Joe Louis Story The (1953)
The highlight of this below average biography about the titled championship boxer is the authentic fight footage used throughout the film. However even this is less than ideal given its presentation without narration or fight commentary. In fact not only is the overall sound quality poor and Joe Louis’s historical boxing record is hard to follow (explicit dates win/loss records and even the boxer’s age are infrequently given) but the inexperienced cast’s acting talent is nearly non-existent as well. It was directed by Robert Gordon and features an original screenplay by Robert Sylvester. Professional boxer and Louis-lookalike Coley Wallace appears in the title role even though his name is not listed in the film’s closing credits (though his name is introduced in its opening credits). Paul Stewart perhaps the most veteran and recognizable actor in the picture plays sportswriter Tad McGeehan ostensibly a longtime friend of Louis whose character narrates (portions of) the biography told in flashback following the former champ’s defeat at the hands of future World Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano (ironically boxer Wallace had beaten Marciano as an amateur). James Edwards and John Marley are the only other character actor veterans who appear in prominent roles though one can catch a brief glimpse of Albert Popwell (uncredited) as a sportswriter.
The film presents Louis as a large (almost) Mamma’s boy whose Detroit neighborhood friend (Ike Jones) convinces him to use the 50 cents his mother gives him for fiddle lessons on boxing lessons instead. When his mother Mrs. Barrow (Evelyn Ellis) finds out that Joe has been skipping sessions with his violin teacher and learns that boxing is the thing that her son really wants to pursue she encourages him to give it his best effort. The fact that Louis had grown up in poverty in Alabama his father a cotton picker and that racial discrimination and intolerance were two motivations behind his fighting spirit are completed ignored and left out of this flawed biography. The early storyline focuses on Louis’s boxing education (by P. Jay Sidney’s character and later) like few other films in the genre. After some success including his state’s (Michigan) Golden Gloves title he decides to turn pro in 1934 and train under Jack ‘Chappie’ Blackburn (Edwards) who pound for pound was once a pretty tough boxer himself. Chappie works for gym owner Julian Black (Dotts Johnson). Additional gym training highlights Louis’s growing relationship with Chappie who though not exactly a surrogate father figure for the boxer becomes the only person who holds any sway over the fighter as his ring success is realized.
In short order Louis wins a number of bouts which leads to a decision as to which fight promoter to join: one who controls Madison Square Garden promising him a million dollars though mentioning that Louis as a colored man is starting out with two strikes against him; and an independent (Royal Beal plays Mike Jacobs) whose focus is the heavyweight title. Louis who’d just been introduced to his future wife Marva (Hilda Simms) by a friend (Ozzie Davis uncredited) and his camp (the entourage now includes Stewart’s character) decide to go for the championship. The number of fights that a boxer had to fight within a year in those days was incredible more than once a month! Over a three year period his opponents included former world heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer and he won all his bouts (27 in a row) until he faced and lost to another Adolf Hitler’s pride and joy Max Schmeling (William Thourlby plays the German boxer and former champ in a few non-fight scenes). The loss is shown to be due to Louis’s lack of preparation for the bout; he hadn’t listened to Chappie’s advice to lay off golf and sweets.
At 23 years of age (in 1937) having learned his manager’s lesson Louis is given a chance to fight for the world heavyweight title against James Braddock when Schmeling is excluded from competing (due to his Nazi Party ties?). He wins the championship (which he successfully defends 24 times over 12 years though you’d never know it from watching this movie) but is unsatisfied until a rematch with Schmeling is arranged (two years later) and Louis emerges victorious. As the champ he hears singer Anita Ellis (accompanied by the Ellis Larkins Trio) sing “I’ll Be Around”. Suffering from arthritis Chappie had needed to engage another manager Mannie Seamon (Marley) for assistance and a former boxing opponent of his own Sam Langford (John Marriott) to help with Louis’s self confidence. Meanwhile Louis’s wife Marva is upset with her husband’s lack of participation in their marriage and his lack of parenting of their daughter. Though the champ is able to avoid divorce the first time Marva eventually leaves him in 1949 (in truth she’d divorced him in 1945 and remarried him in 1946 before leaving him again). During World War II Louis became an ambassador of sorts giving money to the cause visiting the troops and fighting exhibition matches around the world; Chappie would die while Private Louis was overseas.
Although he’d retired as champion in 1949 a $200000 tax debt to the Internal Revenue Service (apparently generous Louis spent or gave away most of earnings while boxing and living the high life) forces him back into the ring. A former ring opponent (played by Carl Latimer) is Louis’s lawyer that helps him throughout including with his divorce(s). Upon his return to the ring Louis loses to Ezzard Charles (though this bout is not shown) who retains his title before winning several other bouts which lead to his final (and the film’s opening) fight against Marciano. Herbert Ratner plays the reporter that works for Stewart’s character who wraps up the story. Unless I missed it Louis’s nickname “the Brown Bomber” is not mentioned in the film … early political correctness?