The secret history of King Creole by Paul Simpson
'There was absolutely no point in pushing him', producer Hal Wallis said once, reflecting on Elvis Presley's movie career.
The King's 14 years in Hollywood was reasonably lucrative for producers, studios, Presley and his manager Colonel Tom Parker, but many critics echoed Pauline Kael's dismissive view that: 'Elvis made 31 movies which ranged from mediocre to putrid and just about in that order'.
As Wallis had produced nine of those movies, he was keen any putridness should not besmirch his reputation as one of Hollywood's great creators of movies and stars. The title of his autobiography, Starmaker, succinctly sums up the producer's self-image.
The simplest way to deflect criticism was to suggest - as Wallis and his loyal scriptwriter Allan Weiss did - that he had made the best use of Elvis' acting skills and that, given his star's fame, he had little choice but to build movies around the singer, rather than the actor. Weiss vehemently insisted that Presley was most effective as a 'singing personality'.
Was Elvis too famous for his own good as an actor?
To be fair to Wallis, as German film historian Björn Eckerl has noted, Elvis' personality, iconic status and image posed a challenge for producers. Even a sci-fi story, Eckerl suggested, would become an Elvis movie the instant the star appeared on screen.
Eckerl is right. It was almost impossible for Elvis, the actor, to transcend his own fame as a singer. Yet if Presley was destined to play himself, he could have played a more intriguing self than the cartoon character he so often had to depict.
He could also - as Robert Redford has capably done over the decades - have played himself in such a way as to suggest that the personality the public thought they knew contained hidden, intriguing complexities and facets. Indeed, Presley did just that, usually to good effect, in The Trouble With Girls, Loving You, Follow That Dream, Jailhouse Rock, Flaming Star and, best of all, King Creole.
Wallis's big gamble
King Creole was produced, irony of ironies, by Wallis. In 1956, the experienced, versatile producer had been overwhelmed by Presley's screen test, saying, 'the camera caressed him', as it had the young Errol Flynn. Yet, unlike his partner Joseph Hazen, Wallis did not believe his new discovery could become a serious dramatic actor.
After seeing Elvis' performance in 'Loving You', the producer had second thoughts. Despite his subsequent self-justification, he seemed to feel there was some sense in pushing Elvis. In his autobiography, Wallis says he decided to cast Elvis in 'King Creole', based on Harold Robbins' gutsy novel 'A Stone For Danny Fisher', and 'give him the best director in the business, my dear and good friend Michael Curtiz'.
The producer had wanted to make the film since 1955 - Elvis' idol James Dean had been tipped to play Danny Fisher - and the fact that he cast Presley shows how much faith he had quickly come to place in his young star.
Wallis didn't stop there. He cast such talented actors as Brian Hutton, Dean Jagger, Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Liliane Montevecchi, Vic Morrow and Paul Stewart. John Rich, who directed two Elvis movies for Wallis, used to liken acting to tennis - if you had a gifted opponent on the other side of the net you had to raise your game. In such company, with Curtiz driving him, Presley had to be at his best.
Elvis and Danny Fisher had much in common and the star's dedication impressed his director who said: 'Just like in his music, he really got involved in his acting. You'd look in his eyes, and boy, they were really going'. As Jan Shepard, (Danny's sister Mimi), observed, 'There was great honesty in his acting - he just became the young boy'.
Wallis, Curtiz and Hazen took immense pains honing the script, likening the central clash between the father (Jagger) and son (Elvis) to the dysfunctional relationship between Big Daddy and Brick in Tennessee Williams' 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof'.
The story that unfolds is far from formulaic, featuring dramatic twists, wonderful innuendo (especially between Presley and Jones, unforgettable as Ronnie, the fallen woman with whom he has a doomed romance) and an unusually inconclusive denouement. As Elvis and his innocent love Nelly (Dolores Hart) are not quite reconciled, the ambiguity is encapsulated in his final ballad As Long As I Have You - while ostensibly crooning to Nelly, he honors the tragic Ronnie, who taught him the song.
Wallis rejected some of Paul Nathan's attempts to water the story down, ignoring a memo in which his associate complained: 'The business of Danny using two broken bottles in one scene is unacceptable'. Apart from the broken bottles, King Creole also features invitations to have sex in seedy hotels, a knife fight, and the troubled teenage antihero accidentally helping to rob his father.
Michael Curtiz, Hal Wallis and Elvis Presley on the set of King Creole.
'Elvis Presley can act!'
Danny Fisher is still, to use Weiss's term, as 'a singing personality' but King Creole is in a completely different league to such weaker exercises in that microgenre as Paradise, Hawaiian Style which often feels more like Purgatory, Hawaiian Style.
The quality of the soundtrack helped - King Creole, Trouble, Hard Headed Woman, Crawfish, New Orleans are among his greatest movie songs - but what makes 'King Creole' so satisfying is that, unlike so many Presley pictures he opportunity, gives the most compelling, credible and charismatic performance on celluloid.
Matthau, cast as gangster boss Maxie Fields, famously said of Elvis: 'He was intelligent enough to know what a character was and how to play a character simply by being himself through the means of the story'. Watching 'King Creole', you can see why Curtiz believed 'Elvy' was going to become a 'wonderful actor'. Sadly, it wasn't to be.
Danny Fisher's coming-of-age is the heart of a dark, complex, genre-fusing classic that goes from, as Gerald Peary noted in his enthusiastic appraisal, 'a serious, dramatic musical, already an odd form, into pure 1940s, drive-by-night film noir' - and works brilliantly as a teen movie: 'Rebel Without A Cause' with rock and roll.
At the movie's centre, Peary noted, Elvis plays a 'full-fledged contradictory human being, divided between loathing his weak-willed dad and wanting his father's respect, and caught between a desire to succeed the plodding, normal way and an impulse to self-destruct through crime and unchecked passion'. One scene economically illustrates the contradictory hero: after he's helped Vic Morrow's hoodlums rob a store, his innate decency makes him insist that the gang's disabled accomplice gets a fair share of the loot.
As Wallis's biographer Bernard F. Dick suggests, Curtiz recognized the anger Elvis concealed behind his polite façade. The director didn't know why his star was angry - Dick believes Presley was vexed by his growing awareness that 'he was becoming more of a commodity than a person, a transformation Elvis felt powerless to reverse' - but that emotion, the key to Danny's character, fuelled a performance that prompted New York Times critic Howard Thompson to say: 'Well cut my legs off and call me Shorty, Elvis Presley can act'. Wallis was just as impressed, noting in his autobiography: 'Elvis was excellent in a very demanding role'.
Elvis doesn't quite transcend his image in 'King Creole', but he renders it magnificently irrelevant. The painstaking attention to script and cast, the demanding role and Curtiz's old school Hollywood charisma galvanized Presley. After he performed Trouble on set, Tony Russo (who played Chico the bartender) told his wife: 'My God, I just witnessed one of the greatest performances I've ever seen'.
The bottom Wallis had taken a risk. Although he later insisted there would have been no point in building a dramatic picture around Elvis, he did precisely that with 'King Creole'. Presumably, part of the rationale in hiring such a great director and sumptuous cast was to see if the movie could broaden Elvis' appeal.
The bottom line
Artistically, Wallis's gamble paid off. No other Elvis movie has been so consistently acclaimed. Even Variety snootily conceded it showed Presley as a 'better than fair actor'. (That kind of condescension from the Hollywood establishment probably explains why, remarkably, none of the songs in 'King Creole' were even nominated for an Oscar.)
Yet commercially, the movie flopped: gracing Variety's box office charts for four weeks, peaking at number 5. Box-office figures are not always authoritative or directly comparable, but CogersonMovieScore suggests it made just $2.6m, compared to $8.6m for 'Jailhouse Rock'.
As an experienced, meticulous and discerning reader of the box-office runes, Wallis got the message. The disappointing takings didn't diminish his affection for the picture - he later said: 'I don't have all the figures but I believe one of the least successful of Elvis' films was 'King Creole', but that was my favorite' - but he never pushed the envelope with the King again.
'King Creole' is not just Elvis' best movie - it is also the most important. The film's comparative commercial failure would, as I explore in my next article, haunt Presley's movie career.
Paul Simpson is the author of Elvis Films FAQ Book (Applause).
Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD + 16 page booklet.
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