Last week Donna Douglas, best known for playing the role of Elly May on TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies", passed away at the age of 81. Since today happens to be the 80th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley, I've decided to take a look at a film that co-starred Douglas and Presley--1966's FRANKIE AND JOHNNY.
When I was a kid, Elvis movies were constantly being shown on television, just like John Wayne movies. I never really paid to much attention to the Elvis movies because they always seemed boring to me. I have to say that as I have gotten older my opinion on the King's film career has not changed very much, due to examples like FRANKIE AND JOHNNY.
Produced by Edward Small, directed by Frederick de Cordova and released through United Artists, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY features Elvis as Johnny, the lead performer in a show troupe playing on a 1890s riverboat. Johnny's on and off-stage partner is Frankie (Donna Douglas). Frankie and Johnny are usually at odds with one another due to Johnny's gambling habit, which leads him into debt with the riverboat's owner Braden (Anthony Eisley).
Johnny is so desperate to change his gambling luck he winds going to a gypsy fortune teller. The gypsy tells him his luck will change if he meets up with a red-headed woman. Johnny and best friend Cully (Harry Morgan) go back to the riverboat hoping to find such a red-head. (In just about every Elvis movie, a middle-aged character actor plays Elvis' best friend or brother/father figure--I think this was because such an actor wouldn't be a romantic rival to Elvis.)
Sure enough, the statuesque red-haired Nelly (Nancy Kovack) shows up. Nelly is a former flame of Braden, and she's also a musical performer looking for a job, so she joins the troupe. Johnny gets her to accompany him to the gambling tables, and he wins big. He spends most of the movie figuring out ways to get Nelly to gamble with him without making Frankie angry, while Nelly decides to use Johnny to make Braden jealous. (In just about every Elvis movie, there's always multiple women fighting over him, because, hey, he's Elvis...he's too much man for just one woman.)
There really isn't much more to say about the plot of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY, because frankly, there isn't much of a plot. Various complications between Frankie, Johnny, Nelly, and Braden ensue, but everything winds up all right in the end. Elvis gets to sing a song about every 10 minutes, but in all honesty, even though I watched this movie last night, I couldn't tell you the lyrics or the titles of any of them. There's not a "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" on this soundtrack. Elvis also gets to have a fistfight with Braden. (In just about every Elvis movie, the King gets into at least one fistfight--I guess this was to prove he was a "Man's Man".)
The musical highlight of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (if you could call it that) is a stage performance of the American folk song "Frankie and Johnny". It is staged in a bluesy, expressionistic manner--which is totally wrong for the period that the story is supposedly set in. According to this film, it is Cully who writes the famous song (I bet you didn't know that Colonel Potter came up with that tune, did you?).
FRANKIE AND JOHNNY is slickly made, but...it's about as light as a container of Cool Whip. The movie just kind of sits there. It is on the same level as a 1960s TV situation comedy. Even though I saw this film in widescreen and HD, I was continually reminded of all the classic reruns I've watched in my life. And I'm not just referring to the fact that the movie stars Donna Douglas. The sets, the lighting, the camera angles....they all remind me of 1960s television. The storyline does as well--at one point the main characters attend a costume party, and all the females wind up wearing copies of the same costume, so of course there's the typical "comic" misunderstandings.
Donna Douglas gets to wear much better clothes here then she ever would as Elly May (she looks spectacular in her showgirl outfits). Elly May almost always had a smile on her face, but Frankie spends most of her time ticked off at Johnny. Nancy Kovack is just as much of a knockout as Donna Douglas is. She's kind of wasted in the role of Nelly--one expects Nelly and Braden to be obstacles against Frankie and Johnny's happiness, but even Nelly and Braden turn out to be "good guys" in the end, another example of the script's light tone.
As for Elvis.....the best I can say about him in this movie is that he's a pleasant enough fellow. If you watch this film it will be plain to see that Johnny isn't exactly the most demanding role in the world. All Elvis had to do in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY was to be Elvis--and that's what he does. I still got the sense he was just about walking through this role.
If you want to put FRANKIE AND JOHNNY in proper perspective, consider this. It was two years before FRANKIE AND JOHNNY that Richard Lester and the Beatles made A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. That movie has just reached it's 50th anniversary, and it still remains fresh and vibrant. FRANKIE AND JOHNNY appears old-fashioned even for 1966--it could have easily been made in 1936. Elvis Presley was one of the most exciting performers of all time--and here he's reduced to doing something that Don Ameche could have done decades ago. With all the cultural changes going on in the mid-1960s, did anyone connected with FRANKIE AND JOHNNY actually think that this film was the right vehicle for Elvis? I highly doubt that the young folks were breaking down the door to see this movie.
Elvis fans are a tad bit obsessive, so I'm sure that they will consider FRANKIE AND JOHNNY to be first-class entertainment. As for those not anal about the King, there's worse ways to spend your time if you've got nothing better to do for 90 minutes. There's plenty of eye candy in this movie (the showgirls for the guys, and Elvis for the gals--heck, Elvis has more costume changes than the ladies do).....but while I was viewing it I kept thinking how underwhelming the cinema career of Elvis Presley was.
Sue Ann Langdon, Donna Douglas, and Nancy Kovack