Young Danny Fisher (Elvis Presley) is a high school flunkie (“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 him. 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 and hurting her. He apologizes later: “I thought you knew the score ..” Danny Fisher may be a teenager but he grew up real fast), as well as getting involved in an intense and neurotic way 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, and flashing neon on Bourbon Street. 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 does capture lightning in a bottle a little bit. Many of his other films didn’t even attempt it. Or they took it for granted. As I said before, he still “showed up” as that persona, in movie after movie, 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. An original.
The songs are good, too. None of this “Old MacDonald” shit from the later 60s.
King Creole was Presley’s fourth movie. He was 22 years old. He was drafted during the filming. He got a deferment to show up to basic training so he could finish the film. Then off he went into the U.S. Army in 1958. His mother died in August, 1958. He shipped out to Germany in September, 1958. His lifelong friend, collaborator and confidante Charlie Hodge was in the Army with Elvis and they bunked together on the ship over to Europe.
Charlie Hodge said a haunting thing much later. On the ship, Charlie had the top bunk, Elvis had the bottom. Charlie said, “I could feel Elvis grieving at night.” Charlie would tell him jokes through the night, and Elvis said later that was the only way he got through it. Howling wilderness. He is on the cusp of all of this 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 world – he shone that much brighter. Michael Curtiz positioned Elvis perfectly in the film. It is both good story and supportive myth-making: giving the audience what they wanted when they came to see an Elvis movie.
It’s a hefty acting part as well. He 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 his local fame starts to explode, due to his performances at the King Creole nightclub, things start to get dangerous, as 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). It’s all very blatant. Maxie Fields beats her, keeps her drunk so she’s docile, and 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 stage shows, which also 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 here, 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 plays the guitar and twists himself around as the crowd laughs. 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, as most campy performers do. When a performer becomes too aware of the camp element, the performance can tip over into irony, a wink at the audience (“we don’t really mean any of this …”) – something that Presley didn’t do. When he winked at the audience, it was more joyful, less selfconscious, acknowledging the secret of what he and the audience were doing together. This is fun, ain’t it? 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. I love the look. Here, Presley doesn’t play guitar, so he is not hidden behind an instrument.
I’ve always thought his vocals (and what he did with the song) in “New Orleans” 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 here. 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%. You can’t believe how free he feels in the midst of all of that screaming. He has no fear. He is in his own dreamspace, something that singers should strive for more often. The great singers are always in the 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. You must BE your own dream of how the song should be sung. That takes confidence, guts, faith. (Sam Phillips, in his first private session with the teenage Elvis Presley, when he wanted to figure out what the boy could do, presented him with a ballad, “Without You”. It 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 couldn’t figure it out. 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. How competitive he was, how angry he was that the kid on the Sun demo had beat him at “Without You”. To put another way: that black kid was in the dreamspace of the song. Presley was left out. This goes a long way to explaining Presley’s competitive work ethic, and how passionately he felt about music. You hate him? Yes. He can go where I can’t go, but dammit, I will get there.)
In “New Orleans”, you get the sense that Elvis Presley is singing that song exactly as he wants to sing it, with no compromise.
In the closeups, he looks so young. Shockingly young.
In the long shot, he looks like a firecracker going off every which way. Watch his left hand. He was always selfconscious about it, especially once he started to see his own movies and saw what he actually looked like. He tried to control what the left hand did, he thought it made him look prissy, 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, having fun, making sure they were having fun, too.
He’s lip-synching. This is a film. They had to repeat takes, he had to do this scene repeatedly.
To paraphrase the song: You’d never know.