A slight change of pace for Elvis Presley, Frankie and Johnny was a lighthearted musical based on the folk song, 'Frankie and Johnny'. In the original song, the title characters are lovers whose romance goes awry when red-headed Nellie Bly steals Johnny away from Frankie. Frankie gets revenge by shooting Johnny dead. The movie lightens the tone of the tale by adding a few details and changing the downbeat ending.
In the film, the song has been specially written for riverboat performers Frankie and Johnny, played by Donna Douglas and Elvis. Johnny is a gambler whose bad luck changes when dancer Nellie Bly, played by Nancy Kovack, joins the troupe aboard the riverboat. Each night, the three perform the number 'Frankie and Johnny' onstage. As Johnny's interest in Nellie increases, Frankie's jealousy is piqued.
One night, someone loads real bullets into Frankie's prop gun, and Johnny is shot during the performance. As luck would have it, Johnny is saved by a charm that he wears around his neck.
'Frankie and Johnny' was a remake of a 1936 Republic Pictures film starring Helen Morgan as St. Louis casino singer Frankie and Chester Morris as Johnny the gambler. The story of Frankie and Johnny is a blend of fact and fiction. The story goes that in 1899 in St. Louis, Missouri a Frankie Baker shot her man Al 'Johnny' Britt when she found him in a bar with another woman. Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1934 to paint a series of murals in the state capitol and he chose to depict what he called a 'Social History of the State of Missouri'. One of the murals is the barroom scene of Frankie shooting Johnny.
Elvis' movie, although an United Artists film, was shot on the MGM lot and for inspiration MGM had a reproduction of the Missouri mural displayed during filming.
Frankie and Johnny were perhaps the inspiration for 'He Done Me Wrong', a 1904 song written by Hughie Cannon and sung by Mae West in her 1933 movie as 'She Done Him Wrong'.
It has been recorded in various forms over the years with the title 'Frankie and Johnny' by such artists as Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Brook Benton, and Sam Cooke.
Elvis' version was arranged by Alex Gottlieb, Fred Karger and Ben Weisman for this movie.
Elvis plays Johnny, a riverboat entertainer that has a big gambling problem.
Donna Douglas is Johnny's girl, Frankie. A fortune teller tells Johnny how he can change his luck. Enter a new lady luck played by Nancy Kovack and the cat fight begins.
Johnny's sidekick Cully was played by Harry Morgan, who has had many roles in film and TV since 1942, including his recurring roles on 'December Bride', 'Pete and Gladys', 'Dragnet' and 'Hec Ramsey'. However, he is best known for his portrayal of Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the TV series 'M*A*S*H', for which he received eight Emmy Award nominations, winning one. He also received a nomination for the series 'December Bride'.
Golden Globe Award winner Sue Ane Langdon played Mitzi. A child actress, she was also a singer at Radio City Music Hall in New York as well as a Broadway performer. She also had a role in the Elvis movie Roustabout.
Donna Douglas played Frankie opposite Elvis' Johnny in the movie. She was from Louisiana and did grow up a critter lovin' tomboy much like her character Elly May Clampett on the long running TV series 'The Beverly Hillbillies'. The 1957 'Miss New Orleans' was known for personally answering her fan mail. While shooting this movie, she and Elvis discovered they both shared a deep interest in spiritual studies and they would read and meditate together. Although her singing in this film was dubbed by vocalist Eileen Wilson, she has since recorded gospel albums. She also has authored Christian children's books.
A mixture of beauty and brains, actress Nancy Kovack played Nellie Bly. She began college at the University of Michigan at age 15 and was graduated by 19. She had won numerous beauty titles by the age of 20 and began acting in New York on various TV shows. She received an Emmy Award nomination for an appearance in 1969 on 'Mannix'. Today she is the long-time wife of maestro Zubin Mehta.
It isn't clear how the name Nellie Bly got attached to this triangle of lovers, but there was a real Nellie Bly in history. This was the pen name of a Pittsburgh woman journalist named Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. In 1885 it was considered improper for a women writer to use her real name so Ms. Cochrane took her pseudonym from a popular song written by Stephen Foster. She was a pioneer of investigative journalism often going undercover to expose poverty, crime, housing and labor conditions of the day.
An adventurer, she set a much publicized record for traveling around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds a la Jules Verne's 'Around the World In Eighty Days'.
Actress Audrey Christie played Peg. Her long career included numerous TV roles as well as roles in such films as 'Carousel', 'Splendor In The Grass', 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown', 'Harlow' and 'Mame'.
Frederick De Cordova was the director for 'Frankie and Johnny'. The long-time producer/director had many TV credits including 'The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show', 'December Bride', 'Leave It To Beaver', 'My Three Sons', 'Burke's Law', 'The Smothers Brothers Show' and 'Mr. Belvedere'. He is best known for 'The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson' for which he received four Emmy Awards. Anthony Eisley played Clint Braden. The former stage actor had become a household name in the very popular 1959 TV series Hawaiian EYE.
Gravelly voiced Robert Strauss played Blackie. Earlier, he played Sam, the owner of the Pirate's Den in the Elvis movie Girls! Girls! Girls!. The son of a theatrical costume designer, he worked as a singing waiter before becoming a successful actor on Broadway. He portrayed 'Animal' in the play 'Stalag 17' and his reprisal of that role in the movie version earned him a 1954 Academy Award nomination.
Naomi Stevens was Princess Zolita the gypsy fortune teller. Among her credits are many roles on TV series including 'The Flying Nun', 'The Doris Day Show', 'The Streets of San Francisco', 'The Montefuscos' and 'Vega$'. She also played Queen Liliuokalani in the movie 'The Hawaiians'.
Stevens's fellow gypsy was played by veteran actor Henry Corden, who has had numerous TV and movie roles. However, you might want to close your eyes and listen to his voice and see if you recognize it - he has been the voice of Fred Flintstone for over thirty years and has other animated characters.
Earl Barton was the choreographer for 'Frankie and Johnny' as he had been for the Elvis movies 'Roustabout' and Harum Scarum. Joining him were a number of the Earl Barton dancers including Wilda Taylor, who had played both Little Egypt in 'Roustabout' and Amethyst in 'Harum Scarum'. Another of his dancers, Judith Chapman, has since gone on to numerous roles on TV that include recurring roles on 'Ryan's Hope', 'General Hospital', 'One Life To Live' and 'Days of Our Lives' among others.