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Shooting scripts: Frankie on screen

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Murder Ballads
Secret London


I've never seen this early talkie, but I know it involves a barmaid who falls in love with a sailor. notes that it was based on a "naughty" stage play called Frankie & Johnny, which may be a reference to Huston's opus. Promotion for the film called it "the blood-firing romance of a girl WHO DARED THE WORLD FOR LOVE!" The Radio Times' film guide is less impressed, saying it's an "unconvincing, weary waterfront melodrama" with "little to recommend it".

The closest thing to a character portraying Frankie in this Mae West vehicle is West's Lady Lou, a saloon singer working on the New York Bowery in the 1890s. Lou's old boy friend Chick Clark has been jailed and she's hooked up with Gus Jordan, the saloon's owner instead.
What she doesn't know is that Gus runs a counterfeiting operation and helps the sinister Russian Rita with what seems to be a white slavery scheme. Then there's Dan Flynn, a police informant who hopes to steal Lou away from Gus by shopping him to Cary Grant's Captain Cummings (aka The Hawk), a fearless Federal agent who's working undercover at the saloon as a Salvation Army captain.

Saloon singers were the closest movies of the day dared come to making a prostitute their star

When Rita's lover Serge falls for Lou, Rita gets jealous and attacks Lou with a knife, only to stumble on to it herself and die. Meanwhile, Chick escapes from jail, threatens Lou, and then hides in her room. Lou sees him sneak in there as she's singing Frankie & Johnny from the saloon stage, and signals the watching Dan to go and wait for her there. Dan slips out of the audience hoping for an assignation with her, but surprises Chick instead, who promptly kills him.
The gunshots spark a police raid, during which The Hawk arrests both Chick and Gus, sending them off to jail. We think he's going to arrest Lou too, but instead he whisks her into a separate carriage where the two kiss and head off for a life of married bliss.
The links to Frankie's real story are limited to the film's title - which simply flips gender to reflect its female star - the version of the song we hear Lou sing on stage - which stops short of describing the actual murder - and the odd self-aware line. "Some guy done her wrong," Lou says at one point. "The story's so old it should have been set to music long ago."

Helen Morgan's 1936 version sticks much closer to the real story although, once again, its stars are all white. Morgan plays Frankie, a St Louis saloon singer of the riverboat era who's never given a surname. Saloon singers were presumably the closest movies of the day dared come to making a prostitute their main character.
Frankie falls for Johnny Drew, a riverboat gambler who's new in town. She ditches her plans to marry the faithful Curly and gets set to wed Johnny instead. Seeing their happiness, the evil Nellie Bly threatens to scar Frankie's face with a lethal-looking hatpin, but is dragged away before she can act.
Frankie and Johnny marry, but Johnny loses all their money at the tables. She tries to help him, but Johnny just hears that as nagging, and decides he needs a fresh start in New Orleans. He announces he's going to leave on The Natchez' midnight sailing, and promises to send for Frankie as soon as he's built up a stake there. They can't afford two tickets right now, he claims.
Frankie arranges to borrow $1,000 from her friend Lou so she can go to New Orleans with Johnny straight away, but he intercepts the money, and runs to Nellie instead. He can't face staying with Frankie, he tells her. "I'm not a bad guy, Nellie," Johnny insists. "I'm just not the kind Frankie thinks I am." Nellie agrees to go with him.
Curly can see there's dirty work afoot, so he warns Johnny that if he ever hurts Frankie, there'll be trouble. He then tells Frankie that he's seen Johnny heading for Nellie's place, and she heads off after him with a gun. The ending's left deliberately ambiguous, but the one thing we can be sure of is that it's not Frankie who finally pulls the trigger. Johnny gets killed all right, but my money's on Curly as the shooter.

This stylish seven-minute cartoon offers its own unique and witty take on the story. You should really watch it for yourself, but I will just say here that the court finds Frankie innocent of Johnny's killing, but sends her to jail for murder anyway.
It's title, of course, comes from the original ballad's description of the noise Frankie's gun made as she pulled the trigger: "Rooty-toot-toot, three times she shot / Right through that hardwood door".
Rooty Toot Toot was directed by John Hubley - best known as the creator of Mr Magoo - for UPA's Jolly Frolics series. Frankie's singing voice was provided by Annette Warren, who'd done the same job for Ava Gardner in Show Boat earlier that year. The cartoon was nominated for an Oscar as Best Animated Short Film in 1951, but lost out to Tom & Jerry's The Two Mousketeers.

[Thanks to Rebecca Goldman for drawing this cartoon to my attention.]

Frankie & Johnny here are singers working on a Mississippi riverboat. Johnny's also an unlucky gambler, who regularly loses his money at the boat's roulette table, and Frankie despairs that he'll ever settle down and marry her. "You know what I'd do if he ever done me wrong?" she asks, miming a pistol with her right hand. "Bang! Bang! Bang!"
Johnny consults a gypsy fortune teller, who tells him he needs a lucky redhead to restore his fortunes. Frankie, unfortunately, is a blonde. Meanwhile, the flame-haired Nellie Bly arrives on the boat to resume her romance with Clint Braden, its owner.
Seeing all this, Johnny's pal Cully writes a song about the three of them, which turns out to be the ballad we all know. Frankie, Johnny and Nellie stage this number at the show that night in a casino scene which culminates with Frankie shooting Johnny. There's a lot of nonsense involving identical Mardi Gras costumes and identity mix-ups as Frankie and Nellie try to make their respective men jealous. Johnny kisses Nellie (thinking she's Frankie), and wins a lot of money. Braden starts to worry that Johnny might steal Nellie from him.
At the show that night, Braden's comic stooge replaces the blanks in Frankie's stage gun with real bullets, thinking he's doing his boss a favour. What he doesn't know is that Braden's just asked Nellie to marry him and she's accepted. Frankie fires the gun and Johnny collapses, but luckily the bullet hits the charm medallion which Frankie gave him earlier. Everyone laughs off the stooge's attempt at murdering an innocent man and the credits roll. Even Nellie turns out to be quite nice in the end.


We know the Frankie & Johnny in this modern-day New York love story have both heard the ballad, because they tell one another so, but that's as far as the link goes. Far from doing Frankie wrong, this Johnny pursues her relentlessly throughout the entire movie and finally persuades her to accept his love.
The song's acknowledged a few times in the dialogue ("Didn't they kill each other?"), we get a verse of James Intveld's version on the soundtrack, and that's your lot. London's Sound Theatre quoted the ballad's lyrics on their posters when they staged Terrence McNally's source play in 2005, but his plot's got nothing to do with the originals either.

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