30 August 2009 | robert-temple-1
Wonderful Period Piece on Frankie and Johnnie Theme
This is a superb rarity, a period piece with a terrific lead performance by Helen Twelvetrees, who plays Frankie Keefe, the Frankie of the 'Frankie and Johnnie were lovers' story. (Her lover plays this song on the piano throughout the film in true honky tonk fashion.) The film is mostly set is a large seedy waterfront bar named Thalia, in Havana. Frankie works as a hostess in the bar, trying to lure seamen in to having another gin. One of her recurring lines is: 'Two gins', one of which is water for her and the other is real for the sailor. Her boyfriend Johnnie, pianist at the Thalia, is a ruthless amoral pimp, who takes all her tips from her clients every night and generally abuses her and beats her up sometimes. Frankie has about as much sense of self-worth as a flea, but is a charming fairylike creature underneath. She dreams of getting away from 'the joint', having been born in one just like it and never known any other existence. Tay Garnett wrote the original story and did an excellent job of directing this atmospheric film. He does some excellent and daring shots sometimes. In one case he puts a camera on a high dolly and follows a tray with two gins on it, held aloft by an agile waiter, from the bar through a teeming crowd to the table on the other side of the room. Helen Twelvetrees was an actress with real depth to her. She conveys the wistfulness and dreams of Frankie in those rare moments where she dares to let down her guard for a moment, and then suddenly slips into her assumed tough-gal mode which is her usual manner. The two personalities of Frankie battle it out as she vacillates between hope and despair throughout the story. She portrays Frankie as a truly pathetic abused waif. Johnnie is played by Ricardo Cortez, with heartless cunning and psychopathic intensity. He likes to kill people with his small knife. Marjorie Rambeau plays a washed-up elderly prostitute who is a hopeless alcoholic but who loves Frankie and tries to save her. She features in a unique twist in the last shot of the film, which adds a sudden and unexpected insight at the end of the story, which I cannot reveal. The ray of sunshine which offers Frankie the promise of escape comes in the form of a young cheery sailor played by Phillips Holmes, a very handsome and delightful fellow, who gets round Frankie's tough pretences by laughing at her and knows exactly how to draw her out and eventually gain her confidence. He wants to save her and take her away to a new life and marry her, but Johnnie cottons onto this and has other ideas, and turns to his usual solution, his knife. Will she or won't she escape? Will the film end as a tragedy or will everything turn out all right? Helen Twelvetrees is so entrancing as the waif Frankie that we really care. She was only 21 when she made this film, and by the age of 30, her career was over. She took an overdose of pills and died when she was only 49. She seems to have had an all too genuine and profound melancholy deep within her, which makes her performance shine with such pathos here. This film has remarkable beginning and end credits, with everything written in the sand and then repeatedly washed over and erased by the surf, which is very original and effective. The film is well worth seeing.