Kino's new Blu-ray is certainly worth the wait picture-wise: the high-definition transfer is splendiferous, with the movie's bright, primary-color scheme nearly popping off the screen with its rich hues.
Unfortunately the movie is another matter. It's one of Elvis's worst, which is saying a lot. It's not as bad as, say, Harum Scarum, Tickle Me (both 1965) or Stay Away, Joe (1968), but it's far from even the modest pleasures of mid-level Elvis vehicles like It Happened at the World's Fair and Fun in Acapulco (both 1963), and light years away from his earliest, best films of the 1956-60 period.
Frankie and Johnny is, on the other hand, slightly more ambitious than most Elvis movies were by this time. It breaks from the standard star vehicle format in some respects, though hedges its bets and is inferior in most respects. "Col." Tom Parker, Elvis's manager, would sell his client's services to anyone willing to pony up the $800,000 and 50% of the profits/picture deal he routinely demanded. For Frankie and Johnny Elvis went to work for producer Edward Small, who by the 1960s made nearly nothing but awful movies - Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz, The File of the Golden Goose, etc.
However, while Small distributed through United Artists, most of the core creative people seem to have been old Universal talent. Co-writer and associate producer Alex Gottlieb got his start producing Abbott & Costello's best films of the early ‘40s, while director Fred De Cordova was there a bit later (where he made the notorious Bedtime for Bonzo) before beginning a long career in television, first as a producer on the Burns & Allen and Jack Benny TV shows, and years later as the director of The Tonight Show. Even longtime Universal hair stylist Joan St. Oegger worked on the film, her first in several years (and her last).
The movie is somewhat unusual in that it eschews the usual Elvis formula in some ways, Frankie and Johnny instead being more a conventional, even old-fashioned movie musical closer to musicals of the 1940s than the mid-‘60s. It had a higher-than-average-for-an-Elvis-movie budget of $4.5 million, lavish costumes, big though unconvincing sets, and musical numbers featuring other members of the cast (their singing mostly dubbed by others). Unfortunately, the musical numbers are unmemorable and misguided, the period detail compromised, and the two female leads are weak and unlikeable. It's done on a sitcom level, except than even sitcoms are sometimes funny.
Set in the Gay ‘90s, Frankie and Johnny casts Elvis as riverboat gambler Johnny. He's not, however, a professional gambler, but rather a perennially broke gambling addict working as a singer aboard the floating casino with long-suffering girlfriend Frankie (Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies).
Johnny and his sidekick, Cully (Harry Morgan, serviceable but wildly out of place here), visit a gypsy camp where a fortune teller predicts Johnny will soon meet a redhead that will turn his profoundly bad luck around. Sure enough, Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack), the Auburn-haired girlfriend of casino owner Clint Braden (Anthony Eisley) comes aboard, and suddenly Johnny can't lose at the roulette wheel.
A theatrical agent (Jerome Cowan, unbilled) sees a bright future for Frankie and Johnny on Broadway, but to get there Johnny will have to score big, and Clint is none-too-happy Johnny has co-opted his girl, while Frankie is jealous and Johnny keeps gambling away their grubstake.
Frankie and Johnny might have been fun had Elvis played a mostly winning professional gambler, perhaps matching wits with a shrewder female gambler in a story closer to A Big Hand for the Little Lady. Instead, Johnny is a rather pathetic addict, with Johnny and Cully his chief enablers. They're resigned to his addiction and do nothing to try and stop him, while he seems oblivious to his problem. Not exactly prime material for a comedy, that.
Another fault of the film is its utter lack of period verisimilitude. The interior sets of the riverboat are vast but undetailed, and never once is there any sense of being aboard a ship on the water, or that the story takes place in the late 19th century. There are a few stock shots of a riverboat gently gliding through picturesque sunsets and whatnot, but a backlot riverboat (from Universal's 1936 Showboat? MGM's 1951 remake?) is seen only briefly.
Also lacking period authenticity are the movie's mostly contemporary songs. The setting precluded rock and roll, of course, but neither did the filmmakers choose to have Elvis uniquely cover standards from the era, which might have been interesting. Instead here the music is neither fish nor fowl, and utterly unmemorable. Though an authentic Southerner (from Louisiana), Donna Douglas wasn't much of an actress beyond her Ellie Mae character on Hillbillies, and Nancy Kovack is anything but a Southern Belle. Harry Morgan and Robert Strauss (as Eisley's henchman) play their stock characters well enough, but their talents feel shoehorned into the picture. (Unlisted in the IMDb but clearly an uncredited, non-speaking extra is future TV star Kent McCord, in the audience of one of Frankie and Johnny's shows.)
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.66:1 widescreen (not 1.85:1, as reported elsewhere), Frankie and Johnny looks phenomenal. The image is incredibly sharp, with the textures of the costumes and the clarity of the actors' eyes really standing out, along with the bright, primary-colored look of the film, which really "pops." The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono is fairly good, and English subtitles are provided to this region "A" disc.
The lone extra is a trailer for this and Kino's concurrent Elvis Blu-ray, Clambake.
If you've never seen an Elvis Presley movie, Frankie and Johnny is not a good place to start. See Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, or nearly any of his pre-1965 films, which are far superior. Great transfer, though. Rent It.