Sunday, April 24, 2011

Frankie and Johnny (1966, Frederick De Cordova)

Frankie and Johnny is a strange transition film for Presley that isn't quite adult, but isn't quite teenage.  It also isn't quite good and isn't quite bad, though that is of no correlation to the above statement.  Elvis plays Johnny and Donna Douglas plays Frankie, two lovers and musical performers aboard a Mississippi steamship.
The film is based on the 1904 folk song about a woman, Frankie, who caught her husband in bed with another woman (versions by 1912 name this woman as Nellie Bly) and shoots her Johnny dead.  Perhaps not your typical Elvis fare, the song is the strange cornerstone for a narrative which had to be changed drastically for the film's demographic.  The song (narrative intact) is the centerpiece of musical theater in the film, but the narrative choices are interesting.

For one, the characters are actually named Frankie and Johnny, and there is no indication that the song existed in the film's popular culture before it was performed on their steamship.  Stranger yet, when the character Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack) enters the picture, she is inserted into the musical number lyrically (Elvis's Johnny naming names).  The song becomes a story-within-a-story and presented such that the characters have no knowledge of it.  Further, the film is something of a Victorian period piece (c.1880?) which has its characters existing before the folk song, anachronistic as jazz is prevalent shortly after the Civil War, and Elvis looking none too comfortable dressed in three-piece suits (and same, modern haircut).  The whole picture is a little uncomfortable with itself: the costumes in the musical numbers appear "more" Victorian than the characters everyday dress, all nitpicking a little unfounded for a film as lighthearted as this.  But perhaps its lighthearted nature is its vice.

Johnny is a performer, but it seems secondary to his primary occupation of gambling.  He is a highly superstitious individual who is also deeply in debt.  He visits a fortune teller who informs him that a red-headed woman will enter his life and bring him luck.  Enter Nellie Bly, the never-steady girlfriend of Johnny's unfaithful boss, Clint Braden.  When Johnny finally scores a win at the roulette table, he attributes it to red-headed Nellie.  Frankie grows jealous, the girls concoct a case of mistaken identity, Johnny gets shot, but like Demi Moore's The Scarlet Letter, everybody wins.

Again, any abject behavior of Elvis's character is dismissed by comparison of other minor male characters.  Sure, Johnny kisses (who he thinks is) Nellie, but it is Braden who is the real philanderer.  Yeah, gambling is a vice, but if he weren't so superstitious, he'd be dead!  The moral of the story appears to be loyalty, though its means to that end don't look too optimistic.

Frankie and Johnny is a narrative that could have operated on several layers of depth.  Instead, its lighthearted nature strips the film of any consequence.  No one changes: gambling, drunkenness, infidelity, attempting to kill somebody all go unpunished and the moral of the story is Frankie telling Johnny, "I want you any way you are."  Nellie follows this lead and marries Braden as well.  We're not even sure why this story is being told other than to kill 87 minutes on a lark.  Frankie and Johnny is inconsequential at best and, true to its conflicting nature, leaves you with something of a sour taste in its sweet ending. -- *½ / four stars

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