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A Rediscovered Classic: Elvis Presley's King Creole

By Gerald Peary

Gerald Peary 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 negativity.

"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?"

"Yes, yes."

"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 broads.

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.

King Creole