3 February 2004 | halmp-1
A "pale" version of Louis' great career and national impact
Why is it that a film production company and its supposed professionals undertake a project that would seem sufficiently elastic to really emerge as a significant exponent of its subject-matter...only to become a pale facsimilie, causing its knowledgeable audience to feel slighted?
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.