King In The Shadows: Elvis Presley's "King Creole"

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, April 5, 2016 01:16pm | Post a Comment

King Creole, Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones

-- Brett Stillo

Hollywood was starting to show its age in 1958. The Old Guard, who’d turned the town into an assembly King Creoleline of fantasy and illusion in the '30s and '40s, were slowing down. Staring at them right in their faces, was the future: teenagers, Rock n' Roll, and the financial reality of the Saturday night double feature at the Drive-In.

King Creole, which was released in July of that year, straddles the line, one foot planted in old school Hollywood genre storytelling of Film Noir, the other sliding towards the juvenile market of the Rock n' Roll film. The film’s storyline is firmly planted in the former: a guy with a troubled past is just looking to get a break, but fate pulls him into a raw deal that sets him up to take a big fall. However, this particular fall guy is a sneering, hip-shaking teenager, swinging to a rockin’ beat in double-four time. And oh yes, the actor playing said fall guy happens to be one Elvis Aaron Presley.

Presley was a singer who dreamed of being an actor. He idolized Brando and Dean, and King Creole was his chance to show his dramatic potential on the screen. In King Creole, Presley plays Danny Fisher, a streetwise kid living in the French Quarter of New Orleans, trying to support his down-and-out family by working in a tough joint run by notorious gangster, Maxie Fields (played with brutish charm by a seething Walter Matthau).

In his early films, Presley was the tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks. When a couple of oafs start King Creolemanhandling Maxie’s girl (pre-Addams Family Carolyn Jones, sporting perfect bangs), Presley swings a pair of broken beer bottles at them and says “I’m not a hoodlum. I’m a hustler.” Danny Fisher may be a teenager but Presley (who looks well into his 20s here) plays him as a classic Hollywood wise guy (“What do I know? I’m the king…of Yugoslavia!”). He’s got a swagger and confidence that takes its cue from the likes of a young John Garfield, or Kirk Douglas. At times, Presley seems to be mimicking his screen heroes, but it’s a earnest, enthusiastic performance.

Inevitably, several convenient excuses for Danny Fisher to sing pop up in the plot. They come off as rather cornball moments today, but musical interludes in Hollywood crime melodramas of the '40s and '50s were fairly routine, and Presley’s most memorable songs in King Creole have an edge to them. “Crawdaddy,” “Trouble,” and the title tune are not your typical be-boppers of the era. They’re mean, bluesy tunes that help construct the moody atmosphere of this film.

King Creole was produced by the great Hal B. Wallis, a Hollywood veteran who knew how to tell a hard-King Creolehitting crime melodrama. Michael Curtiz helmed the action with a firm and steady hand. Along with veteran cinematographer Russell Harlan (Red River, Gun Crazy, and To Kill A Mockingbird stand out among his many credits) Cruz gives us a stark New Orleans in thick layers of black and white. The French Quarter is portrayed a classic Film Noir neighborhood, an ancient landscape of cold grey teaming with vice (Elvis lives across the street from a cat house called “Mama Lyon’s”). 1958 looks like it may as well be 1885. This is no quickie juvenile delinquent (J.D.) flick. King Creole comes off as a polished Hollywood crime melodrama.

It’s in the film’s third act that King Creole fully embraces the shadows of Noir. Presley, wounded after a King Creoleknife fight with Vic Morrow, staggers through the darkness of Bourbon Street alone, bleeding, and running for his life. We are now 180 degrees away from Viva Las Vegas. The action culminates with a violent confrontation between Presley, Matthau, and Jones at a desolate shack on the banks of the Mississippi, where Jones, with classic femme fatale cool, delivers her last line, “It was a lovely day for a little while.”

Elvis Presley never had quite the fire or intensity in his later roles as he had here. It was pretty much lightweight musicals geared for fans of the King from that point on. In a strange way, Presley’s film career was the opposite of Dick Powell: he started out with a desire to be taken seriously, but ended up stuck in musicals. Yet it is this film that presents us with the screen persona of Elvis Presley as he wanted to be, not the one he ultimately became. King Creole may never gain recognition as “classic Film Noir,” but it’s also far from being another J.D. Rock n' Roll film of the era. It is a rock-solid feature film from a time when that assembly line of prefabricated dreams may have been showing its age, but it was still flowing at full speed.

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Film (199), Michael Curtiz (4), New Orleans (56), Carolyn Jones (1), Elvis Presley (26), Elvis (5), Brett Stillo (12)