I grew up in Montreal, where Elvis was King en français. The local commercial French station, TVA Canal Dix, showed Elvis films regularly: the dialogue was in French but Elvis rocked in English. I must have seen all of them and had firm favourites: Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964) with Ann-Margaret, Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), and this one, King Creole. I now see that it’s perhaps significant that these were all directed by old-timers of the studio system who knew their craft.
Some fans prefer Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957), and certainly its famous and eponymous number is a delight. But King Creole is arguably Elvis’ best film. And it’s part of the tragedy of his film career that even his best film is but a derivative and pulpy melodrama. Themes of teenage rebellion, the relationships of fathers and sons, and children looking on pityingly at what they see as the emasculation of their fathers by society and societal institutions, are all themes that are better dealt with, in this very same period, by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
As a teenager, I’d read and enjoyed the Harold Robbins novel the film is based on, A Stone for Danny Fisher. And Curtiz’ film follows the plot quite closely, if exchanging Brooklyn for New Orleans, the boxing world for that of the nightclub scene on Bourbon Street and the 1930 Depression setting for the film’s present.
Presley’s Danny Fisher, a talented singer, is busing tables at a nightclub whilst trying to graduate from high school. The money he brings in is needed to keep the family afloat. His father’s given up. He’s been a prominent pharmacist but lost it all when his wife’s death led to a spiral of depression and drink. They lost their house and now live in a slum tenement next to a brothel. Fisher keeps failing High School’s cause he’s just got too much to do. In the meantime the streets offer lots of opportunity for easy money. Danny’s father is willing to lower himself so that his son can get a diploma but Danny can’t bear to see his father so bullied and humiliated. Also, he can make easy money singing. The tangles of family, show-business and the underworld lead to tragedy. King Creole is a mix of teen film, musical, and noir. There are few musical performers more exiting to watch in this period than Elvis. And almost no one in the Hollywood of this time is better at using the camera than Michael Curtiz. Elvis performing and how Michael Cutiz films him performing are what propel this otherwise pulpy melodrama into something great.
King Creole is one of the few Presley films, the only one I remember, where he’s presented as a real film star. He gets a great star entrance with the ‘Crawfish’ number, a duet with rhythm and blues singer Kitty White, written by songwriters Ben Weisman and Fred Wise as a street vendor’s cry, that starts off in the pre-credit sequence, continues on Kitty White post-credits, then cranes up and dissolves to introduce us to Elvis, who is framed behind lace curtains, in turn framed by the window, in turn framed by the shutters, in turn framed by balcony railings.
Elvis opens up the curtains, and comes out, to us, like a fancy chocolate in a box within a box within a box and next to flowers. As the song continues, Elvis is intercut with Kitty passing by on her cart, finally we get a reverse shot that shows us the other side of the street, with the ‘hostesses’ on the balcony on the nightclub next door soliciting Elvis. In the shot when he responds, ‘No you don’t, ya gotta pay me’, his sister appears on the right hand side to offer him breakfast. Curtiz masterfully presents what people have paid to see — Elvis — makes us wait for what he’s got to offer, frames him, teases us, and reveals his talent, desirability, family relations and a context in which the drama can unfold all in one scene. It’s a brilliant mise-en-scene of stardom. Something Curtiz is so expert at and that so few other directors ever offered to Elvis.
What Elvis was famous for in 1958 was conveying sex to teenagers. The Los Angeles Mirror-News entertainment editor wrote that ‘what Elvis offers is not basically music but a sex show’ (cited on p. 438 in Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis (438). Guralnick writes that Leber and Stoller’s ‘Trouble’, a Muddy Waters-styled blues was intended somewhat tongue in cheek but was delivered by Elvis with untempered ferocity. ‘It sounded sort of comical to us, but strangely enough to the mass market it wasn’t. It was somewhat generational and somewhat cultural, but they bought it’. (p.449).
In the film, Curtiz stages that sexy ferocity as a challenge to the gangster played by Walter Matthau, as something to entice the gangster’s moll played by Carolyn Jones, and as a source of conflict between the two nightclub owners. That talent, sex and ferocity are once more put in the scene in the context of different narrative threads where his very power and desirability originate the source of the tragedy to come. It’s a lesson in how to mobilise a star persona in narrative and how to narrativise stardom.
Julie Lobalzo-Wright in Crossover Stardom’ writes that there can be no doubt that Presley represented the rebellious image of the 1950s, both within America and worldwide, and his cultural impact cannot be overstated. (p.59)…Presley’s early live performances on The Milton Berle Sow, The Steve Allen Sow, and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956) created a stir displaying Presley’s overt sexuality that consistently presented his sexualized body as an object of desire. Thomas. C. Carlos has described his early television performances as ‘so sexy, not white sexy, not coy sexy, but so humping swaggering black r&b sexy” that they led to a national uproar’.
I’d also like to comment on the quieter ‘Young Dreams’ number (see above). This is such a joyful performance, the dip in his shoulder, the shake of his head during ‘kiss you morning, noon and night’ then again dipping his shoulders and opening his mouth in the pause as if to say, “‘wow’ isn’t this naughty and marvellous’. Presley conveys the saucy and the tender filtered through a joyful amazement, sex combined with feeling in gleeful wonderment. No wonder his girlfriend in the audience is on the verge of tears with longing. Seeing him, we understand her, and understand why Elvis was so appealing to both men and women for so long. It’s a quiet number in the film, but powerful. And made more so by Presley being at the centre of a pool of light amidst the shadows and darkness of the nightclub, a light also highlighted by wearing a shirt that photographs white. Thus in a longer shot he’s the focus bathed in light, and then of course, there are the close-ups, when it’s his singing, his sensuality, and the effect that these things are having on his girlfriend that Curtiz draws our attention to.
As we can see in King Creole Crutiz constructs a mise-en-scene of and around Presley’s stardom, both as a musical performer, a sensation really, and as a movie star. I’ve commented on some of the numbers above. But let me just draw your eye to other aspects:
See, for example, how in the scene where he takes his girlfriend to see his old home, the focus is on him even when she’s doing all the talking; and note how he’s lit (see below):
See also how Curtiz present Presley to us in and through through light. Lighting is accentuating his features, his feelings, his very presence. He’s often shown coming in and out of the light. See some of the pictures below but further down you can also see how he’s lit as a kind of noir hero/film star in the scene were he watches his father get attacked.
Ultimately, the story is hackneyed but professionally told. Curtiz knows how to make his stars shine and how to use what they represent to create context, plot and convey feeling. Elvis’ stardom is part of the mise-en-scene of King Creole. It’s the same kind of care others took to present Judy Garland, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire; it’s the same kind of care Curtiz used in his musicals with James Cagney and Doris Day; it’s the kind of care Elvis rarely got from any of his other directors.