The true crime story behind the American ballad more commonly known as Frankie and Johnny is included in CrimeSong, chapter two, The Girls Fight Back, “Frankie Baker (Frankie and Albert) or Frankie and Johnny.” There are hundreds of versions of the song, and various references and spellings of the name of the man—Albert, Johnny, Johnnie—who “done Frankie wrong.” Inside chapter two I have included works by two American artists—Thomas Hart Benton and John Sloan. Both Benton and Sloan correctly depict the man and woman behind the song as African-American. What happens when the story and the song move to the American stage? Here are a just a few examples:
John (Jack) Kirkland wrote a play “Frankie and Johnnie” in 1930. It was closed down by the police as indecent, and the case went all the way to the New York Court of Appeals (the State’s highest court). You can find the opinion at People v. Wendling, 258 N.Y. 451 (1932). The court of appeals threw the case out. The show went on, but the play was a flop.
The lead actress playing Frankie in Kirkland’s play was silent film star Anne Forrest, who was one of Houdini’s leading ladies. She was Danish!
Filmmaker John Huston’s little book, Frankie and Johnny, a stage version of the story, includes illustrations with all of the characters white. Huston’s extensive discussion of the origins of the St. Louis version of the song is excellent. This book was reprinted in 2015 by Dover Publications and uses one of the original illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias for the book cover.
By the way, Huston gave Marilyn Monroe a copy of his book (I have one too) with his personal inscription/dedication to her. It recently went for auction and fetched $13,750. My copy is not worth that much for some reason.
There is also the 1966 film, “Frankie and Johnny,” (United Artist) a light-hearted musical loosely (understatement) based on the ballad. The film stars Elvis Presley, with Donna Douglas (“The Beverly Hillbillies”) as Frankie, and television and film star Nancy Kovack as Nellie Bly. The action takes place on a Mississippi River riverboat and showcases Elvis singing and dancing. In this film Johnny gets shot, but he doesn’t die. Elvis also recorded a version of Frankie and Johnny. For a review of the movie, see “Neighborhoods Get ‘Frankie and Johnny,’ New Presley Film,” The New York Times, July 21, 1966. (“That dull thud resounding from neighborhood theaters yesterday was the latest Elvis Presley movie, “Frankie and Johnny…”) You can also find a few video clips of the movie on YouTube.
An exception to these stage and film representations of Frankie and Johnny as white is John Sloan’s art work referenced at the beginning of this piece, which Sloan created in connection with e. e. cummins satirical play “Him.”
Further reading: Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness (Daniel Bernardi ed., 2001).
Here is Leadbelly’s classic performance of Frankie and Albert.