Grade: B-King Creole (1958)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Stars: Elvis Presley, Walter Mathau, Carolyn Jones

Release Company: Paramount

MPAA Rating: NR

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Michael Curtiz: King Creole


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Anyone expecting art in an Elvis Presley vehicle is kidding himself, even when the film attempts a film noir flavor and is directed by Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame). Any Elvis Presley film revolves around the King, and gerrymanders its plot to showcase Elvis singing rock n' roll tunes and tantalizing teen girls with fantasies of “making it” with him. Shades of Casablanca are reflected with the black and white photography, barroom settings, and dueling love interests, but the comparisons stop there; Elvis is no Humphrey Bogart in the acting department, but then again...Bogey couldn't boogie or sing a lick.

Intending to be serious, the real fun of King Creole rests with laughing at the implausible formula plot devices and enjoying the music. Begining on New Orleans' Royal Street in the French Quarter on a quiet morning, a trio of singing peddlers hawk their wares like the opening of Porgy and Bess. Of course the King will join that number before long, credible since he grew up with the blues and gospel sounds of the Delta region, bringing “black music” to crossover white audiences. Hardly profound, this opening song certainly doesn't thrust the plot forward, but it's great to hear Elvis join Kitty White in the Creole ditty:

Now take Mr. Crawfish in your hand
He's gonna look good in your frying pan
If you fry him crisp or you boil him right
He'll be sweeter than sugar when you take a bite
Elvis portrays Danny Fisher as a James Dean lookalike (white T-shirt and jeans and “hoodlum” with a heart persona) who's set to graduate from high school the following day (after being held back a year by an old biddy teacher). Although based on Harold Robbins' novel, A Stone for Danny Fisher, it's uncanny how closely Elvis' character resembles Dean's definitive James Stark. The look is obvious, but Danny Fisher also rebels against the mainstream, is isolated, and has huge problems with his weak father. The script just doesn't get beneath Danny's character like Rebel Without a Cause does with Stark—more important priorities like working in sufficient songs deflect any introspective possibilities. Like Dean, Elvis has presence and charisma, but he expresses it far better through singing than acting.

After all the opening references to Danny's failure to graduate the previous year, it's no surprise when Mrs. Pearson flunks him again on the last day for coming late to class after a fist fight. Even in the 1950's this scenario would be hard to swallow, but it provides a chuckle. So too does the sanitized Hollywood code of ethics make the film far less real than it should be: The first girl Elvis befriends is Ronnie (Carolyn Jones, most famous as Morticia in "The Addams Family" series), who is a New Orleans “working girl.” To suit 1950's standards they say she “works for the circus” and her boss (a young Walter Mathau as the sleazy Maxie Fields) is the “circus master.” Ronnie fulfills the standard role of the whore with a heart of gold and will play a pivotal role in the melodrama. You can cheer for her and hiss her boss throughout the 116-minute film.

The other girl to cheer is the down home, girl-next-door type, Nellie (Delores Hart), who first meets Danny at the five and dime store where she works. Danny has temporarily joined some local hoods to rob the place, and Danny's job is to distract the personnel—by crooning, of course. He falls for her too, and even his lame attempt at tricking her into a private hotel room on their first impromptu date doesn't dissuade her. No red-blooded girl in America would have turned the King down, so the film doesn't go down that path.

Realism isn't King Creole's forte, however. The way they manipulate the plot in order to get Elvis on stage becomes humorous in itself, and using his singing prowess as a vital part of a $95 store robbery isn't even the most far-fetched devise. His singing career gets an inadvertent start when the drunken Ronnie asks him to sing something to her, like his school song. She is touched by Elvis' singing, which leads to another scene with her “circus master,” Maxie Fields, the big boss behind the scenes for all that is evil in New Orleans. Fields wants to know how his “girlfriend” knows the young busboy, so she provides the lead-in by stating that she “heard him sing.” Naturally this sets up a dare—Danny is forced to rock, is overheard by the only Bourbon Street saloon owner not controlled by Fields, and soon Danny becomes the star of the King Creole saloon and the biggest attraction in the French Quarter. The stint at the King Creole makes it easy to work in musical numbers, and Elvis shines along with the excellent four-man backup group, The Jordanaires. Most of the songs are upbeat—“Trouble,” “Hard Headed Woman,” and the rocking title tune.

So the melodramatic conflict of good vs. evil is all set, and Elvis has his pick between the good local girl and the whore with the good heart. To choose either would break the hearts of thousands of teenage girls across the country, so the filmmakers work to make sure the ending satisfies. Consulting the formula, they include a the required soft ballad coda to satisfy any broken hearts pining away in the audience.

This would be Elvis' last movie for a couple of years. He had a military stint coming up, and he convinced the U.S. Army to grant him a 60-day extension to allow him to finish filming King Creole. Working with the same director who sixteen years before had directed Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, and Claude Rains was too great an opportunity to pass up, and Curtiz gets a very acceptable performance from the King. This one won't force out the hankies to dry up the tears because laughter is a more appropriate response to the clichéd script and dated feel. No classic, but Elvis' James Dean imitation is certainly more enjoyable to watch than another boorish Austin Powers sequel.

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