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Frankie & Johnny: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Frankie sued Paramount, claiming the song's account of her life was defamatory, and full of factual errors. The shooting had happened at home, she said, not in a saloon as the song often claimed. Allen was a "conceited piano player" not a gambler, and her gun had been not a .44 but a .38, which she fired only once, not the three times stated in the song. Asked whether she had ever bought Allen a $100 suit of clothes - another "fact" given in the ballad - Frankie replied "not necessarily". Despite these discrepancies, the jury was not convinced Frankie deserved any compensation, and she lost her case.(6)
She sued again over Republic's 1936 film Frankie & Johnny, which starred Helen Morgan in a loose adaptation of the song's story. Frankie argued that the new film presented a false and humiliating account of her life and asked for $200,000 in damages. This time, the studio hired the musicologist Sigmund Spaeth as an expert witness. Spaeth, who was paid $2,000 for his testimony, reversed the conclusions of his own 1927 book to argue that the ballad Frankie & Johnny pre-dated 1899, and therefore that it could not have been based on Frankie Baker's crime. Until then, Spaeth had always maintained that Frankie was the ballad's inspiration, but that's not what he said in court. Once again, Frankie lost.(3)
Spaeth's testimony is infuriating, but Frankie's chances of victory had always been pretty slim. Watching the two films now, it's hard to see how she ever hoped to build a case.
Frankie - or in Mae West's case, her stand-in Lady Lou - is presented as a sympathetic character in both films, and never actually kills anyone herself. The worst you can say of Lou is that she knowingly sends a man off to his death, but he's such a revolting character that we're encouraged to think it served him right. The Helen Morgan vehicle sticks closer to real story, but makes Frankie a saintly figure who's saved from pulling the fatal trigger by another character stepping in first.

Spaeth, who was paid $2,000 for his testimony, reversed the conclusions of his own book

The truth of the matter is that the damage Frankie suffered from these two films lay less in the plots they used than in the fact that they pulled the song back to the front of everybody's mind and made it even more famous than it had been before. We know that She Done Him Wrong was a huge hit, pulling in $2.2 million on Paramount's investment of just $200,000, and that sort of box-office take in 1933 translated to a vast audience. That's what generated the sudden surge in curiosity about her which Frankie found so distressing, but it wasn't a close enough connection to win her case.

In 1950 or 1951, Frankie was admitted to a mental hospital, aged about 75. She was still perfectly lucid about killing Allen, but seemed confused about every other aspect of her life. In January 1952, she died.
The real Frankie may be dead, but her fictional alter-ego seems as immortal as ever. A 1962 thesis by Bruce Redfern Buckley found no fewer than 291 versions of Frankie's ballad to study. Since then, we've had two more Frankie & Johnny movies, one starring Elvis Presley in 1966 and one starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in 1991. As we'll see in a moment, neither bore any notable resemblance to the facts.
Songwriters have not been shy to apply artistic licence either. Sam Cooke's 1963 version of Frankie & Johnny - a top 30 hit on both sides of the Atlantic - had Frankie giving her beau a sports car and some "Ivy League clothes". Bob Dylan included the song on his 1992 album Good As I Been To You, but could not resist adding details of Frankie's execution on the gallows. Jimmie Rodgers sent her to the electric chair. Jimmy Anderson's 1969 blues version for Excello ended with Frankie getting drunk in the bar where she'd found Johnny, and then merely dumping him instead of killing him.
It's far from the only measure of a song's success, of course, but if it's accuracy you're after, then Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 Frankie is hard to beat. Recorded relatively close to the event that inspired it, this version gets just about everything right.

"Frankie called Albert,
Albert says 'I don't hear',
'If you don't come to the woman you love,
I'm gonna haul you out of here',
You's my man,
And you done me wrong."

"Frankie shot ol' Albert,
And she shot him three or four times,
Says: 'Stroll back, I'm smokin' my gun,
Let me see, is Albert dyin'?
He's my man,
And he done me wrong'.

"Frankie and the judge walked down the stairs,
They walked out side by side.
The judge says to Frankie,
'You're gonna be justified,
For killin' a man,
And he done you wrong'." (7)

All the characters are given their real names, the row in the street which Clay describes is sketched out, and Frankie leaves the court a free woman. True, Hurt has Frankie shoot Albert three or four times, and sends her along to a funeral she never attended, but compared to the liberties taken in other versions, these are very small offences. Everyone else may have done Frankie wrong, but Hurt is an honourable exception.

For a complete guide to Frankie & Johnny on film, click here.

For more on Frankie & Johnny, please go to this Amazon Kindle page (US / UK). The version of my essay there adds an exclusive interview with Snakefarm's Anna Domino, who discusses her own ground-breaking 1999 rendition of the song and murder ballads' continuing grip on America's psyche. The price is just 1.49 ($1.85 in US). Amazon has a free app allowing its Kindle titles to also be read on smartphones, tablets and computers.

Sources and Footnotes
1) Frankie & Johnny, by John Huston (Benjamin Blom, 1968)
2) The Real Story of Frankie & Johnny, by Dudley L. McClure (published in Daring Detective Tabloid, June 1935)
3) We Did Them Wrong: The Ballad of Frankie & Albert, by Cecil Brown (published in The Rose & The Briar, ed. Sean Wilentz & Greil Marcus, WW Norton & Co, 2005).
4) The name Nelly Bly first appeared as the title of an 1850 minstrel song, composed by Stephen Foster. It was then adopted as a pen name (spelt "Nellie Bly") by the journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, who became famous in 1889 when she recreated Phineas Fogg's trip from Around The World in Eighty Days. The name would still have been familiar to Americans as Frankie's song became popular, but perhaps staring to drift free of its context. Neither Foster's character nor Cochrane's alter-ego had any connection with Frankie's story, but the sound of the name echoed Alice Pryar's quite closely, and this substitution gave singers a less awkward line to negotiate. It's my guess that Nellie replaced Alice in the cast for that reason alone.
5) Immortalia, by A Gentleman About Town ( Parthena Press, 1969). Dan Clowes adapted this version into a three-page comic strip, which appears in his 2002 Fantagraphics collection Twentieth Century Eightball.
6) St Louis Post-Dispatch, February 13, 1942.
7) Frankie, by Mississippi John Hurt (Okeh, 1928).

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