Home » ‘King Creole’— Starring Elvis Presley and Directed by Michael Curtiz

‘King Creole’— Starring Elvis Presley and Directed by Michael Curtiz

by Edgar Chaput
King Kreole 1958 Movie Elvis Presley

Friday Film Noir

Trying to make ends meet in New Orleans’ legendary French Quarter, high school student Danny Fisher (Elvis Presley) works as many hours as he can as a busboy at a nearby lounge owned by Maxie Felds (Walter Matthau), a feared individual capable of bending people’s will through sheer influence throughout the city’s underbelly. When Danny is told he won’t be graduating (again), he makes the decision to quit school for good, but that is only the first step in a wild, dangerous misadventure that awaits him, his down on his luck father (Dean Jagger), sweet, very innocent Nellie (Dolores Hart), who clearly has a thing for the protagonist, and Maxie’s mistress, Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), with whom Danny shares obvious sexual tension. Finding work as a singer at the King Creole, run by the benevolent Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), earns Danny a level of fame throughout the quarter, but the ire of Maxie, the man he used to work for.

The name Elvis Presley is synonymous with popular American music of the 20th century. Regardless if one loves his style, hates it, or is totally indifferent, there is no point in denying the impact he left on the music scene during his career, an impact still felt to this day. He was called ‘The King’ after all. What is not as familiar to the general public, least of all those born long after Presley’s passing, was his extensive career as a film actor. Now, there is an important caveat to that statement. The better part of his filmography is littered with mediocre, if not downright poor, romantic dramas that served little purpose other than to market the man himself. Rarely was genuine, emotionally complex storytelling accomplished with significant character arcs, unlike, for example, in several Frank Sinatra cinematic ventures (SuddenlyThe Manchurian CandidateFrom Here to Eternity).

Lauded director Michael Curtiz, one of the driving forces behind such gems as Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin, and Angels With Dirty Faces, was never going to direct a mediocre musical drama, Elvis Presley or not. Nay, King Creole, a noir from the latter stages of the movement’s classical period, features a handful of musical interludes, but each helps serve the plot in some capacity, a dark, oftentimes unforgiving plot at that. Given the star’s popularity, there was little chance of the film not featuring any songs whatsoever (and in fairness, Elvis was a solid signer and a terrific stage performer), yet when they are performed, it is always in logical service of a specific moment in the story. It might be because Maxie wants to confirm his mistress’ claim that Danny actually can sing, which would shield Danny and Ronnie from the mobster’s wrath, at least temporarily. It might for his first night at the King Creole where he impresses a large, receptive crowd, much to the delight of his new employer, Charlie LeGrand. An argument can be made that there are one or two numbers too many included, but overall they are sufficiently organic to the overarching tale.

No one will bat an eye when learning that said musical numbers are pulled off with vintage Presley aplomb. The element worthy of special mention is that director Curtiz gets a legitimately decent performance out of his leading man. While nothing earth-shattering, Presley can and does portray his Danny Fisher with an interesting balance of fiery youth and vulnerability. As a young man just entering adulthood, he sees himself as the family member that needs to take charge. His relationship with his father is rocky, less because of any long-standing gripes and more because the patriarch is, for lack of a better term, a softy. He can get pushed around quite easily and fails to stand up for himself on a regular basis at work. Danny has no desire to be like the spitting image of his father, therefore he engages in riskier acts with a level of brashness that would have some question whether he is his father’s son. Simultaneously, his complicated relationship with Ronnie and Nellie, two women who could not be more different, brings out his vulnerability. As far as his acting is concerned, King Creole is probably as good as it ever got with Elvis.

King Creole is Elvis Presley’s Manchurian Candidate

On the topic of acting, there is a slew of fantastic supporting players to help anchor the drama and testy romances. Carolyn Jones is utterly brilliant as Ronnie, the desperate mistress to a vile creature that both try to preserve a hair of superiority through association whilst crumbling underneath the pressure of living under the illusion of comfort. One could surmise that Jones is playing one of the earlier versions of the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ character. No, she isn’t quite a hooker, and her heart of gold takes some time to reveal itself, but the analogy is not so far fetched all the same. Maxie, her lover, could not be played with more sneer and verve than he is by the great Walter Matthau. Not so old at this time, but very, very grumpy when he wants to be, Matthau demonstrates with skin-crawling conviction his ability to switch on a dime. There are a couple of scenes when, even though he isn’t exactly the most threatening physical presence, one would never dare cross him. Dolores Hart, who incredibly enough when on to become a nun later in life, is the sweetest thing as Nellie, and Dean Jagger and Paul Stewart put in well-rounded performances.

Certainly what further emphasizes the argument that King Creole deserves its rightful place in film noir lore, apart from the delicious, inky photography courtesy of Russell Harlan, is the disastrous predicaments poor Danny both finds and digs himself into. King Creole is a perfect example of the classic trajectory of a protagonist who not only makes a couple of disappointing decisions that land him in hot water, but whose attempts to correct past mistakes only thickens the fog of danger. The film does not shy away from bringing great harm to Danny and those he cares about, with his father, in particular, being the victim of a terribly botched plan originally devised to actually help him. If one is to liken Presley to Sinatra once again, King Creole is, in some ways, Presley’s Manchurian Candidate. His character is ultimately decent yet very flawed, with said flaws doing him no favors in a story that taxes him emotionally and physically in ways that must have come across as shocking back in 1958. The film definitely earns points for aiming and successfully dabbling in very dark material at times.

It’s interesting that King Creole is rarely brought up when discussing either the films of director Michael Curtiz or those of its inimitable star. It is fair to argue that the picture does not break the mold of crime dramas, yet at the same time its production, script, and acting are quite accomplished by and large, with special emphasis going towards the overall look. It’s a beautiful film to admire and has a rich story to share as well. What’s more, it is a rare cinematic trip to New Orleans. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are so regularly the hosts of noir nightmares, that the southern city’s aesthetic and sonic pleasures make for a refreshing change of pace, much like in Otto Preminger’s Panic in the Streets. Those reticent about spending nearly two hours with Elvis Presley the actor need not worry. He’s fine in the lead role and the movie has several other quality ingredients to offer.

2 comments

Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello March 21, 2020 - 12:33 am

i!! I totally agree with you that “King Creole” has two songs which could have been put aside, namely “Young Dreams” and “As long as I have you”, the closer, which should have been replaced by “Danny”, which was cut. The movie had unexpected results when shown worldwide. It was banned in Mexico after a riot ensued at the upscale “Las Americas Cinema” in Mexico City, where the movie had its midnight premiere in 1959. The Government wanted Elvis to be less of an influence on Mexican youth, but as five hundred pro Elvis fans of both sexes fought it out against an equal number of anti Elvis boys and girls, inside the theatre, the Govt’s gambit of forcing the distributor to have the opening at midnight as well as give the movie an R rating, did not pay off, as a thousand people went to see it anyways. And since there is very little that can be done to calm 1,000 opposing teens at midnight., things got real dirty. Many were drunk. Hundreds landed in jail and many were hurt, some sexually assaulted, but the Government covered it all up. Nevertheless, the then one party system in Mexico dictated that he would now be banned in both record stores and from radio airplay., the latter a ban instituted in 1957 as a result of a lie published in Mexico’s top newspaper but instigated by a tycoon and enforced by the Government about his “preferences” for African American over Mexican women. It was a revenge for Elvis not being able to sing at the daughter of the tycoon’s 15th birthday party. He was doing Jaihouse Rock and kindly declined the offer but the tycoon had told everyone under the Mexican sun that Elvis would sing, as he had sent a blank check against an American bank account The check was returned, but the article was believed by even a lover of music, Carlos Santana’s dad, who told Carlos, his son, then 10, that Elvis was a racist,. His next two films, the first he appeared in after returning from the Army., namely “GI Blues” and “Flaming Star”, the latter directed by Eastwood favourite Don Siegel, were also banned in Mexico, where another riot erupted at the same cinema, which resulted in Presley now being banned from cinemas and declared persona non grata as well. This is why all but one of the 50 members of the Paramount crew involved in the making of “Fun in Acapulco” travelled to Mexico in December of 1962, Elvis, Persona Non Grata , had to do all his scenes at various Los Angeles locations in early 1963. That entails four bans. LOL. For other even more political reasons having to do with the plot of “Flaming Star” , this fantastic movie ended being banned not just in Mexico and Cuba, as well as behind the Iron Curtain, but in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda,. Elvis’ image did have the last laugh as a single screen shot, and I mean one single screen shot from the Siegel directed film was used by Andy Warhol in 1963 in, take this down, 49 DIFFERENT Elvis silkscreens, eight of which are known to have garnered US$345,000,000 for just two auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and in private sales in this, the 21st century alone. LOL. The rest are all in museums. The short end of the story? You just cant bring Elvis’ image down Incidentally, please note that the Mexican ban lasted until 1971, that the book telling about the 1959 riot was published in 1968 (“Rey Criollo”) and that the story of how it all started in 1957 was published in another book in 1991 (“Refried Elvis”). And finally, congrats, as yours was a truly wonderful review. The best I have ever read on “King Creole”. Warmest regards from Nicaragua

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Emiel Maier March 21, 2020 - 5:41 am

It is strange to see a photo of Jailhouse Rock (…the one where Elvis is seen between the legs of a striptease dancer…) in this aricle about the ‘King Creole’ movie. Why was this done???

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