in The Man with the Golden Arm and From Here to Eternity. The difference here is that he has a chance to sing – and he expresses the character’s suffering through his voice. Sadly, I get the impression that biopics are somewhat out of fashion at the moment. This one is even more overlooked because it is the story of a largely forgotten comedian, Joe E. Lewis – who was actually a friend of Sinatra.

The film was directed by Charles Vidor, who also made a better-remembered biopic, Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day and James Cagney, a couple of years earlier.  This one has the same bitter-sweet quality, and similarly showcases musical numbers within a dramatic context. However, unlike the Doris Day film, The Joker Is Wild is in black and white, and it has a rather more downbeat feel to it. The early scenes are set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and it feels very like a Warner film from that era, with the same kind of gritty atmosphere. (Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp was a camera operator on many such films in the pre-Code era.)

Joker Is Wild 1

Jeanne Crain and Sinatra

Ironically, given the endless controversy over his real-life Mafia connections, in this film Sinatra plays a man who stands up to the Mob. At the start of the film, Joe is singing in a Chicago speakeasy backed by Mafia money, but he decides to move to a more popular rival establishment. These early scenes give Sinatra a chance to return to the kind of ballads he sang early in his career – and he sounds very much as he did on those recordings. Unfortunately, although Joe tries to laugh off the warnings from mobsters, he is eventually attacked and has his vocal cords cut, making it impossible for him to sing again.

There is a disturbing scene in the hospital where Joe tries to speak, realises he can’t and wails, hurtling out of his bed and banging his head against the wall. This sequence gains additional power from the fact that it is Sinatra in the role – and that is even more the case in a slightly later scene, where Joe is taken behind the scenes at a nightclub, and listens to a ‘new’ singer (an unseen Bing Crosby). ‘Isn’t he wonderful?,’ enthuses one of the staff. ‘I’ve heard you used to be pretty good, too.’

Mitzi Gaynor and Sinatra

Mitzi Gaynor and Sinatra

A self-pitying Lewis decides he can’t face the sympathy from friends and disappears to New York. However, his devoted best friend, piano player Austin Mack (Eddie Albert) eventually tracks him down, finding him working as the stooge in a slapstick act. Sinatra is amazingly expressive as the silent scapegoat in these scenes, which are reminiscent of tragic clowns in films like Lon Chaney’s ‘He Who Gets Slapped’ .  Nevertheless, Austin feels that the act is a terrible comedown, and manages to get his old friend a new job as a stand-up comic. Although Lewis has two women in his life during the course of the film, his longest relationship is with Mack, and this is certainly one of those movies where the love – and eventual bitterness –  between the two buddies runs deep.

Sinatra has several extended stand-up comic sequences during the film, which feel quite modern to me in their self-destructive quality. Lewis constantly mocks himself and makes endless cruel jokes about his own drink problem. He has an upper-crust girlfriend, Letty Page (Jeanne Crain), who wants to save him. Later, when this true love rejects him, he gets married on the rebound. His bride is dancer turned movie star Martha, played by a young Mitzi Gaynor, who has some great song and dance sequences. The story starts to feel rather like A Star Is Born, as her career soars while his hits the skids.

Joker Is Wild 5The most astonishing scene comes when, after losing Letty, Lewis reprises the song All the Way on stage – despite having no voice left to sing it with. Sinatra has to perform while reining himself in and using just the lower notes of his voice, and yet all the same he has to deliver the song and put all its emotion across. And he does all that supremely.

This isn’t a perfect film, and the final sequence, with Sinatra addressing himself in a mirror, doesn’t really work. But, all in all, I think he gives a great performance, and Gaynor and Albert are also effective. If you get a chance to to see this, also look out for former child star Jackie Coogan in a support role.

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24 thoughts on “The Joker Is Wild (Charles Vidor, 1957)

    • Dear Ellen, I agree he was great at this type of risky role where he lays the character bare. I do feel he does the same in his singing, which I love too. Thank you for commenting.


    • It’s really odd that it has been neglected when you think how many lesser Sinatra films are available, such as ‘Robin and the 7 Hoods’ for instance! Hope you get to see this one, Vienna, and I’d be interested to hear what you think of it when you do.


    • Hope you get to see this one, Colin, as I think you would enjoy it. Glad to hear that you like Sinatra as an actor too – I’ve been watching a lot of his films lately.


    • Thanks, Ruth – I’m keen to spread the word about this film because I enjoyed it so much,and it really is a role made for Sinatra.


  1. I saw this many years ago and I remember the scene when Sinatra is attacked, how horrifying that was to watch, because of Sinatra’s acting. I always prefer the pre-RatPack Sinatra, he had a gutsy authenticity then that I think he lost later. And it’s a puzzle why some films with famous stars don’t make it to DVD -I think audiences and particularly Sinatra fans would enjoy rediscovering this one.


    • G.O.M., definitely agree with you about the horror of that attack scene. I often tend to prefer Sinatra’s pre-Rat Pack work too, and must agree it feels more authentic, though I think that may be partly to do with the era. I do love late albums like ‘She Shot Me Down’, where all the intensity is still there. I wonder if there is some rights issue with this film, or maybe it’s neglected because it is a biopic – but it definitely deserves a DVD release. Thanks for the great comment!


  2. Judy, I love this film! I first saw it as a kid with my parents back in the late 50’s and have watched it more recently after it appeared here on TCM some time back. I recorded it and have been meaning to write about it myself. Like you said, it’s not perfect, I didn’t think Sinatra was convincing doing the stand-up routines. I thought it was pretty violent for its time. Finally ALL THE WAY is one of my favorite Sinatra tunes which I can listen to anytime. Thanks for giving this film some attention. Hopefully, I will get around to it sometime next year. Great job!


    • John, I liked Sinatra in the stand-up routines, so can’t agree that he is unconvincing – but I’d have to admit I haven’t seen much live stand-up comedy. At least we agree on how great the song is, and on enjoying the film in general! Thanks for the comment, and I’ll look forward to reading your take on this one.


  3. I’m not a big fan of Sinatra the actor but he offers a good account of Joe E. Lewis in this, made during his most fruitful period as an actor before the laziness of the Rat Pack years crept into his work. Plus it contains one of his most beautifully sung songs “All the Way”, it’s a marvelous song no matter who sings it but I think his is the best version. The moody black and white camera work also helps set the tone for this rather downbeat bio pic. I’m even less a fan of Jeanne Crain but she does okay and Mitzi Gaynor performs well but the really strong woman’s role goes to Beverly Garland, always an underused and undervalued actress, as Eddie Albert’s loyal wife. She is strong, gritty, sensible and sympathetic as needed doing a great deal with what could have been a nothing part. You would think with the cast this would be more well known but it’s probably a rights issue, it almost always is, that has kept it out of public view.


    • Joel, I probably prefer Gaynor in this, but she has a showier role here than Garland’s – I’m interested in your comment about her doing a lot with the part. I must agree with you about the powerful camerawork and Sinatra’s singing of ‘All the Way’. It seems as if there are several of his films which are not available in any form, which is strange when you think what a great star he is – I think you must be right about it being a rights issue involved here. Good that it is getting some showings on TV, anyway. Thanks for the great comment.


  4. Judy, I have never had the fortune of seeing this particular film, though I do know Charles Vidor’s more famous films quite well. You mention LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, a superb biographical comedy-musical starring James Cagney, and I’d add “The Swan,” “The Loves of Carmen,” “A Song to Remember” and “Cover Girl.” I find it ironic that Sinatra plays a man who stands up to the mob in view of his Mafia connections (ha!) but it’s apparentlya treat to know his singing is top-drawer. But the most startling revelation of all Judy, is your qualification that his performance here is comparable to his work in “From Here to Eternity” and “The Man with the Golden Arm.” As always, a wonderfully engaging and comprehensive review of a film I hope to see in the near future.


    • Sam, hope you get a chance to see this one as I’m sure you would appreciate it – I’ll be interested to hear if you agree with me that it is up there with his most famous roles. I saw ‘Cover Girl’ fairly recently and was impressed, but haven’t seen the other Charles Vidor films you mention as yet. Thanks very much for the kind comment and encouragement, which as always is much appreciated!


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  6. Judy,
    While Paramount financed “The Joker Is Wild”, Sinatra’s own company at that time, “Bristol Productions” owned 25% of the film as well as a share of the box-office gross. Perhaps, if there is a “rights” issue, this is where the problem could arise.

    The film was a commercial success and the Cahn/Van Heusen song, “All The Way” proved to be so popular, ( it won an Academy Award as Best Original Song), that Paramount later re-released the film under that title.

    I consider “The Joker Is Wild” to be one of the better drama/musical films produced, and, in my opinion Sinatra’s voice was at its peak.


    • Rod, thanks for the information about the financing of the movie – it’s interesting to hear that this could be the reason for a possible rights issue. I do hope that it can get a DVD/Blu-ray release because it deserves to be seen by more people.

      Thanks also for mentioning the rerelease and the success of the Oscar-winning song – I think you are right that Sinatra’s voice was at his peak at this time and he packs in so many great performances in the early part of the film.


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  11. Please release on DVD. Sinatra fans we love to see his early works. Plus, arguably his best song, All the way is included. I am waiting.


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