The Joe Louis Story (1953)
One year after being crowned boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World, Joe Louis made his film debut in the low budget Spirit of Youth. Though the lead actor and character shared some similarities, the film is most definitely not a biopic. That would have to wait until two years after Louis' final fight, when The Joe Louis Story was released. Here Coley Wallace, the boxer responsible for Rocky Marciano’s last defeat, was cast in the title role. Though he looks the part, Wallace is no thespian and at times is almost unintelligible. Paradoxically, his boxing skills are hardly put to use, as most of Louis’ depicted fights utilise actual footage of the bouts. Which is just as well, for the few recreated fights and cutaways to Louis' corner are entirely unconvincing.
Opening with Louis’ defeat at the hands of Marciano, a forlorn reporter commits to telling the ex-champion’s real story. So begins his narration of Louis’ life, beginning with the boxer’s decision to give up violin lessons and pursue a future in the sweet science. After an impressive amateur career, Louis turns professional and comes under the guidance (in and out of the ring) of 'Chappie' Blackburn. Victories over former champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer follow, clearing a path for a shot at the title. All that stood in his way was German boxer Max Schmeling.
It's at this point that the biopic actually picks up, momentarily departing from its didactic narrative and injecting some drama into the story. While machinations over a Schmeling rematch continue against the backdrop of an impending war, Louis’ wife clashes with his team over her husband’s well-being. A superfluous musical number interrupts the flow and the matter-of-fact storytelling resumes to cover Louis’ service in the army. Not even the huge tax bill waiting for him upon his return provokes any commentary resulting in a biopic that’s informative, just not entertaining.
Like Joe Louis, Coley Wallace’s limited film career was mostly composed of portraying… Joe Louis, which he did in the 1979 made-for-TV movie Marciano and the following year’s Raging Bull.
as Joe Louis
as Sam Langford
as Max Schmeling
Tad McGeehan, the journalist who narrates the film, is fictitious.
No mention is made of Joe Louis' limited film appearances.