FRANKIE AND JOHNNIE. Republic, 1936. Helen Morgan, Chester Morris, Lilyan Tashman, Florence Reed, Walter Kingsford and William Harrigan. Written by Lou Goldberg, Moss Hart(!) and Jack Kirkland. Directed by Chester Erskine and John H. Auer.

HER MAN, Pathé, 1930. Helen Twelvetrees, Philips Holmes, Marjorie Rambeau, Ricardo Cortez, James Gleason, Hary Sweet, Thelma Todd and Franklin Pangborn. Written by Tom Buckingham and Tay Garnett. Directed by Tay Garnett.

   Okay so now that everyone has the tune running in their head, here’s one of my favorites:

   Now let’s get on to the movies, starting with Frankie and Johnnie:

   Helen Morgan, the tragic hard-boiled chanteuse of the jazz age, and virile, roguish Chester Morris. They seem born for the parts. Add seductive Lilyan Tashman as a gal named Nellie Blye, Florence Reed as the Lady that’s known as Lou, and stately Walter Kingsford as a raffish gambler with a derringer tucked in his vest, and you have a cast that should have carried this off.

   Unfortunately, they don’t.

   Frankie and Johnnie was an independent production made in 1934 and finally picked up for distribution by Republic in ’36, and the delay should be a tip-off that there was something rotten in Screenland. In this case, it’s the saccharine, Disney-esque treatment of the early parts, as the lovers meet and court each other amid flowering gardens and fluttering songbirds. A little of this goes a long way, and we get a lot of it: about an hour’s worth in a film that runs 66 minutes. And yet….

   There are two moments here that will stay in my mind long after much better movies have fled my brain cells for greener pastures. They both involve brothel-madam Florence Rice, looking down from the mezzanine where she keeps an eye on things. Sensing trouble, she daintily takes out her handkerchief, whereupon the bartenders covertly pull iron. Then she drops it and we see the wisp of fabric drift languidly down to the floor as shots ring out. The first time, it’s an interesting scene. The second time, it has the fatal resonance of a ballad.

   Which suits it just fine.

   Much much much much better is Tay Garnett’s take on the tune from 1930, Her Man. In this version, Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees) is a cheap hustler working a seedy Havana bar, exploited by knife-throwing pimp Johnny (Ricardo Cortez) because she still has her looks – though he’s casting an eye on Thelma Todd as a gal named Nellie Blye.

   Into this seamy milieu comes Dan (Philips Holmes) a lusty young sailor looking for a good time, with his perpetually drunken buddies James Gleason and Harry Sweet, who raise their inebriated slapstick to a fine art. Frankie hustles Dan, but she’s touched by his innocence to the point where she aborts an attempt to slip him a Mickey, at the risk of a slapping-around from Johnny.

   Ms. Twelvetrees over-emotes a bit, but her whipped-dog look in the presence of Cortez at his nastiest speaks volumes. Philips Holmes, normally type-cast as feckless wimps, is amazingly virile as Sailor Dan; Marjorie Rambeau casually lays out her whore-with-a-heart act, and Franklin Pangborn has a typically amusing and unusually combative part as the guy who wants his hat back – with a laugh-out-loud finish. We can see where the story is headed, with True Love on a troubled horizon for Dan & Frankie, but director Tay Garnett handles it with such rowdy enthusiasm no one minds much.

   At a time when many more prestigious films were stage-bound and static, Garnett moves his camera easily, fluidly, through mean streets, meaner back rooms, and a raucous Havana Saloon that looks like one of the less reputable circles of Hell. In fact, sometimes he’s just showing off, as when waiter Vince Barnett loads the spiked drink onto a tray, raises it overhead, and we follow the tray in close-up across a crowded dance floor and right up to the lovers’ table.

   Garnett’s adept visual style shows itself best in the slam-bang finale, as Dan storms down a crowded street, knocking by-passers aside, and into the saloon like a gunfighter in a western, followed by a classic barroom slugfest – so good in fact that Garnett did it again, almost shot-for-shot, in Seven Sinners (Universal, 1940.)

   Come to think of it, there’s a whole lot of Her Man that reappears in Seven Sinners, including the knife-wielding bad guy, the disreputable side-kicks, and sundry other bits of business, but that’s a story for another day. I’ll just say here that this is not an easy film to find (I found one dealer, whose DVD proved to be incomplete – had to catch the ending on YouTube.) but if you take the trouble, you’ll enjoy it immensely.