I’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.)
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.’
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.
The 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.