Michael Curtiz, 1958
Adapted from Harold Robbins’s novel A Stone for Danny Fisher, King Creole is probably Elvis Presley's best picture of all time: a rock-solid B crime drama sugared with Elvis musical numbers. It’s got a sassy script by Herbert Baker and Michael Vincent Gazzo (and, uncredited, playwright Clifford Odets), effective New Orleans locales, and Presley smashingly cast as the tormented juvenile, Danny, a kid growing up fast (too fast?) in the French Quarter.
Elvis actually made decent movies?
In his later Hollywood years, he was spoiled, tanned, porky, oily, his beach pictures--girls! girls! girls!--lazy gigolo romps in the sand. It’s a mistake to lump these with early Elvis flicks. Presley’s directors in the ‘50s praised the young performer, the evanescent voice of “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” as unfailingly polite and, on the set, very hard working. Among his fans was King Creole’s veteran helmer, Michael Curtiz, whose long career at Warner Brothers included such classics as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945). Curtiz, seventy, was at home at Paramount Pictures enlivening King Creole’s Bourbon Street-nightclub milieu: Here was the man who’d animated Rick's Place when he directed Casablanca (1942).
Elvis’s three pre-King Creole movies showed the rocker-turned-thespian experimenting, trying on and discarding disparate filmic personas. He was a callow, mercurial cub in the post-Civil War Love Me Tender (1956), wrongly married to his older brother’s exgirlfriend, 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 exconvict who, hardened in prison, became a cynical singer for the monetary awards and the brassy broads.
By the time of King Creole, Presley had made enough movies to getcomfortable on screen, yet he wasn’t past an appealing rawness: that non-Hollywood Southern-boy regionalism, the blue-collar Tupelo, Mississippi, slur and drawl. With Curtiz’s guidance, he stretched beyond the functional two-dimensional characterizations of his first films. If anything, Elvis’s Danny Fisher might have too many facets, a wildly contradictory personality.
He’s divided between loathing his weak-willed father (Dean Jagger) and wanting his dad’s respect. He’s caught between a desire to succeed by following the rules and hard-to-control impulses toward criminal behavior and self-destructive sexual passion. Schizoid in romance, Danny scrambles between the virginal girl (Dolores Hart), who is surprisingly agreeable to degrading herself to please him, and the experienced coquette (Carolyn Jones), who discovers a hidden heart when they rub bodies.
Danny’s nemesis, a degenerate street punk, is 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 was obviously Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starting with Elvis’s moody, wounded, James Dean-influenced performance. Surely the movie Danny is based, uncredited, on Rebel’s Jim Stark, 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, parallels Jim’s ambivalent relationship to his henpecked dad, who wears an apron doing housework and makes lists of good and bad points to advise his son. Both films subscribe to a seminal 1950s belief about “manhood”: Ninny patriarchs are disastrous role models for their male progeny, causing good boys to stumble blindly into trouble.
Both King Creole and Rebel Without a Cause are hopeful in the first act (though there’s a nervous feeling in the air), with the protagonists off for high school. In both works, the day goes awry with adolescent violence. The good intentions of Jim and Danny are trampled on and defeated, almost with a Fritz Langian inevitability. “Everything’s been fixed,” Danny says, fatalistically, “like a crooked fight.”
About King Creole’s song-and-dance numbers: Curtiz conceived the film to operate as a credible drama, so Elvis can’t break into tunes whenever, in the way of many fanciful musicals. It’s only the first number, in which Danny leans out of his French Quarter balcony and sings “Crawfish!” back and forth with an African-American woman in the street below, that realism is, quite delightfully, broken. After that, Elvis’s singing must be justified by character motivation: i.e., someone orders Danny to do a song, Danny performs on stage 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,” et cetera, are not even close in quality to 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 an absurdity in King Creole, it's the Jordanaires, Presley’s guitar-based backup 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--in the Willie Dixon vein--“I'm evil, don’t you mess with me!”
Why was King Creole that rare Elvis picture to fail at the box office? I’d venture that it was deeper, and a lot darker, than what the casual Elvis fan wanted. And it was far more complex in generic structure, going from a serious dramatic musical, already an odd form, into, at one key point, pure 1940s drive-by-night film noir. That’s when Danny and the bad-good chick Ronnie (Jones, with a Lee Krasner haircut) go on the run from the mob. There's an astonishing prototype “noir” shot--because you simply don’t expect to see Elvis Presley in the middle of it--with Ronnie too long at the car wheel and an exhausted, troubled Danny asleep in the shotgun seat. 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 Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937).
There’s a sad end here for the heart-of-gold slut, Ronnie, and a kind of benign conclusion for Elvis, who had suffered major fan complaints because his character was killed in Love Me Tender.
But Elvis goes Hollywood-happy-ending only a bit in King Creole: His final love song, “As Long As I Have You,” can be regarded skeptically, ironically, since he’s just told nice girl Nellie (ever-faithful Hart) to back off. To chill. His nightclub crooning is to nobody: “You’re not my only love, but my last.” It’s like when loner heartbreaker Marlene Dietrich concluded The Blue Angel (1930) by singing that she’s “Falling In Love Again.”
Sure, Marlene. Sure, Elvis the Pelvis.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Film Journal.
From The B List edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson . Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.