Frankie and Johnny Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of Frankie and Johnny, a minor Elvis Presley vehicle from 1965. A basic disc is let down by a transfer that’s non-anamorphic for no very good reason.

He was her man, but he done her wrong…

Frankie and Johnny is inspired by the 30s ballad which my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes to Anonymous. The song was originally called “Frankie and Albert” which certainly doesn’t have the same ring to it. In this film (which has nothing to do with the Al Pacino/Michelle Pfeiffer starrer of 1991), Elvis plays Johnny, a singer on the riverboat Mississippi Queen, whose girlfriend is his singing partner, Frankie (Donna Douglas). Then a gipsy fortune teller says that Johnny will find good luck with a red-headed woman, he goes out to find one…and does, in the shapely form of Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack), only for the very much blonde Frankie to find out…

Elvis turned thirty in 1965, when this film was made. (Most reference books give its year as 1966, but the copyright date is actually the year before.) In the fifties, Elvis was a figure that connoted youth and a dangerous, alluring sexuality…and one threatening to the Establishment. In one famous incident insisted that his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show be filmed from the waist upwards, in case his suggestive hip movements corrupted American youth. Come the Sixties, and Elvis was now starring in bland movies like this one. He’s filled out somewhat but still has his looks – Fat Elvis has yet to arrive. Previously, real directors had worked on his films, among them Michael Curtiz on King Creole and Don Siegel on Flaming Star in 1958 and 1960 respectively. Frankie and Johnny is the handiwork of Frederick de Cordova. He had been directing films since the 1940s, none of them very distinguished. This was his last feature, though he turns up in an acting role in 1983’s The King of Comedy. Really, all he has to do is string a thin plot in between eleven musical numbers. Compared what was going on in popular music at the time, these songs must have sounded passé even then, let alone now. On the positive side, Harry Morgan, who for those of a certain age will always be Colonel Potter in the M*A*S*H TV series, does an able job of providing comic relief as Johnny’s sidekick Cully. None of the rest of the cast make much impression.

Frankie and Johnny has a very retro look. The director of photography, Jacques Marquette, goes for very rich, very saturated colours, in a way that’s more reminiscent of the 1950s than the 1960s – very bright yellows, blues and especially reds, with skin tones coming up a ripe shade of salmon. This isn’t remotely realistic, of course, but in the mid Sixties if you wanted realism you would be shooting in black and white anyway. And you certainly wouldn’t be seeking gritty reality in an Elvis Presley movie. Frankie and Johnny rolls along blandly for the hour and a half it’s on screen, but I doubt you’d remember it a day later. Diehard fans of The King may be more indulgent.

MGM’s DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. It’s non-anamorphic in a ratio of 1.66:1 and I can’t help feeling that’s a mistake. After a brief perod of experimentation in the mid-1950s, the standard ratio for any American commercial release (except for those shot in Scope or large format) was 1.85:1. It’s quite clear from this DVD transfer, from the amount of room above people’s heads, that 1.85:1 is the intended ratio. If the DVD had been transferred in this wider ratio, then you’d expect anamorphic enhancement. Although the transfer brings out all those bright, super-saturated colours, it’s very soft. Long shots in particular are lacking in detail. You can’t help thinking that an anamorphic transfer in 1.85:1, or even one in 1.66:1, might have made for a much sharper image. As the other Elvis DVDs released at the same time as this are anamorphic, this lapse on MGM’s part is unaccountable. Some grainy stock footage is doubtless due to the original film.

The sound is mono, as the film has always been. It’s an entirely pro job of work, as it should be with decades of Hollywood experience behind it, with music, effects and dialogue all well balanced. The four dubbed soundtracks available do however go back into English for the songs. There are eighteen chapter stops and a range of subtitles. The menus are available in French, German, Italian and Spanish as well as in English.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which runs 2:44, and is something of a relic of its era. “There ain’t no good in men…but who cares when the man is ELVIS!” It’s quite washed out and scratched, with some quite noticeable tramlines down the right hand side of the picture. However it is in 1.85:1 (though non-anamorphic) and doesn’t look unduly cropped, so that makes the decision to transfer the main feature in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 even more questionable.

Frankie and Johnny, for all its retro stylings, is undemanding but by now pretty dated and it isn’t knowing enough to be camp. Elvis completists may well want to buy it though I’m not sure who else will even at a budget price. As for the disc, it shows how one bad decision can let down the whole presentation.


Updated: Sep 21, 2003

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