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Country Goes to the Movies, Part V: Frankie and Johnnie

By Robert Loy, September 1997

"Frankie and Johnny," directed by Frederick ("Tonight Show") de Cordova and starring Donna (Elly May Clampett) Douglas and Elvis (fried banana sandwich) Presley, is based on one of the original cheating songs.

You know how it goes "Frankie and Johnny were lovers. Oh, lordy how they could love; He was her man, but he was doing her wrong."

It may very well be one of the King's best movies - and yes, I realize that's sort of like saying "This batch of botulism is not as unpleasant-tasting as some others."

Presley portrays Johnny, a riverboat gambler (appropriate since he was gambling with his career appearing in movies like this), not a particularly good one; he's already gambled away his next seven weeks's salary. When he's not blowing his money on the roulette wheel, he and Frankie (Douglas) have a stage act where they perform forgettable numbers like "I Want to Make Petunia's Two Lips Mine."

Elvis is convinced that he has a bad luck curse on him (the audience is starting to feel a bit cursed themselves). So he and his piano player Harry (Colonel Potter) Morgan go to see Zolita the gypsy and her Waylon Jennings-look-alike husband. Zolita tells Johnny that she sees an end to the bad luck when he dumps the blonde and hooks up with a gorgeous redhead.

And wouldn't you know, right then Nellie Bly returns from an unsuccessful stint on Broadway. She just happens to be a gorgeous redhead. She also happens to be the boss's (Mr. Braden) girlfriend - although she may not be particularly loyal; she tells Elvis her lucky number is one - "As in one at a time."

Lots of foreshadowing here. Frankie obviously learned about honor from her Uncle Jed; she threatens to shoot Johnny if he ever cheats on her. At one time she pretends to shoot him. They even do a gay 90's style stage version of the song "Frankie and Johnny" with Nellie Bly as the temptress Johnny does Frankie wrong with, and ending of course with Frankie blowing Johnny away. (Of course the presence of convicted spouse abuser Harry Morgan might be considered something of a tip-off as well.)

Big-shot producer Joe Wilber wants to take Frankie and Johnny off the Riverboat and put them on Broadway. Only problem is they need their own money to get to the Big Apple. Johnny plans to win it gambling (yeah, right, always worked before).

Frankie has given him a (no kidding) gold-plated cricket on a chain - which explains why Johnny looked elsewhere for good luck. Morgan is on his side too. At one point, he looks to sky and tells God that Presley "could use a little help" - but whether he's referring to the roulette wheel or picking better movie roles is uncertain.

The riverboat docks in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time. For some reason all the women - Frankie, Nellie and Mitzi (a chorus girl that Bossman Braden has been known to cheat on Nellie with) - are wearing the same Madame Pompadour costume.

This leads to a big mix-up where nobody knows exactly who is doing who wrong - or with whom. Nellie's using Johnny to make Braden jealous enough to propose. Frankie is suspicious so she disguises herself as Nellie even though they're both still disguised as Mme. Pompadour. (Got all that? Good, because it gets even more complicated.)

Mr. Braden is drunk - so is Mitzi. She informs him that Nellie's out with Johnny (but she's actually hiding in the closet). "She's cheating on you," Mitzi tells Braden. "He's cheating on Frankie. Why don't you cheat on somebody?"

This sounds like a good idea to Braden and he and Mitzi get horizontal. Madame Nellie storms out.

Meanwhile, Johnny and Nellie-Elly win big at roulette, and forgetting all about the great white way, Johnny asks Frankie, who he still thinks is Nellie, to hit the casino trail with him. She decides to hit his jaw instead.

After she walks off, the real Nellie - who still-reeling Johnny believes is Frankie - comes on to him and they start probing each other's tonsils. Braden and Mitzi stagger in. Braden socks Elvis and a big brawl ensues, which is ended when Mitzi - who was aiming at Johnny - whacks Braden over the head with a champagne bottle.

Whew!

Anyway, Johnny goes to Frankie to apologize and she takes all the money he won and pitches it out the window, pissing Presley off but pleasing the partiers outside.

Johnny tries again to make up with her. He sings "Please Don't Stop Loving Me." He brings her flowers and she breaks the vase over his head. He was her man but he was doing her wrong - sort of.

In a misguided attempt to help Mr. Braden win back Miss Bly, his lackey Blackie puts a real bullet in the gun Frankie uses in their stage act. But it's unnecessary. Nellie goes to Braden and says, "I hear you've been hitting the bottle over me." (Here she is misinformed. Actually it's Frankie who's been hitting the flowerpot over Johnny.) Braden proposes to Nellie and she accepts.

They go tell Blackie the good news, and he tells him why Johnny won't be able to be best man - he's only got a couple verses left to live.

Braden races to the stage and jumps in to grab the gun from Frankie, but it's too late. Frankie shot Johnny (as was prophesied of old) and Johnny hits the ground.

Now Frankie forgives her man. "Oh, Johnny," she wails. "Please don't die. You can gamble all you want to."

And Johnny stands up unscathed. What? How is this possible? Didn't we just see him shot with a real bullet? Yes, but - you're not going to believe this - the cricket on the chain stopped the bullet.

Now there's a real good-luck charm. Too bad Elvis didn't hang on to it; the world might have been spared "Clambake" and "Stay Away, Joe."