Johnny (Elvis Presley) is a luckless gambler who sings as part of a musical duo along with his fetchingly feisty girlfriend Frankie (Donna Douglas) on a riverboat sailing down the Mississippi. Hoping to score enough cash to take Frankie to Broadway someday, Johnny spends his last cash on a fraudulent fortune-teller who predicts a beautiful red-head will end his streak of bad luck at the roulette wheel. So Johnny and his songwriting pal Cully (Harry Morgan) latch onto sexy, flame-haired showgirl Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack), whose presence does somehow change their fortunes, although her heart belongs to riverboat boss Clint Braden (Anthony Eisley, future star of Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1969)!). While Johnny has no real romantic interest in Nellie, his rather unorthodox get-rich-quick scheme enrages Frankie.
It is 1966. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are rewriting the musical rules and here is the King of Rock and Roll camping it up singing showtunes in sequinned shirts. One suspects more than a few fans were aghast at the sight. Having said that, Frankie and Johnny, which is not to be confused with the Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer love story of the same name, actually offers a decent array of snappy songs, including the charmingly staged title number which, in a borderline post-modern conceit, mirrors the offstage drama, such as it is. While the film offers nothing to compare with, say, Jailhouse Rock, the likes of “What Every Woman Lives For”, “Hard Luck” and “Down by the Riverside” are endearing fluff along with a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”, which finds our boy Elvis leading his comely co-stars in full marching band regalia.
Even so, the combination of pleasant tunes, gorgeous gals, lush colours and handsome production values cannot disguise the fact this sports a very, very flimsy plot that goes nowhere. Produced by Edward Small, the man behind It! The Terror from Outer Space (1958), Jack the Giant Killer (1962) and The Christine Jorgenson Story (1970) (how’s that for a filmography?), Frankie and Johnny seemingly attempts to evoke memories of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Showboat, twice adapted for the screen, with its riverboat milieu. Interestingly, if not altogether successfully, the film is driven by its strong female characters. Not just gutsy Donna Douglas but a ravishing and redoubtable Nancy Kovack, Audrey Christie as Cully’s formidable wife Peg, and a spirited Sue Ann Langdon as jilted showgirl Peg who rather poignantly describes herself as a “girl with a past and no future.” These ladies call the shots and handle most of the gags, including an amusing sequence with the principal trio all costumed like Marie Antoinette, while the menfolk are drawn as feckless, floundering fools.
Which is rather disheartening for an Elvis film. Almost a guest star in his own movie, the King is clearly on autopilot, allowing leading lady Donna Douglas to steal the show. Douglas, who found sitcom immortality as adorable Ellie-May in The Beverly Hillbillies, joins the ranks of Ann-Margret and Carolyn Jones as a worthy foil to Elvis. She also looks terrific showing her shapely legs in some eye-popping costumes. In spite of its failings, including a half-hearted detour into suspense territory during the last ten minutes, Frankie and Johnny remains an amiable affair whose pleasures include the rare sight of future M*A*S*H star Harry Morgan singing and Elvis once again proving himself the only straight man who could pull of such kitsch outfits.