The Joe Louis Story (1953)


(director: Robert Gordon; screenwriter: Robert Sylvester; cinematographer: Joseph C. Brun; editor: Dave Kummins; music: George Bassman; cast: Coley Wallace (Joe Louis), Hilda Simms (Marva Trotter Louis), Paul Stewart (Tad McGeehan), James Edwards (Jack ‘Chappie’ Blackburn), John Marley (Mannie Seamon), Dots Johnson (Julian Black), Carl Rocky Latimer (Arthur Pine), Royal Beal (Mike Jacobs), William Thourlby (Max Schmeling), Evelyn Ellis (Joe’s Mother), Isaac Jones Jones (Johnny, early childhood friend of Joe’s), P. Jay Sidney (John, Gym Handler in Motown), Herbert Ratner (Sportswriter); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stirling Silliphant; United Artists; 1953)

“It’s only the boxing footage that gives the film some life.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Gordon (“Sport of Kings”/”Black Eagle”/”It Came from Beneath the Sea”) helms a modest-budgeted stilted biopic on the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis that hardly touches the champ as a person and his fight against the racial prejudices of the time, but nicely shows him off as a humble and good-hearted person. Robert Sylvester’s screenplay spins a simple story that allows for no fancy but, even if it might be factual, it’s bloodless and uninvolving. It’s only the boxing footage that gives the film some life (rousing bouts with Primo Carnera, Baer, Braddock and the two Schmeling matches). Though it was a gamble casting the nonprofessional actor, the 26-year-old Coley Wallace, to play Joe Louis it turned out to be a casting coup; Coley was a heavyweight contender who uncannily resembles the Brown Bomber and even if in his first acting job he shows no great shakes as a thesp he ably captures the way the early Louis carried himself and how expressionless and inarticulate he was.

The story is told in flashback and narrated by veteran sports writer Tad McGeehan (Paul Stewart), a longtime friend of the boxer, after Joe Louis’s final defeat in New York in 1951 to Rocky Marciano. It starts in Detroit in 1932, where the teenager known then as Joseph Louis Barrow gives up his violin lessons for boxing lessons, and then convinces his warm-hearted mom to give her approval. The strapping lad has a flair for boxing and in 1934 wins the Golden Gloves title in Detroit and Chicago. He then goes pro and is signed to a contract by manager Julian Black and begins training with his beloved and loyal trainer Jack ‘Chappie’ Blackburn (James Edwards). Following a string of knockout victories, he’s signed by big-time NYC fight promoter Mike Jacobs. After Joe’s first fight in NYC by defeating the giant Primo Carnera, he romances a Chicago beauty named Marva Trotter (Hilda Simms) and they are soon hitched. Joe’s immediate rise in the ring culminates in him defeating Max Baer, and then going on a wild spending spree and allowing hangers-on to sponge off him. By not training, he loses to German fighter Max Schmeling. It takes two years, in June 1938, to get a rematch and the bout is controversial because of Hitler’s theory of Aryan superiority and his enthusiastic backing of Schmeling. Joe knocks out Schemling only minutes into their fight. But six years after marriage, Marva sues for divorce. Joe refuses to grant her a divorce and tries hard to repair the troubled marriage. He finds continued success in the ring, and when the war breaks out he joins the Army as a private. When the war is over Joe learns he owes the government $200,000 in back taxes, and in 1949 is forced to return to the ring to earn money. He takes care of his debts, but Marva again files for a divorce. Joe loses his most trusted friend Chappie to death, his wife to a divorce and a few bouts in the ring but, as the story goes, never loses his dignity.


REVIEWED ON 10/20/2007 GRADE: B-