18 August 2009

King Creole

King Creole One of Elvis’ Finest
By Kristin Battestella

I’m biased I’ll admit it. King Creole is my favorite Elvis picture. Yes, the story of a New Orleans bad boy turned singer is full of excuses for The King of Rock and Roll to sing. Nevertheless, the teen angst, all around acting talent, and yes some dang fine tunes keep this 1958 classic, well, classic.

Danny Fisher (Presley) has flunked out of school. He’s got a chip on his shoulder, and working before and after classes didn’t help. After his wife’s death, Danny’s Father (Dean Jagger) lost his pharmacy and sunk into cowardly despair. Refusing to crawl like his Old Man, Danny sings at the King Creole under the tutelage of owner Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart, Citizen Kane, Deadline USA). The Creole is the only club in town not owned by Maxi Fields (Walter Matthau); and Danny feels the pinch from Maxi, his alcoholic girl Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), a thug named Shark (Vic Morrow, Roots, Combat!), and his true love interest Nellie (Dolores Har). Will he rise above the beat down world of New Orleans?

Writers Herbet Baker (The Flip Wilson Show, The Girl Can’t Help It) and Michael Gazzo (better known as Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather, Part II) shake up Harold Robbins’ 1952 novel A Stone for Danny Fisher by turning the literary Jewish boxer into a onscreen bayou singer. Changes for Elvis, yes, but the result is a complex and well rounded picture-unlike all those jingle and jiggle fluff pictures for which Presley later became so infamous. Give Elvis some worth to say and put fine people around him and look what happens! There’s no sand and surf in sight here, but there’s plenty of New Orleans and its flavor in King Creole. From all the talk of Bourbon street, the jazz, the crawfish, lyrics about the bayou-perhaps it’s stereotypical, but it’s a great mood. Sure, he was from Mississippi, but it’s also a nice touch to have a genuine Southern boy as our lead.

Well then, let’s talk about the man and the music, shall we? It is after all, what draws most people to watch King Creole. Not only does the King look good and sing great hits, but he can also act. The unsettled working class home, troubles with his struggling father, and the inability to get the girl and do what he wants to do give Elvis plenty to get emotional about. He’s believable as a humble kid who just happens to sing pretty darn good. Maybe there are similar touches in Presley’s Jailhouse Rock the year before, but there’s less fun and more angst here for Elvis to milk. I’m not a swooning fan or one of those who doesn’t believe Elvis is dead, but one cannot doubt that he made some great films after viewing King Creole. And maybe, just maybe, Presley’s films were successful because he did have some acting skill. Okay, certainly hits like ‘Hard Headed Woman’, ‘Trouble’ and the titular track have something to do with Elvis’ charm here. We wouldn’t want our boy with the voice to make it if we didn’t like his music. The softer songs like ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ and ‘As Long As I Have You’ will make the ladies swoon, but my favorite has to be ‘Crawfish’. Its eponymous word is just so dang catchy!

I’ve seen King Creole probably a dozen times, and until recently, I didn’t realize that Carolyn Jones-Morticia Addams on the original Addams Family- plays used and abused dame Ronnie. For shame on my classic film buff laurels, yes, but it’s also a great outing from Jones. Her hair is short, her look is sexy-she would be a real classy lady if it weren’t for Walter Matthau’s Maxie. Loved by modern audiences for his delightful Grumpy Old Men pictures and The Odd Couple pairings with Jack Lemmon; the late Matthau is young, lean, mean-and he’s lynching off Danny’s chance to make it big. We’re so used to seeing him in humorous parts, but Matthau has the stature and ruthlessness here to keep Elvis on his toes. Rounding out the cast with solid performances are Jan Shepard (The Virginian) as sister Mimi, good girl love interest Nellie (Dolores Hart, Loving You), and a wonderfully broken and redeemed Dean Jagger (an Oscar winner for Twelve O’Clock High) as Mr. Fisher. Everyone seems so cookie cutter on the surface; but as our tale unravels, we see how murky and troublesome life is for all involved.

My nieces are Elvis fans and don’t mind black and white films, but ye olde silver screen might turn some off today. It’s a shame that some would refuse to watch so many wonderful pictures due to the absence of color, but it’s a sad fact. We’d like to have some fantastic, early Technicolor shows from Elvis, sure, but the gray and dark cinematography helps the moody club scenery. The lack of flair visually shows the fine line between the good life and the dark New Orleans underworld. Without big colorful, outlandish music productions, King Creole has to stand on all its other filmmaking merits.

King CreoleDespite these acting and musical wonders, King Creole’s end is a little depressing. After plenty of fine music, Oscar winning director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas, We’re No Angels, The Adventures of Robin Hood, okay I’ll stop!) let’s things get really, rough, serious, and heavy in the latter third of the picture. It’s good for drama, certainly, but some may prefer all those contrived, easy Elvis films to come instead of the bleak picture presented in King Creole. I don’t care; I’ll take this one over G.I. Blues, Kissing Cousins, or Blue Hawaii any day. Even Viva Las Vegas has all the romantic comedy pomp and circumstance of Elvis’ paring with Ann Margaret-and the feathers it may have ruffled off screen. There’s nothing wrong with King Creole’s fifties melodrama, and it deserves to be ranked among Elvis’ better, more complete pictures like Jailhouse Rock and Flaming Star. With such classic early pictures, it’s a wonder why Elvis’ entourage turned him from gritty acting towards all that fluff.

Presley fans certainly know and love King Creole, as should classic buffs and any others fiendish for fine film. Modern audiences looking for serious, intelligent drama blending music and a fine ensemble can take an affordable chance on several DVD editions or Elvis sets. The disc covers push the guitar and the pretty girls, but there’s everything a viewer needs here. After all, how can you not love the King…Creole?

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