The perversely fascinating premise of the 1957 film The Joker is Wild is that Frank Sinatra sings badly. It’s not bad singing as you or I might croak out (I’ve seen my cats—cats!—leave the room if I break into song)—but it’s bad singing by Sinatran standards: off-key, scratchy, weak. Sinatra will hit a phrase or high note that’s meant to soar, but instead his voice will seem to stall, struggle a bit, and then peter out, as if his vocal chords got snagged on a protruding wall nail and couldn’t get unhitched. Unable to go all the way, as it were, with “All The Way,” the film’s signature song.
Being that this is Sinatra, that this is The Voice, and that these are the vocal cords that have inspired composers, lyricists, bands, recording companies, movie studios, fans (shrieking, scholarly, and otherwise), and reams of print that continue to this day (100 years after his birth), you might wonder why a film distributed by a major studio (Paramount) would risk its investment and disappoint audiences with a half-hearted croon from a man who could be expected to deliver much, much more.
That’s because Sinatra was starring in a film biography of the nightclub comic and singer Joe E. Lewis, who lost his singing voice in a supremely horrible manner. His throat was slashed by a psychopathic gangster called Jack McGurn (the man who may have planned the St. Valentine’s Day massacre) on a cold November morn in Lewis’s Chicago hotel room, in 1927. And by ‘slashed,’ I don’t mean how that pesky wall nail might hook a thread in your expensive jacket and leave a tear. I mean that one of McGurn’s three hired thugs plunged a ten-inch knife into the left side of Lewis’s face and then kept cutting—down and deep into the cheek and jaw line, slicing the vocal cords and missing the jugular by the width of a flea’s knee. He also pistol-whipped Lewis and cracked his skull. All because Lewis, who’d been performing in a mob-owned club, was leaving to sing in another—a decision that did not please his mob masters. Supposedly the last thing Lewis heard before the knifer started his work was, “Just one favor, Joey. Don’t scream.”
Miraculously, Lewis survived the attack. He wasn’t able to speak for several years (part of his tongue was also severed), and he had to relearn the alphabet; his brain’s speech center had been destroyed by the beating he took. For nearly a decade after, Lewis was on the outs, but he gradually was able to refashion himself as a stand-up comic. He became a roaring success, particularly in Las Vegas, where he lived it up as a high-rolling nightclub headliner, from the 1940s through the ‘60s. His biographer Art Cohn describes Lewis as a “gay, gregarious, carefree” man, who “leap[ed] from bar to bookie to boudoir”—a bon vivant off stage as well as on. He was also a drunk and a gambler and a drunk and a womanizer and a drunk and frequently depressed man and did I mention that he drank?
Based on Cohn’s 1955 biography of the same name, the film of The Joker is Wild attempts to make this up-down-and-up-again life understandable, even palatable, in 1950s terms. The book depicts Lewis as a survivor, one who clawed his way back to performing onstage, the thing he most loved; the movie portrays him as a self-loathing loser who burns all his bridges with those who love him, including wife and friends. Which version is truer? I suspect both. At least Cohn avoided the film’s lachrymose pity, a quality that Lewis, per Cohn, did not indulge in; whereas the movie gives us the Sad Clown, whose laughter hides a breaking heart. The director, Charles Vidor, emphasizes the gloom; his camera frequently isolates Sinatra within the frame from the other actors, or pulls back to leave his star a small and lonesome figure on the wide Vista-Vision screen. Yet both book and film imply that Lewis needed to drink to get through each day, each performance. I’m not surprised, or shocked, by this. How else to beat back the hell of that November morning? How else to get up and face the world and not keep seeing McGurn and his thugs in every doorway?
As with most biopics, the movie does alter and fuzz the facts to push forward its own, heavily psychologized portrait of its subject. Its plot has Lewis disappearing for several years after his attack (a hokey montage of newspaper headlines to indicate passing time), until friends discover him performing as the lowest-of-the-low, a baggy-pants burlesque comic whose routine requires him to be slapped on the scarred side of his face. No doubt that bit was inserted for its wince factor, to get us all cringing in empathy. Sinatra is quietly poignant in these scenes, dressed in slouch hat, wig, and outsize trousers, and adorned with a round rubber nose that softens his sharp-boned features. He looks like a wounded child who can’t believe how cruel the world is to small, helpless things. As the film has it, Lewis’s turnaround begins when, still in burlesque garb, he’s unwillingly dragged on stage by Sophie Tucker during a benefit show to sing a song (a reprise of “All the Way”), and, his voice cracking, desperately cracks some jokes instead. To his surprise, people laugh.
In reality, nobody ever had to drag Lewis onto a stage. He was performing stand-up at Tucker’s benefit eleven weeks after his attack, barely able to speak, only his pauses indicating where people should laugh. He never performed in burlesque, but, out of what must have been unimaginable courage, grit and sheer, hard guts, spent years scrabbling for jobs in shows and nightclubs (at one time forming a precarious alliance with the notorious Dutch Schultz), struggling to coordinate brain and speech reflexes, with audiences often finding him difficult to understand. He was considered a curiosity, “The Man The Gangsters Couldn’t Kill,” and couldn’t get steady work. But as his voice improved, his act developed; he perfected what Cohn calls “a droll, Rabelaisian wit,” singing parodic songs in which he didn’t have to worry about hitting high notes, and making jokes about his gambling and his drinking. And he gambled and he drank for real. In a profession known for its heroic imbibers, Lewis could leave his colleagues standing at the gate.
As the film shows, Lewis drank even while performing, keeping a filled glass handy on the piano, or grabbing one from a customer’s table. The glass was partly a prop, in line with his image: Portrait of the Comic as a Fun-Loving Lush. He wasn’t alone in his boozing; all his pals drank, all those Vegas cronies who played the ponies and ogled the show girls as much as he did, and cracked wise about the same. You can grasp something of that style as told by one of Lewis’s elbow-bending comrades, Sinatra himself, who during his 1966 show “Sinatra at the Sands” jokes about trying to keep up with pal Joey’s liquor intake (listen here, starting at the 5:10 mark). The style suited Lewis’s, and Sinatra’s, idea of living: it was a guy’s world, an all-boys club, a conglomerate of macho party animals who kept at it till the break of dawn, and beyond. Lewis himself liked to sleep until two in the afternoon, then breakfast over a shot of rye and a scratch sheet, picking the losing horses for the day until it was showtime; afterwards, he could be found reveling with his friends at the tables (both eating and gaming) well into morning. That might sound like a tired working stiff’s idea of heaven; yet the rigidity of such a schedule starts to feel a bit like protesting too much.
Protesting or not, it’s not a schedule for a stable married life. As recounted in Cohn’s book by Lewis’s only wife, Martha Stewart—no, not that Martha Stewart, but a starlet and showgirl who had a minor Hollywood career (she’s probably best known as Joan Crawford’s roommate in Daisy Kenyon)—Lewis lived and died for his friends, leaving little room for anything or anyone else. In the film Stewart, portrayed touchingly by Mitzi Gaynor as a fun-loving innocent who’s stumbled into The Lost Weekend, can’t walk into her and her husband’s hotel room (Lewis’s preferred domicile) without finding his boozing buddies practically living in her bureau drawers. It was not a life conducive to sanity. After two years of “more of the same,” as she put it, Stewart finally gave up and walked out; she eventually remarried and found solace in Christian Science. Whereas solace for Joe was in performing; the stage was his life. Even his wife’s leaving him became comic fodder for his act.
But Lewis could count on his mates. Per the Anthony Summers/Robyn Swan biography, Sinatra: The Life, Sinatra was not only Lewis’s friend but sometime caretaker: he paid Lewis’s medical bills and stepped in as an onstage substitute when the comic was ill. Sinatra also optioned Cohn’s book after Lewis had turned down other offers (including $150,000 from MGM; big money in those days). I’ve no doubt Sinatra saw Lewis’s rollercoaster life as, more than anything else, a terrific role. Since winning an Oscar for From Here To Eternity and starting his astonishing comeback, Sinatra had been choosing more serious films, such as Suddenly, Young at Heart, and The Man With The Golden Arm, with dramatic, challenging parts that stretched his range well past his 1940s image as Gene Kelly’s bashful sidekick. And Lewis was a character that could unite so many contrasting aspects of Sinatra’s own persona and career: a singer who had nearly lost his own voice, a high-liver who had slid into the depths, and a sensitive soul who hid behind a brass-knuckled exterior. As Lewis himself later commented to Sinatra: “You had more fun playing my life than I had living it.”
I’ll admit right off, I’m not a fan of Sinatra’s acting. I think he had a tendency to play the emotion and not the character—like performing the sharp, direct feeling of a song but not the arc of a whole life. That’s in accord with Sinatra’s well-known acting style, of not rehearsing but giving it his all in the first take. He wasn’t one to study the script and explore a character, finding shades and variations and deeper implications in rehearsing lines and scenes, the way a trained actor does. He instead relied on instinct, on being effective in the moment, as it happened right before the camera.
However, I think Sinatra’s instinct played him right in this film; he gives a fine, restrained, but heartfelt performance. Note the scene at a racetrack, in which Lewis is surprised by an old friend he hasn’t seen in years. Sinatra’s reactions at this meeting—not a pleasant one for his character, who’s been hiding from everyone he knows—shift and vary in quick plays of emotion, registering the compressed fears of all that missed time: dismay, reluctance, and a resigned wariness to life catching up with him. His very facial structure seems to change with the flow of feeling. Maybe Sinatra was also dipping into a bit of the Method here. Like Lewis, Sinatra performed in Vegas nightclubs (and used a drink as a stage prop). He knew stage business, knew it in his blood: he knew the rhythm, the patter, the stance. And he brings that experience to his character, right into his body. He shows how to hold a microphone, how to gesture to a pianist, how to wave at a heckler as if brushing off lint. It looks lived-in, natural, because it was.
But Sinatra also gets at the specifics of Lewis, in particular the moves which came, I assume, from observation of his friend. One bit he performs—rubbing the left side of his face and neck as if they hurt, whenever his character is upset—I bet that came straight from life. Sinatra’s make-up recreates the scars on that side: a deeply imprinted X on the cheek below the ear and then a curved slash along the jaw. The marks are like a guide, a grimly precise map of the attack’s trajectory, but Sinatra makes you aware of the buried pain. He also drinks in a particular way, holding the glass in close, as if afraid he’ll lose it, then raising it and declaiming, “post time,” apparently a known Lewis phrase. I see that remark as a condensed, complex locution, bundling together in its brevity so much of Lewis’s complicated life: referring not only to racetrack gambling, but to the signal to start a performance, and to the need of a drink to get through it.
And Sinatra gets at the horror. There’s something haunted and held-back in his eyes, in his hunched posture, of someone who can’t escape a mental prison. Waking up in the hospital room after his attack, his head wrapped in bandages like Karloff’s mummy, Sinatra crawls towards the door and, like a creature maddened by pain, bangs his head against it, as if only able to stop the hurt by creating a greater one. As he does so, he emits a series of rasping cries that are heartrending to hear; redolent of fear, anguish, and the unbearable shock of returning memory. There’s also the moment when, after his wife leaves him, he waits in the wings, steeped in shadow, his exhaled cigarette smoke like white puffs of breath on a cold day. He looks for all the world as if it’s just abandoned him. And maybe it has.
The film, however, seems to get stuck on its own protruding nail: having depicted Lewis’s life as a sorry mess—as Jeff Stafford at TCM trenchantly notes, even the comic routines seem “more likely to arouse pity than laughter”—it can’t find a way to finish its story so that audiences won’t be left thinking of Lewis’s existence as one long, grey stagger between the highballs. The last scene has Lewis walking down a dark, studio-set street and then stopping to have a heart-to-heart talk with his reflection in a store window, in which he looks back on his life and totes up the losses. The upshot seems to be that Lewis will now try to turn things around and improve himself; but, as a resolution it’s weak and unsatisfying. It smacks of screenwriter desperation, of trying to find a way to end the film on an upnote, at least by 1950s standards, and reassure audiences that there’ll be some changes made. It has the impact of a limp noodle. After all that drama and turbulence, all the film can then give us is a mere “Huh?”. Like Peggy Lee, you’re left wondering if that’s all there is.
Another way to view the film’s ending, which presents its star literally self-reflected, would be to see it as an allusion to Sinatra himself, to his own volatile, difficult, up-down-and-up-again life and livelihood up to that point in 1957. By the mid-50s Sinatra had climbed out of the pits he had sunk into earlier in the decade, and was at an extraordinarily fruitful moment in his career: recording a number of highly praised albums, giving critically acclaimed performances in his films, and hitting it big in concert halls and nightclubs. But in his private life he was, as his New York Times obit phrased it, “the embodiment of the hard-drinking, hedonistic swinger.” That was his darker side, which, as with Lewis, was shadowed by gambling, womanizing, and drinking, as well as gangland ties. Was Sinatra meant to be assuring his own audiences that changes were going to be made, that the much-reported episodes of boozing, brawling, and babes were behind him? Was it, indeed, a way for the fans to see Lewis’s life continuing into Sinatra’s own?
Such an interpretation, I’ll concede, is too pat, too formulaic and shallow; and anyway, Hollywood biopics have always insisted on an often egregiously sappy-happy ending, in which even the dying Caruso had to go out literally singing on a high note. Still, some biographies really do reach the cheery finish. After climbing back, Sinatra managed to stay with the high notes, becoming not only one of the most revered of all recording artists but a twentieth-century icon, “[w]idely held,” said the Times, “to be the greatest singer in American pop history.” Not bad for a skinny kid from Hoboken. When he died in 1998, the news was international headlines; a colossus had departed our midst, up to that great casino lounge act in the sky, where I like to think the women are warm, the liquor is cold, and the dice never come up snake eyes.
Joe E. Lewis also did not end too badly. He continued to headline in Vegas, almost to the end, until dying in 1971 (“finally killed by alcohol,” note Summers and Swan), his funeral attended by an overflow of friends. He’s probably not so well remembered today, not as much as those other Vegas swingers, especially that whole Sinatra rat-pack crew, who’ve now come to stand for a certain style of middle-age cool: breaking into a song without breaking into a sweat, a highball in one hand and a dame in the other. Yet Lewis came before those guys, setting the pattern before many of them probably had tasted their first martini. It’s no use, of course, speculating what his life would have been like if he hadn’t encountered McGurn’s vile thugs and had his face carved up like a roadmap to the abyss. But Lewis didn’t just survive; he flourished. He was considered one of the great entertainers of his era, admired by all the other greats. And he lived the life he wanted, to its full.
If living well is said to be the best revenge, then Lewis amply had his. All the way.
This post is part of the Sinatra Centennial Blogathon (December 10-13, 2015), hosted by Movie Classics and The Vintage Cameo to honor Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Please click here to read the other great posts on the man and his work.
BONUS CLIP 1: The Voice at its peak: Frank Sinatra, as a pre-attack Joe E. Lewis, sings the Oscar-winning song “All the Way” in The Joker is Wild. At the piano is Eddie Albert as Lewis’s real-life accompanist, Austin Mack. The staring man sitting at ringside is actor Leonard Graves as “Tim Coogan,” the character based on Jack McGurn:
BONUS CLIP 2: The real Joe E. Lewis, filmed in 1958 performing at the Copa. Note his theme song: “Chicago,” as well as the glass on the piano:
>TCM will be showing The Joker is Wild on Wednesday, December 30, 2015, at 11:30pm, as part of its Sinatra Star of the Month programming.