Rediscovered Classic: Elvis Presley's King Creole
is a film critic for The Boston Phoenix, specializing in
his weekly column, "Film Culture," on foreign, independent, revival,
and documentary works. A member of the National Society of Film
Critics, he has eight film books, the latest of which is John
Ford: Interviews from the University Press of Mississippi.
Slobodan Sijan, filmmaker of the best Yugoslavian comedy of all
time, Who's Singing Over There? (1981), loves good pop
movies as much as he thrives on art-film esoterica. How he got
there has to do with Elvis. He's recalled to me a day, years ago
in Belgrade, when he walked out of Viva Las Vegas (1964),and
shook his head in annoyance. Presley as a racecar driver? This
was hardly Ingmar Bergman! He'd squandered his afternoon. He was
at the movies with a puzzled pal, who couldn't fathom Slobodan's
"You like musicals, don't you?" he asked Slobodan.
"Yes, of course"
"You like Ann-Margaret, don't you?"
"Yes, she's beautiful."
"You like the Las Vegas settings? You like car racing?"
"Surely you like Elvis Presley? His crooning? His
romancing? His screen presence?"
"Yes, yes, yes!"
"So why don't you like Viva Las Vegas?"
Slobodan had an epiphany, standing outside the theater:
he'd become an insufferable elitist, the worst kind of prude.
He'd been dishonest, lying to even himself: actually, he'd enjoyed
Viva Las Vegas. Singing, dancing, babes, Elvis. What's
not to like?
And if he liked Viva Las Vegas, then he probably
adores King Creole (1958), a lively adaptation of Harold
Robbins's novel, A Stone for Danny Fisher, which is probably
Presley's best film of all time. Though the New Orleans-set musical
isn't exactly Fellini or Antonioni, it's the kind of rock-solid,
engrossing Hollywood genre film which everyone who cares about
cinema needs to acknowledge. It doesn't take a philistine to appreciate
this arresting story packed with musical numbers, a sassy script
by Herbert Baker and Michael Vincent Gazzo (and, uncredited, Clifford
Odets), a well-seasoned studio acting ensemble, and the charismatic
Elvis the Pelvis appropriately cast as Danny, a kid with problems
growing up in the French Quarter. And for once, Elvis had a real
director. Most of Presley's movies were producer-driven, assigned
to by-the-number studio-lite helmers: keep the camera on the bankable
superstar and don't fret about the story or the look of the film.
Luckily, King Creole, a Paramount film, became the project
of talented veteran Michael Curtiz, whose long career, primarily
at Warner Brothers, included such classics as Captain Blood,
Mildred Pierce, and Angels With Dirty Faces. How
much was Curtiz, 70, at home creating the Bourbon Street-nightclub
milieu for King Creole? He was the man who animated Rick's
Place when he directed Casablanca.
Curtiz and Presley crossed paths at a fortuitous
moment for both of them. King Creole was probably Curtiz's
last hurrah as a major filmmaker, though he helmed six more films
prior to his death in 1961. And Presley? In his later career,
he was spoiled, tanned, porky, and all those Technicolor Girls!
Girls! Girls! beach pictures are a lazy, gigolo blur. It's a mistake
to equate them with early Elvis, whom all his directors praised,
Curtiz among them, as unfailingly polite and very hardworking.
Matched with Curtiz, he'd made just enough movies to feel comfortable
on screen, and yet he wasn't past his raw edge, his appealing
non-Hollywood regionalism, his blue-collar Mississippi drawl.
Three pre-King Creole films found Elvis experimenting,
trying on and discarding disparate personas. He was a callow,
mercurial cub in the post-Civil War Love Me Tender (1956),
wrongly married to his older brother's ex-girlfriend, too young
and egocentric to understand the complexities of the adults around
him. He was a sweet-tempered, ingenuous country lad in Loving
You (1957), bashful about the successes of a fledgling singing
career and happily in love with a simple country girl. In Jailhouse
Rock (1957), he was an ex-convict who, hardened in prison,
became a cynical singer for the monetary awards and the brassy
Could we call the characterizations above functionally
two-dimensional? It's Presley's Danny Fisher in King Creole
who is a full-fledged, contradictory human being, divided between
loathing his weak-willed dad (Dean Jagger) and wanting his father's
respect, caught between a desire to succeed the plodding, normal
way and an impulse to self-destruct through crime and unchecked
passion. Schizoid in romance, he's unable to choose between the
virginal girl (Dolores Hart) willing to degrade herself to please
him and the self-pitying slut (Carolyn Jones) who seems to discover
her heart when she rubs against him.
Danny's nemesis, a degenerate street punk, was played
by Vic Morrow, who brought to bear his iconic JD bad attitude
from Blackboard Jungle (1955). But the major filmic inspiration
for King Creole is obviously Rebel Without a Cause
(1955), starting with Elvis's moody, wounded performance. Surely,
the movie Danny is based on Jim Stark, the already deceased James
Dean's pained high-schooler. Danny's love/hate feelings for his
pushed-about father, who writes out notes for what he wants to
say to Danny, closely resembles Jim's ambivalent relationship
to his henpecked dad, who wears an apron doing housework and makes
lists of good and bad points to advise Jim. Here's a real 1950s
theme in operation: ninny patriarchs are behind good boys heading
blindly into trouble.
More King Creole and Rebel Without a Cause.
Both begin hopefully (though there's a nervous feeling in the
air) with the protagonists off for high school. In both films,
the day goes awry with youthful violence; the good intentions
of the two boys are trampled on, defeated, and almost with a Fritz
Langian inevitability. "Since then, everything's been fixed,"
Danny says, fatalistically, "like a crooked fight."
About King Creole's musical numbers: Curtiz
conceived the film as a credible drama, so Elvis can't break into
dance and song in the barely motivated way of many fanciful musicals.
It's only the first number, in which Danny leans out of his French
Quarter balcony and sings back and forth--"Crawfish"!-- with an
African-American woman in the street below, that, delightfully,
realism is broken. After that, Elvis sings only it's in character:
when someone orders Danny to do a song, or when Danny appears
on stage performing in a nightclub.
In truth, the Jerry Lieber-Mike Stoller score for
King Creole, the buoyant title cut the exception, isn't
their strongest material: "Crawfish," "You're the Cutest," "Danny
Is My Name," etc., are no match for their rowdy classic title
song for Jailhouse Rock or, also from that earlier movie,
"I Want to Be Free," and "Young and Beautiful." And if there's
any absurdity in King Creole, it's the Jordanaires, Presley's
backup guitar-based country band, standing on stage with unplayed
saxes and clarinets in their hands, feigning that they are Dixieland
musicians. Elvis's best number is neither rock nor New Orleans
jazz, but a traditional bragging-cocksman blues work--Willie Dixon,
perhaps?--"I'm evil, don't you mess with me!"
An interesting something to ponder: why is King
Creole, so fine, one of the few Elvis pictures to fail at
the box office? My guess is that it was deeper, and a lot darker,
than the casual Elvis fan wanted. And in making his film darker
and deeper, Curtiz also made the structure of the film far more
complex, mixing genres, going from a serious dramatic musical,
already an odd form, into pure 1940s drive-by-night film noir.
That's when Danny and the whorish Ronnie (a great performance
from Carolyn Jones, with a Lee Krasner haircut) go on the run
from the mob. There's an astonishing prototype "noir" shot --amazing
because you simply don't expect to see Elvis Presley in the middle
of it- - with Ronnie at the carwheel, an exhausted, troubled Danny
asleep near her. The lighting is low-key, and there's a harsh
spot on Ronnie's anxious face. Where have we seen it before? To
start, Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda, bouncing along the dark
highway in Lang's You Only Live Once (1937).
Of course, there's a death for the heart-of-gold
Ronnie and a kind of happy ending for Elvis, who had suffered
major fan complaints when his character was killed in Love
Me Tender. But I'm glad to say Elvis only compromised a bit:
his final nightclub song, "As Long As I Have You" can only be
taken skeptically, since he's just told nice girl Nellie (still-faithful
Dolores Hart) to back off. To chill. His loner crooning to nobody,
"You're not my only love, but my last," is as potent an ironic
finale as when heartbreaker Dietrich concludes The Blue Angel
claiming she's "Falling In Love Again."
Sure, Marlene. Sure, Elvis the Pelvis.