A Movie A Day #243: The Joe Louis Story (1953, directed by Robert Gordon)


Joe Louis, also known as the Brown Bomber, is generally agreed to have been one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time.  Despite the barriers put up by both poverty and racism, Louis held the world heavyweight championship from 1937 to 1949 and successfully defended his title in 26 fights (ranking him second to only Julio Cesar Chavez, who had 27 title defenses).  In 1938, he defeated German Max Schmelling, disproving Nazi claims that a black man could not defeat an Aryan and making Louis, along with Jesse Owens, one of the first African-American athletes to achieve nationwide hero status in America.

The Joe Louis Story, which was made and released shortly after Louis lost his final fight to Rocky Marciano and announced his retirement from boxing, tells an effective but sanitized version of Louis’s life story.  Made on an obviously low budget, The Joe Louis Story hits all the highlights — Joe’s relationship with trainer Jack Blackburn (James Edwards), Joe’s marriage to Marva Trotter (Hilda Simms), Joe’s two fights against Max Schmelling, and Joe’s time in the army — while ignoring most of the lowlights.  No mention is made of Joe’s financial troubles, Joe’s initial struggle to even get a match against the white heavyweights of the day, or the infidelity that led to Joe and Marva’s divorce.  The Joe Louis Story does briefly touch on racism when Joe is told that, as a black man, he already has a strike against him as far as the boxing establishment is concerned.

The best thing about The Joe Louis Story is that it features footage from Louis’s actual fights. Coley Wallace, the boxer who was hired to play the title role, bore a remarkable resemblance to Joe and the footage of the real Joe Louis boxing is easily mixed in with scene of Wallace as Joe.  Wallace was not much of an actor but, as a real-life boxer, he still brought enough authenticity to the role that his casting works.

One final note: In real life, Joe Louis ended his career after a brutal loss to Rocky Marciano.  Before turning pro, Marciano lost four fights as an amueter.  One of those losses came in 1948 when Marciano was defeated in the final round of the New York Golden Gloves tournament.  The fighter who defeated Rocky Marciano?  Coley Wallace.

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