Second post about Dolores Hart, costar with Elvis in two movies before she left Hollywood to become a nun. A documentary about her has been nominated for an Academy Award, and I have always wanted to write about her, so I figure the day before the Oscars would be a good time to pay tribute to this woman’s acting gift.
In Michael Curtiz’s King Creole, Elvis’ fourth film (or, as Michael Curtiz called him: “Elvy”), Elvis plays Danny Fisher, a 19-year-old kid, who has already flunked his senior year in high school once and is wondering why on earth he should try again, when there is good money to be made out there in the dirty streets of New Orleans. Based on the best-selling novel A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins, with the boxer being changed to a singer, King Creole was filmed on location in New Orleans in the late winter of 1958 (Presley got a deferment to his military service in order to complete the film). Elvis entered the army on March 24, 1958. The film came out on July 2, 1958 to rave reviews, and the first really good acting reviews Elvis had ever received. It was a huge triumph for him but all of that was mitigated, heavily, not only by his impending departure to Europe but by the quick decline of his mother (she would die in mid-August, 1958). However, “going out” with King Creole was quite a stroke of good luck. It would help keep the home fires burning for Elvis until he returned to the States two years later.
Unlike the later films in the mid-60s, King Creole is filled to the brim with terrific songs, diverse and tailored to Elvis’ many talents.
There’s the whimsical and goofy “Young Dreams of Love” (at least it’s goofy in Elvis’ hands). Watch the performance.
He is goofing on the entire song, and thank God, because imagine how dreadful it would have been if it had been played straight and earnest. He twitches his body in time, laughs at himself, makes weird little hiccupy faces along with the rhythm, and then indulges in two huge campy kicks at the end. It’s a very bratty performance. He knows he’s charming. He gets away with murder.
There’s the raucous “New Orleans”, a bluesy big-band number that Elvis takes to a whole other level, a dreamspace level (it is a CRAZY performance, one of his craziest on record).
There’s the hard rocking rough “Hard Headed Woman”, which hearkens back to Elvis’ earliest performances at Sun and RCA (“I Got a Woman”, “Long Tall Sally”), the melancholy crooning “Don’t Ask Me Why”, and then the over-the-top and yet played-totally-seriously “Trouble”, which would become an Elvis standard. It is still one of the songs by which he is known.
The songs are integrated into the action as actual “numbers”, unlike his later films where he would break out into song, Broadway musical style. He is hot, rough, vulnerable, and troubled. It is a great part for him. He has very heightened emotional scenes, involving crying, which he does beautifully, and he also nails the tiny moments, moments that even experienced actors sometimes miss, like the comb. He is riveting.
Danny Fisher lives with his washed-up out-of-work dad and his older sister. His mother is dead. He is struggling to finish his senior year (again), all while maintaining a job as a bus boy at a local dive. He has a reputation for being a hoodlum, but that is only because he doesn’t take shit, and he is also overworked. He’s a teenager, but he’s already a man. This is not a middle-class life. He lives across the street from a whorehouse. You know he lost his virginity there. The whores wave at him in the morning and call for him to come on over. He feels urgency to quit school and get a job, since his father can’t seem to get his act together. He starts to get pulled into some unsavory situations because of his boss, Maxie Fields (played by Walter Matthau), who runs the French Quarter with an iron fist. Danny Fisher tries to resist temptation. The boys at school give him a hard time too. Danny gets roped into a gang, of sorts, who want his help to pull off a heist at a local five-and-dime. The thugs know Danny sings a little bit so they ask him to cause a distraction, by singing in the five-and-dime, as they push valuables into their pockets. Danny doesn’t like the idea but he needs the money. In an improbable scene that Elvis makes work, he enters the five-and-dime playing his guitar, singing a silly song called “Lover Doll”. People are charmed, people drop what they are doing to listen, they gather around him. Meanwhile, a grand theft goes on behind everyone’s back.
A girl working the lunch counter (Dolores Hart) sees what is happening. She is not fooled by the strolling troubadour. He is clearly in on the act. She doesn’t blow the whistle, she just stands there and watches. Her expression is curious. She is not openly outraged or judgmental. Just very very watchful. It’s a canny look, which is our introduction to the character of Nellie, whose surface may seem very sweet, but there’s a steely intelligence to this girl, as well as a willingness to be open to whatever comes her way. She is fearless emotionally and yet cautious physically. We learn later that she is bored to death by her job and her life, and when she first sees Danny come in the store, she is dazzled by him. Even when she sees that he is behaving as a front for the thieves, she is dazzled. She senses something about him, a kindness, a softness, and that is always the Danny that she speaks to, even when he treats her cruelly, as he sometimes does.
Once Danny’s bogus song is finished, he plops himself down at the lunch counter and orders a root beer. She stands there sizing him up, and then goes to get it. When she plops it down in front of him she says, “You were in on it, weren’t you?” Danny really is kind of a punk. He has not been socialized properly, he grew up without a mother, he has a weak father figure, and he’s been mistreated all around. So he’s arrogant, blunt. He asks her out. She says, “I get off at 10.” But the way she says it isn’t brazen or open. She’s more humorous about it, and yet also clearly thrilled that this hot young guy has made a move. But, you know, you can’t give it all away right away, so she shrugs it off in her response (“I get off at this time, so … if you’re really interested, you know where to find me.”) Right around this time, the theft is discovered and a cry goes up through the store. Danny stands up (and Curtiz brilliantly moves the camera in close onto Danny and Nellie in one move), grabs Nellie’s hand, and says, “See you tonight” before fleeing.
Now I just described the scene and its effect. But if you read the lines on the page, none of that would be there. It’s a pick-up scene. It’s boy-meets-girl. There’s not much to it, and less gifted actors wouldn’t have made much of it. But both of them are playing deeper levels of character-driven complexity which is what makes it interesting, sexy, and awkward. She is not just a blushing flower, and he is not just a hoodlum. He’s shy and has no idea how to treat a nice girl, having only hung around whores his whole short sexual life. “Courting” is totally outside of his skill set. She’s clearly a good girl (in the parlance of the times), but she is not shy, and treats him matter-of-factly, with a cool clear head, but there’s something open about her that suggests she has fallen for him in a matter of moments. But she can’t let him see that.
It’s a mating dance, brilliantly played by both actors. It could have been a nothing scene, cliche and conventional. Instead, it’s fascinating.
The character of Nellie could have been a drip, especially when compared to the overt sexual sparks that fly between Danny and the damaged drug-addicted prostitute he forms a close bond with (played by Carolyn Jones). Nellie could have been played as a poster-child for the Mores of the Day, with no irony, no depth. A priss. Instead, we see a young woman’s very real struggle between what she has been taught and her own impulses, her own desire for love. This unfolds over the course of the film and will come to a head in the scene I want to talk about, but it’s all present in the subtle way Dolores Hart plays that first scene.
You like this girl.
She’s nobody’s fool.
But Danny may already be too lost to get the kind of girl Nellie represents. His own sense of shame because of his status in life, as well as all the dark fucked-up things he has seen (and probably done), makes him feel not worthy. He’d soil her.
All of this is working in Danny when he stops by the five-and-dime at ten that night to meet her after work. He waits for her. She exits the store with some friends, clearly sees him, but pretends she doesn’t and keeps talking with her friends as they approach him. Then, she looks up and says, “Oh, hi!” as though she just noticed him.
He nails her on it. “Ohh, don’t give me that, I saw you looking.” I love this: it reminds me of the “WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME” moment that I experienced in an identical situation. Being nailed on being coy, when it’s done in a friendly “hey, we all know what we’re doing here” way, is delicious. Perhaps only I could interpret a man shouting at me “WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME” across a crowded bar as “friendly”, but such as we are made.
The two stand in the dark alley. Now that he has shown up to fetch her, she visibly relaxes. You can almost feel her thinking Oh my God, he came … I cannot believe he showed up … He’s here for me … Knowing that he obviously is interested in her makes her glow. She doesn’t have to play it cool anymore. She does not hide her happiness that he has shown up. He is awkward. The happier she looks to see him the more awkward he gets. He doesn’t deserve to be looked at with such happiness. He’s a heel. He can barely look at her, his eyes wander (to her chest, it must be admitted), and then back down, and then up, and then back down. He randomly reaches out and kind of plays with the collar of her sweater. Elvis! Look at you, doing some awesome leading-man acting.
When Danny asks her if she’d like to go out and do something with him, Elvis is relaxed enough as an actor that he stutters. What I love so much is that Curtiz kept it in. It is clearly unplanned. It’s not written with a stutter. That is all Elvis. A more fussy or dumb director would have had Elvis go back to get the line right for a clean take. Curtiz recognized the reality behind that stutter, the very real nerves of Elvis as translated through Danny trying to be nice to a nice girl, and kept it in. Smart.
I showed this movie to Jen on our road trip to Memphis, and she made me rewind the moment three times. She knows good acting. She was blown away by it: “I can’t believe that. I can’t believe they kept that in. It’s so fucking vulnerable.”
I have written about Elvis being a stutterer before. You can really hear it in the earliest recordings of him, and in the recorded interviews he gave in the 50s. It’s not a debilitating stutter, although it has its moments when it stops him in his tracks. There are times when it gets so bad that Elvis has no choice but to stop entirely, acknowledge that HE CANNOT SPEAK (he’ll whistle to himself, or say bluntly, “Yeahhhh”), and then try the sentence again. “We ain’t done the song bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-but one time on the Louisiana Hayride” is just one example. The stutter never really left him, and it gives him that deliberate quality to his speech, that careful and thoughtful prosody. He managed it. I have no idea his feelings about it. He didn’t seem too embarrassed by it. There he is, speaking into the microphone at the Louisiana Hayride, stuttering every other word, and he doesn’t seem fazed by it at all. It rarely shows up in his acting. Of course there, he’s not speaking off the cuff. He has learned lines, so he doesn’t have to think about what he will say next.
The challenge, though, is to make memorized lines sound off-the-cuff. There are ways to do that, some people are more talented than others, some people say lines and you cannot imagine that they were EVER flat on a page. It helps to have a good script, but even with a bad script there is no excuse. You’re an actor. You have to figure out a way to make it work.
King Creole has a good script, a very good one, but you can see Elvis’ ease with dialogue even in the poor films, and I would say that watching the poor films is even a better gauge of Elvis’ talent as an actor. This is something that all of the critics miss when talking about Elvis. All of them. The music critics resent the acting in general and so write off the entire decade in Hollywood, and throw him a bone for King Creole and Jailhouse Rock. Sure, the music suffered. But what interests me when I talk about Elvis in the movies is not the music. I am interested in him as an actor. It was his deepest desire to be a good and respected actor, and so I pay attention to that. I do not dismiss it. Difficult as it may be, you have to remove the filter of the King of Rock and Roll and the accepted narrative of “Oh Woe Is Me Elvis Is Trapped in Hollywood by the Big Bad Colonel” – and try to see what he is actually doing in these movies and how he is doing it – especially in the bad movies – because even there, he doesn’t go down with the ship. It’s true that he almost goes down with the ship in Paradise Hawaiian Style, but Paradise Hawaiian Style would sink Richard Burton. Paradise Hawaiian Style would sink John Gielgud. But in all of the other films, yes, all, Elvis rises above, he survives, he justifies its existence by being there, and by being himself. He is entertaining, easy, free, funny. Yes, it’s great to see him have a script to sink his teeth into, like with King Creole, but the REAL test of talent is to try to make something like Girls! Girls! Girls! lift off the page. Elvis does.
Relaxation and listening are the keys to good acting. You can be brilliant in other areas but if you don’t have those two things, you got nothing. Elvis had both.
If you’re a stutterer, then one of your main goals is to not stutter. Elvis obviously found ways to manage it, and he did fine in his real life. In certain moments it comes out, usually when he got excited or enthusiastic, but here, he is acting. It is a tender romantic moment, and it was obviously very real for him, and he knew his line, but it comes out, “Wo-wo-wo- where would you like to go?”
Your breath catches when you see him do it. Did he actually just … reveal himself like that?
Her posture is alert and alive, his is lazy and cocky, which is clearly a coverup, but Elvis doesn’t turn himself inside out to “show” the tenderness underneath. He doesn’t have to. He just stuttered unconsciously. We know it all now.
She says she would love to but her mother will be waiting up for her. “She’s old-fashioned,” Nellie says with a smile.
Danny, lazily, basically sexing her up with his eyes, and not moving his body at all, a waiting panther, asks her, “What about you?”
Nellie asks, “What do you mean?” Although it is clear what he meant by his remark, her question is an honest one, and Dolores Hart asks it honestly. She sees the good in him. She’s not sure she heard him right. Danny notices this moment, and then changes tack, saying, “Hey, some friends of mine are having a party – want to stop by and have a drink, listen to some music?” She says sure, she could stay for half an hour or so, he says great, and off they walk together.
Now comes the scene I wanted to write about.
It is a perfect collaboration of writing, direction and acting and it lasts all of 45 seconds. It’s an incredibly revealing scene, the most revealing we have had so far about Danny Fisher (although his choosing to make out with the prostitute in front of the cackling kids on the school yard is a close second). Danny is not dumb. He is not openly cruel. He has shown kindness to the drunk prostitute, protecting her from being beaten by one of her clients. He clearly has a moral compass. It pains him to see his father weak and emasculated, and it infuriates him that he is seen in such a poor light at school when he is doing the best he can. He’s not a bad guy. He’s not amoral, he’s not Stanley Kowalski.
But … but …
Whatever is going on with him remains mysterious (which is awesome) and in the following scene, Danny takes Nellie to a seedy hotel. Boozy jazzy music is playing from an offscreen lounge, and Danny goes to the desk clerk and says loudly, “Which room is the party in?” The clerk is noticeably confused, and Danny surreptitiously gives him money, and repeats the question, all as Nellie in her proper little dress stands off to the side. The clerk nods, gives him a key.
You can’t help but think: Danny, what are you DOING?
He asked Nellie out on a date, and she is clearly a nice girl. She exudes it. This is the 1950s, remember. There were girls you fucked, and girls you didn’t, and nice people knew the rules and played by them. Danny is not so far out of civilization that he does not recognize a nice girl when he sees one. And HE asked HER out. What were his motives? A yearning for sweetness and womanliness after all the rough trade? Or just because he was grateful she didn’t tattle on him?
And once she said yes, so openly and so friendly, he promptly takes her to a hotel where you can rent rooms by the hour. Fascinating. Fascinating. I love that the script allows for that complexity, that dirt. Danny grew up in the dirt. He had to raise himself up because his father was useless. You can’t picture Danny at a sockhop. He’s been getting blowjobs from the girls across the way since he was 16. So do we have here a situation where he feels so filthy himself, so unworthy, that he must take the pure girl and drag her down into the muck with him? He is NOT ignorant of the fact that she is not the kind of girl you take to a place like this. (I am speaking in the context of the times, remember.) But … he takes her there.
It’s nasty. Because he tricks her, too. He sets it up like there’s some fun party and then ambushes her. It’s not nice. How refreshing to see Elvis allowed to be not nice. He’s good at it.
The two are framed walking down the dark upper hallway. It’s a beautiful shot.
They don’t speak or look at each other. It’s very businesslike, although you can sense Nellie’s dawning awareness that there’s no party in this hotel. Danny unlocks the door, and it swings open. They both peer into the empty bleak interior. Nothing goes on in that room but quick paid-for sex. Curtiz is brilliant in how he frames them in the door, in how that room is revealed. It feels cramped and nasty.
The silence between them at that moment is terrible. It is the cold silence of a person realizing that she is being used, and she does not deserve this, she who only treated him with friendliness and kindness. She doesn’t speak. He swings around to look at her, and says, “Looks like my friends are late or maybe we’re early.”
The look on his face is swaggering, arrogant, and with that veil of plausible deniability that can be so cruel when used against someone who obviously likes you. I’ve been on the receiving end of such a look and it’s absolutely scarring. There is no give in such a look. You’ve been duped. You’re being laughed at. Why is this person deciding to be cruel? How did I end up here?
But she is no shrinking violet. She says, hurt, but maintaining her composure, “What kind of a game are you playing?”
Danny gets shy again, earnest, like he was in the alley, playing with her collar, only now it rings phony. It was an act. She fell for it. He looks down, looks away, glances up at her, touches her, all while he says, “It’s no game. Honest. I like you. What’s your name?”
The rest of the dialogue occurs as follows:
Nellie: Nellie. I told you in the store.
Danny: Oh yeah. Nellie. I like you, Nellie. I like you a lot.
Nellie: What’s your name?
Nellie: How much did this room cost you?
Danny: My name’s Danny. Danny Fisher. You comin’ in?
Nellie: I don’t know. I’ve never been to a place like this before. But I want to see you again. Is this the way? I’ve been looking at the door of that lousy 5 and 10 for a year. And today when you walked in … I thought … [bursts into tears and hugs him]
Danny: What are you bawling about? Stop bawling.
Nellie: I like you. That’s the reason I’m crying. I like you more than I like anybody I know. And I don’t even know you. That’s why I’m crying.
Danny: Party’s over. Let’s go.
That’s it. Short scene. Quick, brutal, and effective. Very well-written with vast gaps between what is said and the choices made internally to say those particular words. He tells her his name is “George”. She has tears in her eyes, and asks him how much the room cost him. Now he must live with the fact that he deliberately tried to hurt this nice sweet girl whose only misfortune is that she maybe likes him a little bit more than he likes her. He can’t live with it. But first, he has to clear up the name thing. “Danny. Danny Fisher.” So now the bomb of dishonesty has exploded, and this boy she thought might be special has also just told her a false name, along with taking her to a place you would take a hooker. She tries to process it, and in that hesitant silence, he gestures at the room impatiently and says, “You comin’ in?”
Three lines but what complexity has to be brought to it! It’s actually painful to watch. And you know why it is painful? Because of how good Dolores Hart is. In two scenes (at the lunch counter and in the alley) we have gotten firmly on her side, even though we love Danny too (after all, he is played by Elvis Presley). Nellie is not a drip, she is not a cipher, she is a real girl, and we care about her. This has happened in less than 5 minutes of screen time. That is a good actress. So that when she is hurt here, when she is treated with disrespect, it’s painful. We know she doesn’t deserve it.
She stares at the room. He waits, his arm out, gesturing into the room. It’s so perfunctory. There’s no romance. What would happen if she actually went into the room? (They actually did film a scene that was cut where they did go into the room, and started the seduction process, awkwardly and awfully, and it is such a hope of mine that that footage still exists somewhere and will someday be released. There are still photographs of Dolores Hart sitting on the bed, starting to take off her dress, baring her shoulder.) Would he throw her on the bed and take her virginity brutally, punishing her for being such a nice girl and why would a nice girl be with someone like him? Or would he be impotent with her because she clearly needs to be romanced and he’s not equipped for that? He seems totally unpredictable here. This is about 25 minutes into the movie by this point and we feel like we know Danny Fisher a little bit. We like him. He’s a good kid. But this scene is a total reality-check. You do not know this person. Not yet.
You can see her staring into that room, trying to decide. The fact that she would even consider it shows you the response she is having to him. It’s awful because you know going into that room would be a betrayal of her deepest ideals for herself. Dolores Hart, just with the expression on her face, plays the hell out of that moment of looking into the room.
So when she says, “I don’t know. I’ve never been to a place like this before. But I want to see you again. Is this the way?” it’s devastating. “Is this the way?” She wants so badly to be with him that if “this is the way” then maybe she would do it. But she is already in tears as she says it. She needs help to reach him. Is this the way?
Bursting into tears, she runs at him and hugs him. He is deeply uncomfortable and impatient. He holds her, but more like he’s trying to push her off him than comfort her.
Once the tears come, it all has to come out for her. She knows she doesn’t know him, and it’s silly to like him so much, but she can’t help it. Maybe it’s just because she’s so bored with her job, but she can’t figure that all out right now. She just knows she likes him, more than anyone. I love her for telling him that, even in the face of his actions over the last couple of minutes.
Like I said, she sees the goodness in Danny and speaks to the goodness, and perhaps it is that that he cannot tolerate. Who is she to think he’s good? Fuck her, I’m bad. I’m “trouble”, everyone says so.
The crying is too much even for Danny. Time to go. My little plan obviously went bust, so I gotta get her out of here. But he doesn’t say anything comforting, he does not apologize (although he does later). He just steps away from her, into the darkness of the hallway, says, “Party’s over” and holds out his arm to her to come with him.
He seems regretful but it is unclear why. It could be that he is sorry he made her cry, but it equally could be that he won’t be getting laid tonight and he’s pissed that he wasted so much time on a girl who wasn’t up for it. It could be either. Presley lets us decide which one it is. Nice work. Brave. Because he does NOT come off looking good here. He is not heroic.
He is a shitheel. He does not protect himself from our judgment.
It takes great trust between two actors to play a scene like this. Both have to go for it, with the same goals in mind, with no fear of being judged. You have to really do it, and both of them do.
Still sniffling, she goes to his side, and they walk back down that gloomy hallway.
He walks her home, and there, at her door, he apologizes, saying, “You played up to me earlier today. I figured you knew the score.” They end up kissing, but when she says she wants to see him again, he puts her off, and not well, saying he’s busy, his behavior showing that he’s itching to get away from her.
It’s a beautiful and complex sequence, and as the relationship develops over the rest of the film (in tandem with his relationship with the prostitute), we start to see real caring between them, and respect and honesty. It is possibly redemptive for poor Danny Fisher. Or, it could be. At one point he says to her, “Don’t fall in love with me, Nellie. You’re a nice girl. I don’t want to hurt you.”
He means it. He trusts her enough now to say it, and mean it.
But people get hurt anyway. Including Danny. The ending remains unresolved, he has been too damaged by what has happened to him, but Dolores Hart says to him, tears gleaming in her huge eyes, “I can wait. I have lots of time.”
Somehow, it doesn’t seem pathetic, not coming from her. Dolores Hart was able to bring an innate sense of goodness and honesty to anything she did, something that made audiences respond to her, love her, feel protective of her. But her Nellie is no idiot, no easily-duped sweet girl. She doesn’t really need our protection. She has a backbone, and she is willing to love him despite his flaws. Presley opens up in her presence. He is allowed to be complex. He doesn’t need to be “the hero” with her. He’s not a hero. He’s just a guy. He’s doing the best he can. She sees that. Her eyes see everything, and they did from the get-go, from the second he walked into her store.
Their unfolding relationship is one of the best parts of this fine film, and the brutal unpredictable scene in the hotel is a mini-masterpiece.