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Why is it that a film production company and its supposed professionals
undertake a project that would seem sufficiently elastic to really emerge
a significant exponent of its subject-matter...only to become a pale
facsimilie, causing its knowledgeable audience to feel
This was the case with the shouldn't-have-been low-budget "Joe Louis Story."
After Rocky Marciano one-and-for-all ended Joe Louis' memorable career, with that devastating TKO at Madison Square Garden that October night in 1951, everyone---not just fight fans---realized that a great sports era in this country had ended. Even non-liberal Americans reluctantly understood Joe Louis' significant impact not only in sports but on society.
A decade before Jackie Robinson, there was Louis. Joe not only had to win his battles inside the ring, but---in a struggle to win-over White fans---he had to remove much of the residue tarnish from the (1908-1915) reign of the first Black heavyweight champion, the talented but unsavory Jack Johnson.
Thus, when officials of the Chrysler Company, shortly after Louis' final fight, chose to do a film about the fighter's life/career, there was immense material at-hand.
Rather than utilize sufficient funds and really produce a true feature film---covering the story's multi-dimension potential---officials instead chose to go the cheap, shallow route. That's truly unfortunate because both Louis and his impact deserved so much more.
The biggest problem with the movie is that it sugar-coats the circumstances Louis faced, in-and-out of the ring. It shows him coming from a strong, middle-class Detroit neighborhood. He certainly did not come from this type of affluency.
When Black business leaders, John Roxborough and Julian Black, assumed roles as Louis' mentors/financial backers, much of their motivation was financial. They saw his ring potential and, despite their own economic status, wanted to ride his coat-tails to greater fortune.
This was not addressed in the film. Neither was the combination of prejudice and attempted mob-influence Louis encountered.
Few of Louis' early fights were shown/depicted, though clips from his key early bouts with Primo Carnera and Max Baer were shown.
When people think of Louis' opponents, two immediately come to mind: Max Schmeling and Billy Conn. The film discusses, and offers clips from, the Schmeling fights but virtually ignores the Conn bouts. Very brief mention is made of the anti-climatic second Conn fight; but it was the classic first fight that should have been developed and shown. Had light-heavyweight Conn---a huge underdog to a vintage Louis---survived the 13th round, and won either the 14th or 15th, he would have taken Louis' title.
There should have been much more continuity shown as Louis' career is presented. More clips from his title defenses would have been excellent---and necessary---bridges as we relived Louis' great career. He came within an eyelash of losing his Dec. 5, 1947, defense against Jersey Joe Walcott. Then, six months later, he made his final defense with a KO of Jersey Joe.
There were, however, a few positives. Coley Wallace facially resembled a young Louis so much that it was almost eerie. And Wallace, who had a brief, undistinguished professional career during the late-1940's and early '50's, of course accurately handled the up-close training and fighting scenes. Ironically, Wallace also is remembered for having been the last man to beat Marciano---if he actually did. Though all accounts say that Wallace was given a gift three-round decision of Marciano in their early-1948 amateur bout, he did win the official decision. Wallace was smart enough not to fight Rocky when both were pros.
Strong character performances were given by James Edwards, as Jack Blackburn, Louis' trainer and close friend; Paul Stewart, as a sportswriter and Louis supporter; John Marley, as Mannie Seamon, a Louis latter-career trainer; and Hilda Sims, as Joe's lonely, increasingly nagging, wife Marva.
The few clips of Louis' bouts add a touch of realism to the program.
This film should have been a major undertaking. It comes-off as a small-letter production when it should have been in all-caps.
Two years after the Jackie Robinson Story came out another and slightly
better film tribute to a black sports icon came out. Joe Louis had a
bit more sense than Jackie Robinson did and let someone else play the
part of Joe Louis.
Coley Wallace who had a boxing background stepped into the part and it helped. Of course the same cheapness of production classified this film as the Robinson biographical film. It did however give more information about Louis and his rise and fall though not nearly enough.
Joe Louis, born Joseph Louis Barrow, from an incredibly poor Alabama sharecropper family started his professional career in 1934 and became heavyweight champion in 1937 knocking out the Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock whose story was told two years ago in a film of the same name. Louis met and took on all comers for the next twelve years.
Only three people defeated Joe Louis, Max Schmeling former heavyweight champion on the way to a comeback as Louis was rising in heavyweight ranks, Ezzard Charles when Louis decided to come back himself for financial reasons, and Rocky Marciano on his way up to be champion in Louis's last fight. Interesting that all three men who defeated him became champions themselves.
His ring record was 68 wins with 54 of them by knockout, 3 losses, one of them a decision for Ezzard Charles and he was knocked out by Schmeling and Marciano. He made a still standing record of 25 successful defenses of the heavyweight championship.
Along the way Joe Louis managed to get himself in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations twice. The first is covered in the film as he said at a War Bond Rally in 1942 that we will triumph "because we are on God's side."
The second concerns his title defense against Billy Conn which was not mentioned. Conn, a light heavyweight had bulked up to challenge Louis in his division and Conn was known as one who was lightning fast in the ring. When asked how he would counteract his speed Louis was quoted as saying, "he can run but he can't hide."
Best acting performance in the film without a doubt goes to James Edwards who played old time lightweight fighter, Joseph Blackburn who originally trained Louis. Edwards with the proper breaks could have had the breakthrough career for black leading men as Sidney Poitier had.
Paul Stewart is in the film in the role of a fictional sportswriter character and narrator in the same type of part that Walter Brennan had in Pride of the Yankees. John Marley has an early movie role as Mannie Seamon who succeeded Blackburn as Louis's trainer.
Given the cheapness of the production it's good that they covered as much as they did. A made for TV film was done about the two Louis- Schmeling fights. Maybe someone will do a good biographical film at some point.
Joe Louis was one class act who reached the very heights and had a lot of heartache and bad times after leaving boxing. Even doing stuff like going into professional wrestling to earn money to pay the tax man, he still was a class act. Fitting and proper that Joe Louis is buried in Arlington National Cemetery because he was nothing less than a national treasure.
I really enjoyed this film. Coley Wallace does a real good job as Louis. I am glad to see it made it to DVD. Coley Wallace was a terrific boxer himself & the only person ever to beat Rocky Maricano. My only one complaint is the director Robert Gordon, who made some good westerns, rushed this movie a bit, especially the last half. Other than that it's a good movie for boxing history.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Though this film is widely available in the public domain, I wound up
catching it as a YES Network presentation under the "Yogi and a Movie"
banner, hosted by Yankee great Yogi Berra with Bob Lorenz.
Unfortunately I was expecting a lot more. With only a novices' limited
knowledge of the boxing great's career, I thought I would learn a lot
more about the athlete and the man than was offered in the film.
A major flaw I thought was the lack of historical perspective as events in Louis' life played out. One has no clue at what points in his life and in what year key events occurred. For example, with a record of 26 wins and no losses, Louis is honored by "Ring" Magazine as Boxer of the Year, but when was that? Similarly, his title win against James Braddock at Chicago's Comiskey Park is noted, but it would have been interesting to know what else was going on in the world at the time. Newspaper headlines were often shown offering highlights of Louis' career progress, but they were either too small to read or flashed by too quickly to be of value.
Coley Wallace is generally credited with being a solid Joe Louis look alike, and with professional boxing experience, his choice to portray the champ made sense. However Wallace, and the actors assembled around him, were as lifeless a cast as ever I've seen. If you've ever heard the term 'wooden' applied to an actor's performance, the term was invented here. It's exemplified in a scene just prior to the first Max Schmeling fight which Louis lost. Joe hasn't been training seriously, and he's shown about to chow down on a large piece of birthday cake as his trainer Chappie Blackburn (James Edwards) just glares. The camera switches back and forth between the two men a number of times, with no change of expressions and no climax to the scene, other than Joe's eating the cake - a totally wasted moment.
Speaking of Schmeling, it was learned during one of the film's intermissions that he and Louis actually became friends after their second bout, this time won by Joe. Now here was a great opportunity to explore how Louis confronted racism, particularly when faced with a symbol of Hitler's doctrine of white supremacy. Instead, this angle receives no build up on the way to their rematch, and the viewer is left to draw his own conclusions. Incidentally, Schmeling served as a pall bearer at Louis' funeral.
If ever a major boxing champion deserves a significant big screen treatment, a la "Raging Bull" or "Cinderella Man", it would be the life and times of Joe Louis. Done right, it could be a thrilling and stirring film on both a human interest and sporting level; it could be a knockout.
The Joe Louis story is told in a long flashback that takes up almost
the entire movie by Joe's, Coley Wallace, friend and sports writer Ted
McGeeham, Paul Stewart.
The film starts with a young Joe Louis spending his money for violin lessons that his mom Mrs. Barrows, Evelyen Ellis, gave him to sharpen his skills as a professional prize fighter at a local Detroit gym and it doesn't take long for Joe to be recognized as the champ that he eventually become. Hooking up with Jack "Chappie" Blackburn, James Edwards, as his trainer/manager Joe runs up a winning streak that has him knock out two former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer.
Joe looking forward to take on the champ James Braddock has a tune up match with, what everybody thought at the time, washed up heavyweight and also former champ Max Schmeling on June 19, 1936 at New Yorks Yankee Staduim. Schmeling had seen films of Joe's fights and saw that he was a sucker for a right cross, Joe dropped his left hand whenever he threw a jab. Taking advantage of Joe's momentary lapses in the ring Schmeling caught Joe flat-footed with a number of powerful straight rights,over Joe's jabs, and knocked him out in the 12th round; that was the first time Joe Louis ever lost a professional boxing match.
After the Schmeling bout Joe started taking his boxing seriously not taking for granted that he can knock out or defeat anyone that he's in with in the ring. Still Joe was given a chance to fight James Broddock for the heavyweight championship despite being beaten by Max Schmeling, who more then Joe really deserved to fight the Champ, in Chicago on June 22, 1937. Joe being knocked down by Braddock early in the match finished Broddock by flooring him in the eight round winning the heavyweight championship of the world. The stage was now set for the long awaited re-match with Max Schmeling that was to take place exactly a year from when Joe Louis won the championship on June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium. This time around it was Schmeling not Joe that got suckered and punched silly, with both rights and lefts, being knocked out by Joe in 2.04 of the first round.
The film skims over most of Joe Louis' 25 defenses of his Heavyweight Championship Crown with him making a comeback in 1950, after he retired from boxing, and getting badly beaten by the then Heavyweight Champ Ezzard Charles in a 15 round decision at Yankee Staduim. Needing money to pay off his some $500,000.00 in back taxes Joe kept on fighting long after he should have hung up his gloves and ended his career on October 26, 1951 at Madison Square Garden. It was then that Joe was matched against the hard hitting 28 year old Brockton MA. slugger Rocky Marciano.
You could see right away that the 218 pound, some 20 pounds over his normal fighting weight, Louis was vastly outmatched with Marciano bulling and manhandling him all around the ring. Joe did catch Rocky with a number of punches, including his lethal left hook and right cross, but they had absolutely no effect on the Brockton Blockbuster. In the eight round Marciano caught Joe with a leaping left hook knocking him down, and almost out, on the seat of his trunks. Taking the eight count Joe tried to survive the round only to get caught on the ropes and knocked out of the ring by a Marciano right that spelled curtains to Joe Louis' 17 year professional boxing career.
Fine performance by Coley Wallace as Joe Louis as well as both James Edwards and John Marly as Joe's trainers Chappie Blackburn and Mannie Seamon. It was Mannie Seamon who took over training Joe after Chappie Blackburn died while Joe was serving overseas in the US Army during WWII. There's also Paul Stewart as sports writer Ted McGeehan who try as he did couldn't get Joe to retire from boxing that lead to him getting his brains scrambled by the likes of Charles and Marciano.
P.S even though it's said that Corley Wallace who played Joe Louis in the movie was the only boxer to defeat Rocky Marciano as an armature, Marciano was never beaten as a professional fighter, the records dispute that. Besides being beaten in a three round decision by Wallace on March 1, 1948 Marciano had lost three times previously as an armature. Marciano lost by a DQ, disquisition, to Ted Lester on April 15, 1946 as well as losing decisions to Joe D'Angelis on August 23, 1946 and Bob Girand on January 17, 1947.
If you want to see a movie about Joe Louis, at least up to the point where his career peaks, i recommend that you make a double bill of "The Joe Louis Story" and "Spirit of Youth," the latter STARRING Joe Louis as a young man from a poor family in Alabama who goes on to become the heavyweight champion. That's right -- Joe Louis (and, no actor he, but what does it matter -- it's JOE LOUIS!) made a better *fictional* film about his own life than his memorializers did in this ostensibly non-fiction film. All the insights into Louis' personal life that were missing in the bio-pic -- the Alabama beginnings, the smug over-confidence and breaking of training that led to the loss of the first Schmeling fight, the wife troubles, the emotional reliance on his mother and on his trainer -- all that and more is in "Spirit of Youth" -- PLUS the latter gives us a comic side-kick in the form of none other than the great comedian Mantan Moreland. Yes, "Spirit of Youth" is a fiction, and a light-hearted one for much of the way, and, yes, Joe Louis was not a professional actor in any way, shape, manner, or form, but the fiction in "Spirit of Youth" is in some ways based more closely on fact -- and certainly bears more emotional truth about Joe Louis -- than "The Joe Louis Story" does. Also, it features some great fight scenes with Louis playing the role of a fighter -- that is, staged fights that show him up close and personal the way the old newsreel footage in "The Joe Louis Story" cannot do. My advice is to rent or buy them both (they are both available for a low public-domain price) and watch them back-to-back, "Spiit of Youth" first, followed by "The Joe Louis Story." You'll be glad you did.
Continuing to review African-Americans in film in chronological order for Black History Month, we're now at 1953 with The Joe Louis Story with Coley Wallace in the title role. This movie about the real-life champ from the '30s and '40s glosses over the racism that I'm sure he must have encountered being such a high profile sports figure during that time though at least one mention was made about it early in the picture. As for the actual footage of Louis and many of his opponents, they weren't very exciting to me possibly due to the lack of close-ups of them. Among the performances of many actors of color, Wallace-himself a fighter-did pretty good as Louis though he's not given much of a chance to express real emotion when things don't go so well. Best among them is James Edwards as first trainer Jack "Chappie" Blackburn whether disciplining Wallace or expressing concern to others about him. As the wife of Louis, Hilda Simms does what she can in that role whenever she expresses some frustration with how little time she has with the constantly busy champ. Other players of the same race worth noting include Evelyn Ellis as Joe's mother, John Marriot as Sam Langford, Isaac Jones as Johnny Kingston, P. Jay Sidney as handler John Roxborough, and Dots (Dotts) Johnson as Julian Black. Incidentally, this is the third time in several days I've seen this actor on film having just previously watched him in Reet, Petite, and Gone and No Way Out. So on that note, The Joe Louis Story is worth a look. P.S. Mr. Wallace was born in Jacksonville, FL, which is where I lived from 1987-2003.
I saw this film on demand from Netflix and the print was very
poor--incredibly dark and fuzzy. Perhaps there are better copies out
there. Much of the film consisted of stock footage of Louis' fights and
it was hard to tell if this footage was lousy or if it was simply how
the rest of the film looked.
Coley Wallace stars as Joe Louis. This was an interesting choice, as Wallace was an amateur boxer--and so he could convincingly play a boxer. In addition, he physically looked reasonably like Louis. As for Wallace, I was surprised to see on IMDb that he was the ONLY person to have ever beaten Rocky Marciano, was one of TWO who beat Marciano AND is one of FOUR who beat Marciano! The only consistent thing the trivia got right on this is that this occurred when Marciano was an amateur.
The film also features the very familiar face of character actor Paul Stewart--an excellent actor that lent the movie a professional look. As for the rest of the cast, they were pretty much unknowns of varying capabilities as actors. A few (such as the one playing his wife, Marva) were rather limp and some of the others were very good.
As far as a biography of Louis goes, this one does have two handicaps. First, it came out just after Louis retired--and his post-boxing life isn't covered. This is a shame, as this period is quite interesting...though a bit depressing. A brief career in pro wrestling, failed marriages and bankruptcy are not especially fun to watch but they all occurred to Louis. Second, biopics of the 40s and 50s tended to be VERY sanitized and must be taken with a grain of salt. There are many examples but the best was "The Babe Ruth Story"--a film that made Ruth look like a combination of a priest and Will Rogers! So, if you want the inside scoop on the real life Louis, this probably isn't your best bet, as it glosses over his mistakes and portrays him mostly in a heroic manner. It did allude to Louis' mismanagement of his money and cockiness before the first Schmeling fight, however--so it wasn't all positive and gloss. However, his personal life is pretty much sanitized--such as why he and his first wife divorced and not even a hint is mentioned of racism--something that MUST have been an issue for the first black heavyweight champ since Jack Johnson.
By the way, the old blind boxer, Sam Langford, who gives Joe a pep talk in the film was a real boxer. He fought over 500 fights and lost only 17--so no wonder he lost his eyesight! It was not him playing himself, however.
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