Grade: C/C+
Entire family: No
1966, 87 min., Color
Musical romantic comedy
Not rated: Would be PG-13 (for smoking, drinking, drunkenness, fighting, and suggestive scenes)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
“Frankie and Johnny” clip
Amazon link

Three Elvis Presley movies were released in 1966—two of them contemporary (Paradise, Hawaiian Style and Spinout) and one of them, Elvis’s 20th film, a costumed period musical in which Elvis plays a riverboat entertainer and inveterate gambler.

Though there are “11 great songs” advertised for Frankie and Johnny, only two of them are true Elvis tunes where The King actually gets into it: “Shout It Out,” a typical nightclub performance number that gets him smiling, clapping, and gyrating with the Jordanaires backing him up, and “Hard Luck,” a blues he sings accompanied by a shoeshine boy on harmonica. The rest are hokey period or vaudeville-style numbers that make Presley look straitjacketed and uninterested. In fact, the 1890s costumes in this musical make him look so uncomfortable that you can tell he’s feeling out of his element.

So are we. It’s not your typical Elvis movie. If it seems plot-starved (and it does), that’s because it’s basically an expansion of the popular story song “Frankie and Johnny,” which appeared in various forms from the late 1890s through 1912. As the song goes, Frankie and Johnny were lovers, but when Frankie caught Johnny two-timing her and “doing her wrong,” she shot him with her .44.

That song is performed twice during the film, but the whole film feels equally stagey, as if we were watching a high school musical.

The set-up is pretty simple: Johnny (Elvis) works on a riverboat as an act with Frankie, but ends up blowing all his salary at the boat’s gaming tables run by his boss (Anthony Eisley) and enabled by best friend and piano player Cully (Harry Morgan, TV’s M*A*S*H, Dragnet), who keeps loaning him money. One night the two of them visit a gypsy who tells Johnny that he will have good luck with a new woman in his life—a redhead, when Frankie (Donna Douglas, The Beverly Hillbillies) is a blonde. Of course, when the boss’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Nellie (Nancy Kovack) comes onboard, she not only displaces Clint’s current girlfriend and performer, Mitzi (Sue Ane Langdon), but she throws a wrench into Frankie and Johnny’s relationship.

Yet, somehow it’s all pretty dull going as we watch three couples spin their relationship wheels, with the interest only picking up near the end once the riverboat hits New Orleans and in the tradition of Shakespearian farce the three women dress in the same costume. With equally dull music and a costumed staginess that makes it hard to buy into the escapism, Frankie and Johnny is one of the Elvis movies that seems cranked out just for the money. It feels almost random when Elvis and the others don band costumes and sing a song marching through town—though of course circuses and riverboats historically did things like that to drum up business.

For my money, there are far better Elvis movies, especially for family viewing—since Langdon’s character is perpetually drunk, and the writers rely on drunkenness at other times as well for comedy. The director was Fred de Cordova, who gave us Bedtime for Bonzo and after this film left Hollywood to work in television, achieving fame as the producer of The Tonight Show starring another Johnny—Johnny Carson. Though Kino Lorber does a fine job on the Blu-ray transfer, this Johnny and his Frankie are more painful to watch. With joy that seems manufactured rather than natural, it’s strictly for diehard Elvis fans.