This is going to be another one of those “more bang for your blog reading buck” posts. When The Joe Louis Story from 1953 came up I thought it would be great to watch, but I wasn’t sure how honest a pre-civil rights era movie would be about race. Some of these old biopics can be pretty, dare I say, whitewashed? So I also checked out Joe and Max, which I had seen before but didn’t remember too much about. I also looked for a documentary about Joe Louis and checked that out too.
The Joe Louis Story
18 September 1953
Joseph Louis Barrow was born in Alabama in 1914, in the 20s his family was part of the great migration to the north, settling in Detroit. As a teenager in the early 30s Joe Louis started to learn how to box. This is where The Joe Louis Story (TJLS) starts out. The movie looks like it was made on a low budget and released to cash in on black moviegoers as well as boxing fans. The pacing is slow and none of the actors really distinguish themselves. Coley Wallace was an actual boxer who does look a lot like Joe Louis, but he doesn’t do much. It’s hard to tell if his low affect style is his portrayal of the way Joe Louis really was, or if he was just not much of an actor.
There are a lot of interesting connections going on here. Coley Wallace played Joe Louis twice: TJLS in 1953, then in 1980 in Raging Bull, Martin Scorcese‘s biopic of Rocky Marciano. This movie ends with Louis’ ill-advised fight in 1951 against Marciano. Marciano never lost a professional fight, he was only beaten four times as an amateur, and one of the men who beat him was…Coley Wallace.
One area where the movie saved quite a bit of effort is in the boxing sequences, whenever a fight is shown the film switches between footage of the actual fight and segments with the actors. This is a mixed bag, it’s great to see the actual Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, Rocky Marciano, etc in action, but in that case why not just make a documentary? We’ll get to that later.
A couple of the white actors may look familiar to film buffs: Paul Stewart plays the reporter who narrates the movie, and when I first saw him I thought Citizen Kane. Sure enough, he played Charles Foster Kane’s butler. Also, Joe’s trainer Mannie Seamon is played by John Marley, he’s the guy who gets a horse’s head in his bed in the first Godfather.
Joe’s other trainer/mentor Jack ‘Chappie’ Blackburn appears in all three of the movies. In both of the biopics he’s portrayed as a tough father figure to Joe. James Edwards’ portrayal of Chappie is the closest anyone in TJLS comes to a real performance.
TJLS deals with racism about as honestly as you can expect a movie from this era to do. Chappie tells Joe that because he’s a “colored” fighter he already has two strikes against him, and Joe talks to Mannie about the pressure he feels of representing a whole race. Some of the themes of the later films are only touched on here, Max Schmeling is only referred to as a Nazi, and Louis’ tax problems are just barely touched on.
The movie shows Joe’s divorce from Marva Trotter Louis, but because it was made in the 50s, or because most of its subjects were still alive at the time it skips over Joe’s adultery as a factor. The closest this movie comes to hinting at adultery is a long ass musical number at a nightclub where Joe stares at the singer the whole time, we are probably to think of Lena Horne, whom Louis is said to have had an affair with. Joe is just seen as benignly neglectful of Marva, choosing boxing instead of his marriage and family.
The Misplaced Boy MST3K Scale:
If you need more info on how the award winning MST3K scale etc works, click here.
All things considered, the actual Joe Louis story is better told in the next two movies, especially the documentary. The best I can give this one is…
Random Quote Whore Quote:
The Joe Louis Story is a ranunculaceous, undistasteful, population of a movie! Coley Wallace is unrelated!!!
Joe and Max
Leonard Roberts – Joe Louis
Til Schweiger – Max Schmeling
Peta Wilson – Anny Ondra
Richard Roundtree – Jack ‘Chappie’ Blackburn
David Paymer – Joe Jacobs
Bruce Weitz – Mike Jacobs
Siena Goines – Marva Trotter Louis
Rolf Kanies – Adolf Hitler
3 March 2002 (USA)
9 September 2004 (Germany – DVD)
Joe and Max is a movie from 2002 that aired on cable, Starz I think. The movie was a USA and German co-production, an example of how many modern Germans are stepping up to their history and confronting it. We could learn from that here. The movie picks up the boxers’ stories in 1936. Both Joe Louis and Max Schmeling have achieved some success, but both are limited by things they can’t control. For Joe Louis, it’s being a black man in a time when discrimination was practiced openly and shamelessly; for Schmeling, it’s being under the thumb of Hitler.
Max Schmeling was not a Nazi. Per the movie he refused to turn his back on his Jewish friends or officially join the Party, but it didn’t matter. The Reich was determined to use him as a symbol of Aryan superiority over all other races. Schmeling was living the good life between his success as an athlete and that of his actress wife Anny Ondra (played by Peta Wilson), but the movie shows how his life became increasingly micro-managed by the Reich. At one point he even has to go before Hitler himself to get permission to keep an American Jew as his manager.
Joe and Max shows how Louis was unsuccessful at managing his life outside of the ring. Money slips through his fingers and he is unable to remain faithful to his wife, Marva (excellently played by Siena Goines). Louis’ financial problems are compounded by the fact that his management and promoters kept most of the money he earned, and stuck Louis with a million dollar IRS debt that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The movie shows Joe and Max meeting each other twice in the ring, each with one win. They say that they should fight one more time to settle the tie, but that third fight never happened. Schmeling’s loss to Louis in their second fight made him a pariah to the Nazis. After the War, Schmeling came upon hard times himself, but was rescued in the 50s when Coca-Cola asked him to help them sell their soda to the German market.
The movie shows one poignant meeting when Max traveled to Chicago to see Joe, but it doesn’t tell the story that Max helped Joe financially – which I thought was kind of the point. It also would’ve been interesting to see Joe’s reaction to the afore-mentioned movie.
These quibbles aside, Joe and Max does stay pretty close to the facts as far as I can tell, and it is entertaining and moving. I’m giving it a…
Joe and Max is a unflagitious, unusual, operator of a movie! Leonard Roberts is depreciating!!!
Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed
23 February 2008
The title of the HBO Sports documentary Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed pretty much sums up how anyone would feel about the Champ and how he was treated once the spotlight moved on. The filmmakers show how much “The Brown Bomber” meant to black Americans in the Depression, they interview Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory, and many others who tell how every radio throughout Harlem was tuned to Louis’ matches, and how the streets were silent until the other guy was KO’d. Then the silence was replaced by an explosion of joy.
With the world facing the rise of fascism, Joe Louis’ matches against Maz Schmeling took on more weight. If the rest of America was hesitant to cheer for a black fighter during their first match, by the time the rematch came up all but the most racist of Americans were cheering for Louis against the man whom they (rightly or wrongly) felt was the symbol of Nazi Germany. This time Joe Louis KO’d Schmeling in the first round.
While Max Schmeling returned to Germany in defeat, and was sent to fight in the front lines, Joe Louis signed up and led the fight for propaganda and raising money for the war effort. Along the way, he found out what conditions were like for black soldiers during the War, and he used his celebrity and connections to help them.
This is where the real betrayal starts, after all the hope and more that Joe Louis brought to his country during the lead up to WWII and during the war itself, the country – especially in the form of the IRS – turned its back on him. Actually, turning its back on him would probably have been preferable, the IRS went after Louis for back taxes on his winnings and even some of the money he raised doing exhibition bouts on behalf of the Army.
You expect promoters and managers to be sleazy and underhanded (and in Joe Louis’ case they certainly were), but the way the IRS hounded Joe Louis for the rest of his life forms a very shameful chapter of our history. At one point, Louis is seen going on a TV game show to win money for his IRS debt.
Interestingly, this movie gives very short shrift to Max Schmeling and his friendship with Joe Louis. Schmeling is pictured with Hitler and no mention is made that if he was a symbol of Nazi Germany, it was reluctantly. Schmeling is shown surprising Louis on another game show: This Is Your Life, but aside from mentioning that Schmeling was made rich by a US soft drink while Joe Louis Punch went nowhere, we hear nothing more about Max Schmeling. There’s a section at the end about how some celebrities such as Frank Sinatra helped Louis out financially towards the end of his life, but nothing about Schmeling.
Even with those caveats, I would still recommend Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed as the best of these movies to get to know about Joe Louis and how he became one of the greatest fighters of all time and really the first black athlete to become a hero for everyone, not just African Americans.
I’m giving Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed a…
Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed is an awkward, perfect, cosmos of a movie! Joe Louis is proscribed!!!