Sunday, December 9, 2007

Overlooked Classics: King Creole (1958)

For the definitive word on this film, please check out Ger Rijff's beautiful book INSIDE KING CREOLE, which features the script, deleted scenes, a making of and many unpublished photographs.

Hungarian born director Michael Curtiz shot KING CREOLE (1958) just five years before his death at the age of 74. The film is a remarkably fresh and alive work though, one that seems to have been made by a very talented young man rather than someone nearing seventy.
Curtiz had an astounding directorial career, helming well over 150 productions. His most well known film is of course CASABLANCA (1942) but he worked exceedingly well in many genres including comedy (WE'RE NO ANGELS 1955), heavy drama (MILDRED PIERCE 1945) and musicals (YANKEE DOODLE DANDY 1942). Curtiz, in fact, worked in nearly every conceivable genre throughout his long career, and he did well in all of them.
KING CREOLE got its start as a heavy handed novel by CARPETBAGGERS mastermind Harold Robbins entitled A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER. The book sold fairly well on its release and was quickly optioned for a film version. The character in the book was originally a boxer, and the producers had it in mind to make it a vehicle for a young actor named James Dean. After Dean's tragic death, the name Marlon Brando was thrown around but the choice was finally made to turn the film into a musical and cast the young revolutionary star who had turned the entertainment field completely on its head, Elvis Presley.
Presley had only made three films when he stepped in front of Curtiz's camera, and they had all been critical duds but popular smashes. He had began to show a lot of flare though in LOVING YOU and JAILHOUSE ROCK (both 1957) and Curtiz immediately saw that there was something strong he could work with.
Joining Presley was an incredible supporting cast which included Dolores Hart, Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger, Vic Morrow and a young actor named Walter Matthau as the New Orleans crime boss Maxie Fields. They would all be working from a script credited to THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT scribe Herbert Baker and A HATFUL OF RAIN playwright Michael Gazzo.

Shot on location in New Orleans with style to spare by Curtiz with talented black and white Oscar nominated cinematographer Russell Harlan by his side, KING CREOLE is a stunningly beautiful movie to watch. Its rich black and white tones are a tribute to a very particular style of film making that is rarely seen anymore.
Everything about the film is first rate. The script is melodramatic but not overly so and the performances are all strong. The set design by Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy is superb and has a stylish realism to it that is particularly noteworthy. Special mention has to go to the sad little interior of Fisher's families apartment, and the spacious decadence of Maxie's spread. The costumes by Edith Head are refreshibgly controlled through much of the film, but are strikingly provocative on Carolyn Jones and the strippers in the New Orleans nightclub that Danny sings in.

The film opens with one of the most memorable shots in fifties American cinema. Curtiz's camera pans down a virtually deserted French Quarter path filming various singing street vendors, before we see Elvis (looking so incredibly beautiful here) walking out on his balcony singing CRAWFISH with one of them (the talented Kitty White). It is an amazing sequence that doesn't feel like anything else before or since.

The film is filled with those kind of special moments...from Fisher's first memorable meeting with Maxie to a touching scene where he takes Nellie (Hart) out on a river boat to show her where he was from. It is an intensely personal little film that just so happens to be a musical as well.
And what a musical...the songs are all top notch and Curtiz wisely elects to have the songs played on stage for the most part. The couple of sequences where he breaks this rule are well done, organic and believable. There isn't anything fantastical about the musical parts of KING CREOLE, except in how fine they are.
Curtiz's direction is quite splendid. He allows the scenes to play out and breathe, and his shooting style is commanding. Watch the way he expertly handles the mugging sequence of Danny's father, or the perfect way Elvis is framed from a slight distance when he breaks the bottle to protect Carolyn Jones from Maxie's thugs. KING CREOLE is a really expertly directed film by a very old pro.

As I mentioned the cast is especially good and it is to their credit that KING CREOLE doesn't feel nearly as dated as many 'youth' pictures from this period. Walter Mattheau is particularly good as a gangster not big enough to be untouchable but just big enough to be really dangerous. Carolyn Jones and Dolores Hart are both heartbreakingly sublime in their roles (has a girl ever been as pretty as Dolores Hart in this film?) and Liliane Montevecchi is very memorable in a smaller role as one of the dancers.
It all falls back onto Elvis though...and in the most demanding role of his career he is really very good. He delivers a performance with a lot of depth and soul that is made all the more impressive when one considers how young and inexperienced he was. Curtiz liked him a lot, as did the cast. Mattheau was especially impressed and would later say, "He [Elvis Presley] was an instinctive actor...He was quite bright...he was very intelligent...He was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate, and refined, and sophisticated." The critics were even impressed and Elvis garnered similar reviews to that of the twentieth centuries other great icon, Marilyn Monroe in BUS STOP (1956). Watching how good Elvis is in this makes his later film career (despite its pleasures and value) all the more disappointing.
KING CREOLE opened up in the summer of 1958 to strong business and mostly good reviews. Curtiz was proud of the film and predicted Elvis Presley would become a great actor. The iconic director would go onto finish an impressive six films before passing away in 1961. Hart, Jones, and especially Mattheau would all go onto to be stars in their own right.
Had Elvis not gone in the army right after finishing KING CREOLE there is no telling what might have happened with his film career. He did though, and then momentum from the film was lost. When he returned he made two dramatic films that would nearly equal his work for Curtiz, FLAMING STAR and WILD IN THE COUNTRY, but those films would be relative failures. Despite making several fine films in the sixties, Elvis Presley never again had the chance to work with a director as great as Curtiz or shine as an actor like he had in KING CREOLE. It really is one of the great losses in Hollywood history.

KING CREOLE is available on a bare bones DVD with a nice widescreen transfer but little else. Film fans who look upon it as just another 'Elvis film' are really missing out. It is a really finely directed and performed work from a period in Hollywood history often overlooked. On the eve of its fiftieth anniversary it deserves some serious reappraisal.


Jan said...

Jeremy, mnay will continue to question whether Elvis had the potential to become a fine dramatic actor. I know this was a dream he had. I agree with your assessment of the co-stars, direction, and look of King Creole. I liked this movie. It has become fashionable to consider most of Elvis' later 60's films as fluff and performance failures. However, he had a comedic talent that is evident in many of these films such as Viva Las Vegas and Follow That Dream, to name just two. Sad to say we will never know what he could have done with the right material and direction. What was, just was. What we do have an is a visual record of a charming, funny, musically gifted man who touched many people through his films. Thanks for reviewing King Creole as an overlooked classic. I think it deserves another look.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Jan,
I totally agree and I am glad you liked the tribute