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Frankie (Donna Douglas) and Johnny (Elvis Presley) are singing partners in a Mississippi showboat act. They dream of Broadway fame one day but Johnny's addiction to gambling hurts Frankie and threatens their future together. When told by a phoney gypsy fortune-teller that a redhead will change his luck at the tables, Johnny sees salvation when cool, confident Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack) comes aboard. But Braden (Anthony Eisley), the boat's casino operator, has staked a claim on Nellie and Frankie still desperately loves Johnny. When jealousy rears its ugly head, the tragic fate that awaits the lovers in a new song written for Frankie and Johnny might come true.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
The words of the famous title song, first recorded in 1904 and covered by everyone from Mae West (in her 1933 classic, She Done Him Wrong), to Bing Crosby and Leadbelly, go like this: "Frankie and Johnny were lovers; O, Lordy how they could love! They swore to be true to each other; as true as the stars above. He was her man, but he did her wrong." Johnny is a showman on a Mississippi riverboat and Frankie (Douglas, of Beverly Hillbillies fame) is his ever-loving partner in song. He does her wrong by gambling night and day in the showboat casino; a "born loser," trying to beat the odds on the roulette wheel by consulting the stars one day, the tea leaves and the gypsy fortune teller the next. Johnny's a sucker for the gypsy spiel that a redhead (unlike Frankie, who's blonde) will bring him lady luck at the tables.

When flame-headed floozy Nellie Bly comes on board and bats her eyelids at the handsome idiot a few times, Johnny's numbers suddenly come up. It's as if he can't lose anything: except the love of the sweet-natured Frankie. But Johnny's in debt to Frankie and to song-writing sidekick Cully (Harry Morgan, later Col. Potter in TV's M.A.S.H). He even owes Braden, the super-slick casino operator seven weeks salary, and so it's stay and pay; maybe even with his life for "stealing" Braden's girl.

Elvis's 20th movie is a rare period piece for the hip-swivelling star who sports an all-too-cutesy kiss-curl. Set near the turn of the 20th century, it is a typically lightweight Elvis offering but with surprising comic spins from Sue Ane Langdon (who later won a Golden Globe for the TV show, Arnie) and Joyce Jameson as tipsy showgirls. The script is at times unexpectedly witty. "How can I get Johnny to give up gambling?" Frankie asks of showboat veteran Peg (Audrey Christie). "Easy," she replies, "put a bullet in his head, poison in his coffee and add a fatal stab wound...nothing to it!"

Elvis himself is the weakness. By now, the novelty of movie-making had worn off; he is stiff and disinterested and outshone by just about everyone. The King's disciples even stayed away from this one. His version of the famous song, though it is performed with some pizzazz, only charted at 25 in the U.S. and never climbed higher than 40 in Australia. The setting required big bucks and lavish production numbers, a la MGM and Showboat, but budget restraints are obvious. Fred de Cordova, who gained most notoriety as the director of Ronald Reagan in Bedtime For Bonzo, was afforded a handful of dancers here and a few shuffling extras there. Even the dream sequence, a romantic Frankie and Johnny picnic, was shot on a sound stage and the single "dockside" exterior; a parade medley to the tunes of Down By The Riverside and When The Saints Go Marching In, lack excitement and might have been choreographed by a potato.

Still, there are compensations. For me, it still ranks in the Top 10 of Elvis's 31 films. It's no Showboat, that's for sure, but it's no slow boat, either.

Published January 12, 2006

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(US, 1966)

CAST: Elvis Presley, Donna Douglas, Harry Morgan, Nancy Kovack

DIRECTOR: Frederick de Cordova

SCRIPT: Alex Gottlieb, based on a story by Nat Perrin

RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen 1.66:1 Languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish. German. Subtitles: English, French, Italian, Spanish. German, Greek, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Hebrew, Norwegian, Swedish, Turkish.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Original trailer


DVD RELEASE: December 12, 2005

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