In an excellent piece entitled ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’, Gary Giddins writes of director Michael Curtiz, ‘Stylistically, his work is distinguished by aggressive visual compositions (signature shot: two characters shoulder to shoulder, facing forward), forceful acting, quick cuts, fluid camerawork, shadow play, location inserts, romantic and period realism, the kind of speed that results from keeping a story on track and free of distraction, and, above all, a shameless mastery of emotional manipulation (loc 1455)*
It’s that ‘shadow play’ that I want to illustrate here, as Curtiz uses it in a variety of ways, to set mood but also to convey and hide information. It recurs in a variety of genres. It’s always a striking image, sometimes an exciting and evocative one.
Captain Blood (1935)
In Captain Blood, we get this striking image below. Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) is curing a man but the authorities are already on their way to arrest him for doing so and doing a doctor’s duty in an unjust society will condemn him to a future of slavery and piracy with the possibility of death overhanging the rest of the narrative.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936):
Here shadows are used in a whole variety of ways to set mood, create tension, both indicate the trouble of a place, but also people in a place, and the anxiety provoked by certain actions.
Kid Galahad (1937)
Curtiz is sparing with the typical projecting of shadows onto a wall to give us an indication of what’s happening off-screen, to show us without showing us, whilst shading it with hint of evil, until the very end, where Bogart shoots at someone without being seen so as to create a distraction so he can go for his real target, Edward G. Robinson:
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938):
In his brightly lit masterpiece, shadows thrown on a wall contribute to, amongst other things, making the famous sword-fight with Basil Rathbone extra spectacular.
and later on, Claude Rains’ evil Prince John, is associated with the death and defeat of his fallen soldiers whilst the shot pans and we see him counting his money.
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Here James Cagney, going to the chair, and pretending to be scared so that the boys who hero-worship him might not be too tempted to emulate him is, wisely, shown by his shadowed reflection. It’s not easy to believe Cagney being scared of anything. Shadows play is only brought to the last scenes in the film. We see Cagney in jail throwing his cigarette butt to his uniformed jailer (below left) and, before, that, as seen on the right, taking the priest played by Pat O’Brian hostage, in a vain attempt to escape.
Four’s a Crowd (1938)
And Curtiz doesn’t just deploy this in gangster films, as above, but even in screwballs such as Four’s a Crowd, where the security guard at the mansion is chasing after Errol Flynn before he escapes into Olivia de Havilland’s bedroom.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Here Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth is first shown to us as a shadow. She’s icon and ruler first, that we hear Bette Davis inimitable clipped voice as part of the image renders the fusion of two icons (Bette and Elizabeth, Bette as Elizabeth) even more powerfully.
Dodge City (1939):
Here the murder that sets of the last part of the film is shown to us as a shadow so that we see what the journalist doesn’t, and obviously to add to the ominousness and danger of it all.
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Hung from a mast but shown as a shadow on the ships floor. It renders the violence of the act both more palatable and more powerful, the shadow-play narratively warning, but setting a mood for future developments, and generating an image that’s graphically arresting whilst removing that which is graphic or explicit about it.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Here shadows are cast on death scenes (below, top left), to convey a particular point of view on narrative information (below, top right) and to show the long shadow cast by a beloved entertainer even in the Oval office.
In Casablanca, like in Yankee Doodle, a shadow of the name of a place, brings the narrative information indoors (see top) and we also have the use of shadows to bring extra-diagetic space into the frame whilst conveying a mood (see bottom). Arthur Edeson’s lighting is very beautiful and shadows are cast over that whole world and those relationships. The close-ups before Bogart’s flashback to Paris are superb.
Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943):
‘Shadow work’ appears even in musicals, to continue the entertainment through different spaces.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce is one of the great noirs, with dazzling use of shadows throughout; so, rather than illustrate by using image capture, I thought it best to use excerpt a whole scene. This is from the beginning, where Mildred (Joan Crawford) invites Wally (Jack Carson) up to the beach house so he can take the fall for the murder of Monte (Zachary Scott). This is the moment where he begins to tweaks that she’s left and has only invited him in for reasons other than a potential tryst:
Shadows are cast over identity in Romance on the High Seas, 1948
Shadows demarcate the difference between what should be and what is in My Dream Is Yours, 1949.
Kirk Douglas and his music is a shadow on Lauren Bacall’s happiness in Young Man With A Horn, 1950. If only the light would shine on that sapphic lamp with phallic symbol extending, everyone would be a lot happier.
Poverty and unemployment hover over the family in I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) as Doris phones for help.
Pain, poverty and his father’s emasculation overhang and literally shadow Elvis’ rise to success in King Creole (1958):
I was going to do this for all of Curtiz’ films in which I saw it appear. But in doing so, it became clear that this type of ‘shadow work’ appears in all his films. I think one can quite here and quite convincingly argue that this is indeed a characteristic of his visual style.
*Gary Giddins, ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’ Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, Kindle version.
Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943) was the highest-grossing musical of WWII. It was part of a cycle of all-star musicals — Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943); Hollywood Canteen (Delmer Daves, 1944) are other examples from Warner Brothers — designed to raise morale and aid the war effort. Seen today, its popularity is understandable: It’s propaganda everyone at the time must have supported and with a cause — propping-up the war effort –most everyone would have wanted to contribute to. But it’s a dreary musical. Even the hit numbers, such as Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America,’ seem drab and insipid, particularly if one isn’t an American. The flag-waving fervour of others rarely comes across as anything but scary or dull and distancing. This falls into the latter category.
My favourite number is Irving Berlin himself singing ‘Oh how I hate to get up in the morning’ with that weak but engaging voice of his. It’s supposed to be all-star but none of the stars are known to us today except Ronald Reagan and perhaps George Murphy. Certainly all the stage stars imitated in one of the drag number — Jane Cowl, Lynn Fontanne — will be remembered only by Broadway enthusiasts. There are in fact many numbers in drag which are meant to be funny but now come across as the equivalent of blackface, a combination of desire for and condescension to that which they are imitating. Straight drag — unlike most gay drag –seems to poke fun and laugh at femininity. The film does have a pleasing inclusiveness of ethnicity and race; the former one of the most recurrent and attractive traits of American cinema; the latter relatively rare, indeed almost a structuring absence, a stain and limit to the much-vaunted claims of democracy in America. I found it all a bore, underlining how emotionally crude Curtiz could be — note how mothers pack off their sons to war — but also once again demonstrating his eye for visuals and his skill with a camera.
As you can see in the clip above in the short clip, which is just an announcement that the President and high officials are arriving to see the show. There are 19 shots, each with a different and striking composition, shot from a variety of angles but with a certain rhyming quality: if a the characters in a shot look to the right for example, in the next cut they will look to the left (the four images above after the clip are from consecutive shots). There are high angles looking down and low angles looking up. There are crowd shots and there’s individual inserts with bits of dialogue from the audience. The shots are put together rhythmically, in line with the music, but also with cuts on action. It all culminates with the camera dollying in to the character announcing the President’s in the audience. The technique on display is dazzling; the use it’s put to is not. This seems a recurring curse for Curtiz.
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.