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The ballad "Frankie and Johnnie," which is not referred to in the credits or in reviews, is an anonymous work whose date of origin is estimated by historians and musicologists as being between 1840 and the 1880s. Although the ballad is not sung during the picture, an instrumental version of the tune is woven into the musical score. The film was shot in 1934, but it did not receive a general release until mid-1936 because of severe censorship problems. In February 1934, the film was listed in production charts as a United Artists release. According to a May 1934 Film Daily news item, Paramount and RKO joined United Artists in bidding for the distribution rights. A March 1935 Daily Variety news item announced that retakes for the picture were being shot by Mascot Pictures. However, all other contemporary sources credit Select Productions as producers of the retakes. Another 1935 news item in Daily Variety stated that the film's title would be changed to Frankie to avoid giving the "wrong impression of its subject matter." By May 1935, RKO was announced as the film's distributor, but the studio never released the picture. Republic finally distributed the picture in May 1936.
According to files in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, a copy of a revised script was sent to Vincent G. Hart of the Eastern Studio Relations Office of the MPPDA in February 1934. Hart complained that the script was of a "questionable nature," and that the story was "most certainly open to serious question, both from the standpoint of the industry standards contained in the Production Code and from the standpoint of official censorship." Hart also expressed annoyance at the fact that his office did not receive the script until four days into production. In September 1934, the completed film was rejected by the PCA as a "sordid sex drama." In an October 1934 letter, Joseph I. Breen, Director of the PCA, insisted that all uses of the song "Frankie and Johnnie" be eliminated, and that Jack Kirkland's 1930 play of the same name should not be mentioned in the title. (It is not known if the play was ever considered as a source for the film.) Breen also insisted that the picture make clear that Frankie's love for Johnnie is "wrong and sinful" and provide proof that Frankie's "course of life is wrong, as opposed to the present ending showing her going off to future happiness with Curley." In an April 1935 letter to Islin Auster of the AMPP, William Saal of Select Productions assured Auster that the reshot Frankie and Johnnie would "please" him and added that all of the "new stuff" was shot "exactly according to the script."
It is not known if additional cuts were made between 1935 and 1936. A 1935 Film Daily review gives the film's running time as seventy minutes, five minutes more than the 1936 time, but these figures May not be accurate. Onscreen credits, production charts and news items in 1934, as well as 1936 reviews and copyright records, list Chester Erskin as director. The 1935 citations, however, credit John Auer as director. It is possible that Auer, like Saal, worked on the supplemental footage. In addition, Lou Goldberg is credited with additional dialogue only in the 1935 Hollywood Reporter review. Motion Picture Herald's "The Cutting Room" includes Jack Hazzard, Montagu Love and Sigmund Spaeth in the cast, and notes that composer Victor Young, his orchestra and the Chester Hale Girls were to appear in the saloon scenes as musicians and dancers. A Film Daily news item adds Robert Middlemass and Pedro de Cordoba to the cast. The participation of these performers in the final film has not been confirmed. Lilyan Tashman, who did not receive a screen credit and was excluded from most review cast lists, died on March 21, 1934. Her death caused delays in the filming, according to Film Daily, as the script had to be re-vamped to accommodate her unshot scenes. Scenes for the film were shot in the Midwest, along the Mississippi River, according to Film Daily.
Modern sources state that a Portland, OR lawyer sued Republic Pictures after the film's release on grounds that it defamed the character of his client, a black woman named Frankie Baker, who had killed her boyfriend in 1899 and claimed to be the song's true inspiration. Baker's case was dismissed in court.
Other films inspired by the "Frankie and Johnnie" ballad include a 1930 Path Exchange production, Her Man, directed by Tay Garnett and starring Helen Twelvetrees (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.2436), and the 1966 United Artists release Frankie and Johnny, directed by Frederick De Cordova and starring Elvis Presley and Donna Douglas (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.1683).