“He (Elvis Presley) sang so good they let him do movies and he couldn’t act. He just sang all his dialog.” – Eddie Murphy
It doesn’t matter how big an Elvis Presley fan you are (and I’m a big one!), the fact remains that of the two dozen feature films that The King stared in, almost all of them were bad. Really bad. The plots were inane and interchangeable, the romantic subplots routine and the jokes were almost all stupid. The only redeeming quality were usually the musical numbers but even they became mediocre, especially in the mid-sixties when Presley was usurped by The Beatles and his records weren’t selling like they used to (this was before his triumphant 1968 TV special, after which he quit making movies and concentrated on producing great records and knocking ’em dead in Vegas).
A few films were pretty good. Jailhouse Rock holds up thanks to its musical numbers. It was produced at MGM, the home of great movie musicals. Arthur Freed, Metro’s legendary musical producer wasn’t responsible for Jailhouse Rock but there was clearly some cross-pollination between production units that gave the film a certain flair. Viva Las Vegas was also filmed at MGM and it too has good musical numbers. Elvis benefited from having a veteran director – George Sidney – behind the camera and a dynamic co-star – Ann-Margaret – in front. Yet even these films were little more than an excuse for Elvis to rock out. Presley basically just played himself, or more accurately his public persona.
Yet buried in his filmography is one film where he was called upon to act. One film that was actually about more than an excuse for him to shake his pelvis and drive girls wild. That film is King Creole and it’s the one picture that shows that even if he wasn’t an out-and-out thespian, Elvis could certainly give a strong, naturalistic performance in a serious drama.
King Creole was brought to the screen by Hal B. Wallis, the legendary film producer. It was based on the novel A Stone For Danny Fisher which dealt with a young Jewish boxer growing up in Brooklyn during the depression. Wallis bought the film rights in 1953, long before anyone knew who Elvis was. Wallis envisioned the film as a vehicle for either Ben Gazzara, who had recently electrified Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or rising star James Dean. It’s unclear whether Gazzara was ever formally offered the role. James Dean died in a car crash before he could even consider making the film. In the interim, a stage version of Danny Fisher was written and presented Off-Broadway. According to legend the producers of the stage version were hoping to drum up business by recruiting Elvis to take over the title role. This was an unlikely scenario to say the least, what with Elvis’ already busy schedule and the low-profile/low-salary benefits of appearing Off-Broadway at the time. But casting the King in a movie version was a very distinct possibility.
Thus far Elvis had made three movies – Love Me Tender, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock. A little known fact about Elvis is that his hair was actually dark brown, though it registered as black when he was photographed in black and white. Presley greatly admired Marlon Brando so when he was cast in Loving You, his first color film, he dyed his hair jet black. It would remain so for the rest of his life.
Of course, casting Elvis meant that the film had to be refit for the King. One rather obvious decision was to change the character of Danny Fisher from a boxer to a singer. Having Presley play a Jewish Brooklynite would have been too much of a stretch, so screenwriters Herbert Baker and Michael V. Gazzo decided to move the stories locale to New Orleans, located right next to Elvis’ native Mississippi and south of his adopted home of Memphis, Tennessee. Best of all, Wallis hired one of the great Hollywood studio directors of all time to bring it all together.
The Hungarian born Michael Curtiz may not have been a hero of the Cashiers du cinema sect who championed the auteur theory. He was a studio director who cranked out more than one-hundred movies during his career in Hollywood. Yet his body of work speaks for itself. He had his share of potboilers, of course, but he also directed such bona-fide classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce and many others. A visual master who honed his skills during the silent era, he knew how to compose beautiful images. While almost every other film Elvis made had a slick, Hollywood look, King Creole was shot in black and white, adhering to the film noir aesthetic that arguably reached its peak by 1958. While most of the film would be shot on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, the crew was allotted a few weeks to shoot on location down in the Big Easy.
The film opens on a hot, humid morning in the infamous Latin Quarter. The only people walking the streets at this hour are some African-American peddlers selling Gumbo and Crawfish, singing about their merchandise. Danny Fisher (Presley) soon joins in from the balcony of his walk-up apartment. His older sister Mimi (Jan Shepard) is preparing breakfast. We learn that she has pretty much taken over the role of their late mother, doing the housework while also holding down a job. Their father (Dean Jagger) never seems to have recovered from his wife’s death three years ago. He lost the pharmacy he once owned and has been unable to find steady employment since. He also lost the house they once lived in. Now they’re crammed into a tiny apartment in the French Quarter, a place where there is no shortage of temptation and danger for a teenage boy.
This is Danny’s last day of high school. He was supposed to graduate a year ago but was held back. Before school he goes to work at a nightclub where he sweeps up after the crowds have gone home. It’s one of many owned by Maxie Fields, a local gangster.
Danny has never met Maxie, who’s long gone by the time Danny arrives. He does meet Ronnie (Carolyn Jones, later to achieve fame as Morticia on The Addams Family), Maxie’s Moll. She’s clearly had a few too many and one of the patrons is harassing her. Danny intervenes, though he’d be wise not to.
He does indeed have a hot temper. At school he punches out a kid who makes fun of him. Not smart. Thanks to that he won’t graduate.
It isn’t too long before Danny gets mixed up with a local hood named Shark (Vic Marrow, who would tragically die when a helicopter stunt went awry on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie) who also sometimes works for Maxie. Knowing that Danny can sing, he devises a scam where they all go to a Five-and-Dime store. Danny plays the guitar and serenades the customers while Shark and his friends rip off some of the merchandise (quite a bit, actually. They even nab a bicycle). A girl working the soda fountain named Nellie (Dolores Hart) sees the boys lifting the merchandise and knows that Danny’s in cahoots with them. Still she doesn’t report him. She’s actually attracted to him. While it’s certainly true that many girls are attracted to the bad boys, Nellie just doesn’t seem like the type. Her character, I’m afraid, is a flaw in the film. Later Danny tries to take her to a hotel room. Nellie rejects his offer but she doesn’t seem repulsed, which is how I think she should feel. Nor do I think Danny is the kind of kid who would do this to a nice girl. All through the film we can see that he has a strong moral center. When Shark tries to stiff Dummy (Jack Grinnage), a mute member of his gang out of his cut of the score, Danny takes on the role of big brother, making sure Dummy gets his share.
Back at the nightclub where Danny busses tables at night, he finally meets Maxie Fields, played by Walter Matthau. That’s right, Walter Matthau as a gangster. If he sounds like an unusual choice then, well, he is. The man who created the role of Oscar Madison on stage and screen here plays a dapper nightclub owner who frankly looks more like a car salesman then a dangerous gangster, although his reputation does precede him. He handles his business more like a Wall Street corporate raider then a Louisiana mobster, but when he needs to stand tough he can.
He learns of Danny’s singing prowess and insists that he sing a set with the band. He ends up singing “Trouble”, a song with the classic three-chord blues riff. He’s a hit, but he doesn’t want to work for Maxie. He does however accept an offer from Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), whose King Creole is the one nightclub not controlled by Maxie. “Go ahead,” says Maxie. Sooner or later everything has his fingerprints on them.
Danny is naturally a hit at the King Creole. The music that he ends up singing is a lot more rockabilly than jazz, but hey, people go to an Elvis movie to hear him sing, and he sings great! One of the songs on the soundtrack, “A Hard Headed Woman”, would go to number one.
Danny’s hope is that he’ll be able to make enough money to buy back his old house. Unfortunately his Dad doesn’t want Danny to sing. He wants him to go to night school and get his diploma. Dad does manage to get a new job, but he’s treated horribly by his new boss and Danny can’t stand to watch his Dad “crawl”. In order to get back at the boss, Danny agrees to help Shark and the boys jump him as he brings the night deposit to the bank.
As you may expect, the plan goes awry. They end up jumping Mr. Fisher instead. What’s worse, they clobber him on the head with a blackjack, causing Mr. Fisher severe brain damage. When Danny and Nellie get to the hospital, the prognosis isn’t good. It will take a specialist to operate on Dad’s cranium and the operation will cost at least two thousand dollars, far more than any of them can afford.
At that moment the before mentioned specialist shows up. He was sent by Maxie Fields himself, who agreed to foot the bill for Mr. Fishers operation. Of course, this is just a ploy to get Danny to come play at his club. He has no choice but to let the surgeon perform the operation. Now he’s indebted to the enemy.
Danny Fisher is certainly a demanding role. He’s in every scene and there are plenty of poignant scenes, especially between Danny and Ronnie, the fallen woman who he tries to save from Field’s talons. Curtiz was supposedly apprehensive about working with Elvis, doubting his acting abilities and fearing that he’d be dealing with a prima donna. To his great surprise he met a young man who was serious about learning the craft of acting and who took direction willingly. He even agreed to shave off his trademark side burns for the movie.
Just before the cameras were ready to roll on King Creole Elvis received his draft notice. Paramount was able to convince Uncle Sam to give Presley a two month extension before he had to report for duty. When King Creole was released critics largely praised if not outright raved about Presley’s performance. The film itself was seen as a solid drama. And of course there was the all-important soundtrack album, which reached number two on the Billboard chart.
Unfortunately Presley wasn’t around to soak in the accolades. He was overseas in West Germany by then. When he returned to the states he appeared on a “Welcome Home Elvis” TV special hosted by Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board had made no secret about his dislike for Rock and Roll but he knew that having Presley on his show would guarantee huge ratings. Presley confessed that he greatly admired Sinatra as both a singer and an actor and the two of them reportedly got along well during the special. What a shame that Sinatra didn’t give Presley some advice about picking good film projects in-between recording and performing gigs. Whereas Sinatra put together a solid body of work before leaving the silver screen to concentrate solely on music, Presley allowed his infamous manager “Colonel” Tom Parker to line up an endless parade of mediocre film projects that would go on to Monopolize Presley’s energy for much of the sixties.
Looking at King Creole it’s hard not to wonder what might have been. It might be hyperbolic to claim that Presley could have been another Paul Newman or Warren Beatty, but it’s not exactly an impossibility either. Elvis was born to be a singer, of course, and there aren’t that many properties that can accommodate a strong dramatic performance and a series of musical numbers (one of the few non-musical films that Presley appeared in was Flaming Star, directed by Don Siegel. I have not yet seen the movie so I can’t comment on it). Lord knows that Presley’s career is a stellar one, even if it was cut tragically short. Still, as is true with many truly great artists we have to reconcile the fact that they were mortal and that we are only given a taste of what they were capable of. King Creole is, nonetheless, a very impressive taste.