Young Danny Fisher (Elvis Presley) in King Creole (1958) is a high school flunky a couple times over (“I’m not going back to school. Before you know it, I’ll be a freshman again”), working jobs as a busboy in seedy nightclubs to support his out-of-work dad and his older sister. They live in a rough neighborhood with a whorehouse across the way.
Through a fluke thrown in his face by local bigwig Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau), Danny gets a job singing at the King Creole nightclub run by a Mr. Legrand (played by the wonderful Paul Stewart, who so memorably made his film debut in Citizen Kane). Danny’s father doesn’t support his choice, he wants Danny to finish high school. Danny is dating a nice girl (Dorothy Hart, also his costar in Loving You) he met at the local five and dime (although on their first date, he rents a seedy hotel room and takes her there, shocking her. It’s a way to sully the nice girl, it’s a way to drag her down to his level, and he feels badly about it, and himself. He apologizes later: “I thought you knew the score …” Danny Fisher may be a teenager but he grew up fast). Through the course of the film he also gets involved in an intense and neurotic relationship with a local prostitute (in a great performance by Carolyn Jones).
King Creole, directed by Hollywood legend Michael Curtiz, is a dark and human drama, a land of grimy kitchen sinks, rain-wet dark alleys, broken dreams, and flashing neon on Bourbon Street. It’s filmed like a noir. The story is interspersed with musical numbers that show off Elvis Presley as the 22-year-old alien-from-outer-space that he was.
Although the King Creole nightclub features a more polite audience than the screaming mobs thrusting themselves up onto the stages where Presley performed in real life, Presley is set free to do his thing here, and he does, from the first time he climbs up onto the bar and sings “Trouble”. He’s often filmed in full body shot, so you can see his unplanned improvisational movements, and the film actually captures lightning in a bottle a little bit. Many of his other films didn’t even attempt it, or they took it (meaning him) for granted. Regardless of whether or not he was being taken for granted, Elvis still “showed up” as that persona in movie after movie (a feat he doesn’t get credit for, which is a huge error in critical analysis), but in King Creole the container was better. Elvis Presley was a genius, but he was even better when the container was custom-made. He was that kind of guy. Sui generis.
The songs in King Creole are good, too. Some excellent numbers by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songs that would become Elvis classics (like “Trouble”). This was just before the Colonel froze them out of access to Presley (one of the Colonel’s rare errors in judgment, an opinion I realize is not popular, but I don’t care. I’m with Howard Hawks in his assessment of that business partnership.). None of this “Old MacDonald” shit from the later 60s. King Creole has a great soundtrack.
King Creole was Presley’s fourth movie. He was 22 years old. He was drafted into the Army during the filming. He got a deferment so that he could finish the film, and joined basic training after they wrapped. His beloved mother died relatively suddenly in August, 1958. Elvis shipped out to Germany in September, in a state of total disorientation, grief, and panic (which you can hear in the few interviews he gave at that time.) On the boat over to Europe, he bunked with a guy named Charlie Hodge, who would become a lifelong friend.
Charlie Hodge said a haunting thing much later. In their room on the ship, Charlie had the top bunk, Elvis had the bottom. Charlie said, “I could feel Elvis grieving at night.” Charlie would tell Elvis jokes through the night, and Elvis said later that was the only way he got through it. He was on the cusp of all of that tumultuous change in King Creole.
There’s a vulnerability in his performance that is fresh and spontaneous, and by placing the “Elvis” persona in the middle of a dark and rough noir world, he shone that much brighter. Michael Curtiz positioned Elvis perfectly: it is both good story and supportive myth-making: giving the audience what they wanted when they came to see an Elvis movie, but twisting it, darkening it.
Elvis carries the film. He is supported by well-known and up-and-coming character actors who help ground him in the world of King Creole. But he is, without a doubt, the star. As Danny Fisher’s local fame starts to gain momentum, due to his performances at the King Creole nightclub, things start to get dangerous and he is caught in the crossfire between Maxie Fields and Mr. Legrand, not to mention the fact that he is falling for the prostitute (who is Maxie Fields’ property). Maxie Fields beats her, keeps her drunk so she’s docile and compliant, sells her out to his friends, and then sics her on Danny, ordering her to sleep with him so Maxie can get the lad under his thumb.
Presley’s musical numbers here are all in the context of stage shows or, at least performances (like the one he gives while strolling through the five-and-dime), which adds to the realism of the film. I love musicals, and don’t mind at all when people break into song in the middle of a scene, that’s the convention, but King Creole doesn’t want to be that kind of film, and it isn’t. Each number has its own special vibe, different lighting, staging: Presley sings a ballad, seated at the edge of the stage, wearing a kerchief around his neck, and he is to die for. He stands on the bar and roars out “Trouble” and the menace and subverted rage and sexuality are explosive. We see his versatility.
And in “New Orleans”, the venture reaches its apex of high camp.
There was always a camp element to Presley, and he did it naturally. It wasn’t a put-on, not quite, although whatever Elvis did was always saved/subverted by the thought that he wasn’t taking too much of it too seriously. (The hat-trick, though, on Presley’s part, was that he took it all more seriously than anybody else ever did. His stakes were life-and-death, but he was a humble Southern boy, and he hid that arrogance. None of it – the humility or the arrogance – was a lie. He embodied that contradiction. It remained unresolved in his persona, part of what makes him so riveting to watch.)
When a performer becomes too aware of the camp element, the performance can tip over into irony, a wink at the audience, a distancing effect – something that doesn’t really happen with Presley’s stuff. When he winked at the audience, as he did constantly, as though what he was doing onstage was a private joke between him and the millions of screaming girls out there who “got the joke,” it was joyful, not selfconscious, not distancing at all, acknowledging the secret of what he and the audience were creating together. All of that is there in the performance of “New Orleans” in King Creole.
The lighting in “New Orleans” is stark and dramatic, darkness surrounding Presley and the Jordannaires, but with a head-on light blaring against their faces, throwing stark shadows in the background. It’s an odd look. Melodramatic. Dare I say, over the top. In this number, Presley doesn’t play guitar, so he is not hidden behind an instrument.
I’ve always thought his vocals in “New Orleans” (and what he did with the song) were the funniest vocals in his career, and Presley had many many funny vocals (“U.S. Male”, for example: the way he drawls, “That’s M-A-L-E, son.” – which is a funny line already, but it’s even funnier because of how he does it). The guy was funny, in life, but also funny in how he used himself, how lightly he seemed to take himself, and it is outrageous what he’s doing in “New Orleans”. He’s making fun of himself at the same time as he is launching himself into how he imagines the song. He is commenting on this kind of singing, at the same time as he is doing it 100%.
He has no fear. He is in his own dreamspace, something that singers should strive for more often. The great singers are always in their own dreamspace. By that I mean: the song exists out there in the universe, separate from the singer, and the singer must enter the song as one enters a dream. The dream will differ depending on the singer. But you must know what your dream is, you must hold it in your heart, and out in front of you, and you must do your best to enter that dream. And then BE the dream of the song. BE it. That takes confidence, guts, and an outrageous amount of faith and self-belief – belief in the validity of what you see in your own mind’s eye, that it would be worth sharing it with others.
(Sam Phillips, in his first private session with the teenage Elvis Presley, presented him with a ballad, “Without You”. The song had been recorded by a black kid who had also been hanging around Sun, but Phillips wanted to see what Presley could do with it. And Presley couldn’t get it. He couldn’t enter the song. He tried. He failed. Each take got worse and worse. Presley kept at it, to no avail, and the session ended when Elvis started pounding on the walls with his fist, screaming, “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!” Amazing. “Him” meaning the kid singing on the demo. How competitive Elvis was, how angry and devastated he was that the kid on the Sun demo had “beat” him at the song. To put another way: that kid was in the dreamspace of the song. Presley was left out. Elvis had a dreamspace in his mind, but he could not enter it. This goes a long way to explaining Presley’s work ethic, and how passionately he felt about music.)
In “New Orleans”, you get the sense that Elvis Presley is singing that song exactly as he wants to sing it.
In the closeups, he looks shockingly young. A boy. Which is upended totally with the worlds of sexual knowledge he pours into his voice and interpretation.
In the long shot, he looks like a firecracker going off every which way. You can see the sweat stains underneath his arms. Watch his left hand. He was selfconscious about it, especially once he started to see his own movies and saw what he actually looked like. He tried to control what his left hand did, he thought it made him look prissy (his word), but it was clearly just how the damn thing moved.
He does that almost anxious humorous glancing-around thing that he always did when he performed, compulsively, naturally, trying to include everyone, checking in with everyone, making sure they were having fun, making sure that the dreamspace he created/embodied was being expressed so that everyone else could enter it. Ultimately, that was Elvis’ main gift, to manifest his dreams in his own life and to make those dreams palpable and grasp-able to his audience and to everyone else looking on. As Greil Marcus observed in Presliad: “It is one thing, after all, to dream of a new job, and quite another to dream of a new world. The risks are greater. Elvis took chances dreaming his dreams; he gambled against the likelihood that their failure would betray him, and make him wish he had never dreamed at all.”
In “New Orleans,” he is lip-synching. It is a film. They had to repeat takes, he had to do this scene over and over again.
To paraphrase the song: You’d never know. The dreamspace is so vital, so vivid to him, he entered into it every time.