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Frankie and Johnny [1938, Chicago, Great Northern Theatre]

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Film Identifier: F.2011-05-0116
Run Time
0h 18m 45s
Date Produced
"Frankie and Johnny" is a ballet in one act (divided into seven dances), based on the popular 1899 American ballad about Frankie, a prostitute in 1890s Chicago, and her pimp Johnny. It was choreographed by Ruth Page and Bentley Stone in 1938 for the Works Project Administration Federal Dance Project, with music by Jerome Moross, libretto by Michael Blandford & Jerome Moross, and scenery and costumes by Paul Du Pont. The ballet was premiered at Chicago's Great Northern Theatre on June 19, 1938, performed by Page and Stone as the "Federal Ballet;" it ran for an unprecedented six weeks. This film represents a dress rehearsal from around that time, with full sets and costumes but no music, according to the film canister note.

It was later revived in New York at the City Center on February 28, 1945 by Ruth Page, Frederic Franklin, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The ballet was controversial due to "extremes" in the choreography; it was banned in Boston. It was revived again in Paris, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, on May 8, 1950 by Page's Les Ballets Américains. This version caused something of a scandal; audiences were divided in their response but Le Corbusier called Frankie and Johnny “Homeric” and “Rabelaisian." The ballet was then revived twice more in 1975 and 1978, in Pittsburgh.
The film begins with a view of a stage, set to look like a town street, with a saloon prominent. A group of three women enters and stands by a street lamp; a group of three men then enters and prances down the street, passing various other citizens along the way. The building next to the saloon appears to be a brothel, featuring a prostitute in the window; one of the men hurries up the stairs to call on her; as she closes the blinds, more men come dancing into the street. When the prostitute's customer emerges, another runs up for his turn. The men dancing in the street begin to form small ensembles, one joined by women, and this continues with brawls and general street confusion.

Eventually, the crowd disperses, leaving what appear to be Frankie and Johnny alone at the foot of the brothel staircase. The two neck there for a moment, before standing up and performing a risqué pas de deux, which they suspend when a stranger peeks into the street, eventually returning to their staircase. Frankie then disappears into the building, closing the blinds. Johnny begins a jazzy solo in the street, as the saloon quite literally opens up and patrons stream out; the street then fills up again, with small duets here and there, and several scantily clad women joining Johnny for a bar or two of dancing together.

Soon, another woman (presumably Nellie Bly) emerges from the brothel to dance a lively pas de deux with Johnny. Other couples also dance in the background. Frankie reappears and goes to order herself a drink at the saloon; the other couples rush to hide Johnny and Nellie from her. When she turns away from the bar, they form a veritable chorus line-like human shield in their dancing. Frankie dances alone as the shield circles around Johnny and Nellie, allowing them to escape into the brothel unseen. As the crowd once again disperses, Frankie, perhaps becoming suspicious, is left with the bartender.

After stalling for a bit by initiating a sort of dance-off with Frankie, he whispers into her ear the truth of what's transpired, then demonstrating it for her with elaborate pantomime. In response, Frankie removes her hat and jacket and tries to scale the stairs to the brothel but, in anguish, she cannot. She then performs a dismayed solo in the street, which includes rolling around on the ground. Finally, she makes it up the stairs to the brothel and pounds on the door; Johnny and Nellie poke their heads out, confirming the bartender's allegation. They then appear in the doorway, making out ostentatiously, and Frankie, beside herself, runs away.

She returns with a pistol and climbs a ladder up to one of the brothel windows, determined to have her revenge. The couple begs her not to, but Frankie then shoots Johnny at the top of the staircase. Nellie runs back inside, presumably to call an ambulance, and Johnny tumbles down the stairs. As he dies in the street, Frankie realizes with horror what she's done.

The camera then cuts to a group of men carrying his coffin down the street; when they reach Frankie and the corpse, she at first refuses to relinquish his body. While the rest are buying drinks at the saloon, Frankie tries to hang herself from a nearby lamppost using Johnny's shroud, but none other than Nellie Bly saves her and mourns together with her. The group then begins an ensemble dance, once again taking their human shield formation and circling the body before placing it in the coffin. As their celebration of Johnny's life moves into the saloon, which closes down, and Nellie wanders away, Frankie remains, rocking back and forth atop the coffin. The film ends there.
Additional Credit
Page, Ruth (is choreographer)
Stone, Bentley (is choreographer)
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)