King Creole is largely considered to be Elvis’ best film. The sheer power of Elvis’s musical performances alone in this black and white film makes it worth a watch. His voice is his “‘50s voice,” still raspy, hitting the high notes with fidelity. It is Elvis in his full swagger. The musical numbers in the film are as good as the best of Elvis’s catalogue, and have the rockabilly sensibility of his early career.
On the other hand, the film does not reach the dramatic standards of others of this era, such as those starring James Dean or Marlon Brando. Prior to his untimely death, Dean himself was considered for the role of Danny Fisher. The film evokes Rebel without a Cause at times, considering the father/son drama. Nevertheless, King Creole never quite reaches the dramatic tension of Rebel Without a Cause. The sense of thrill and even danger we feel from Elvis in his musical numbers does not carry over to his acting performance. But that’s alright, mama.
Elvis may have preferred to be a more serious actor without the musical numbers. Unfortunately for him, he’s Elvis. People want to hear him sing and dance. This he delivers in King Creole. Though Elvis’s emotional range is not necessarily that of a great dramatic actor, he is at least funny and playful on screen.
“Crawfish” is the excellent opening musical number. The film is shot on location in New Orleans, where a couple of black street food vendors push their carts on the French Quarter, calling out and alternating their verses:
Finally, Elvis calls back, leaning out the window of his low-rent apartment in a simple white T-shirt and jeans, overlooking the French Quarter. Elvis turns the word “crawfish” into more syllables than you might have thought possible. After slipping on a button-down shirt, Elvis leans over the banister of his patio and continues the duet with an African American woman with a big voice.
Elvis’s character, Danny Fisher, is living in a tough neighborhood due to his father’s being out of a job. Fisher has had a tough time graduating from high school. At 23 years-old at the time of filming, we can suspend our disbelief that Elvis might be a 19 year-old senior in high school (his second attempt at his senior year).
Danny goes to his job as a bus boy. We quickly learn that Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) is the head mafioso in the city. Meanwhile, Ronnie (Carolyn Jones) is apparently a prostitute who works for Fields. Her date asks Danny to sing for him, at which point Danny reluctantly recites his school song, Royal High School, which is not the most exciting number, but otherwise demonstrates Elvis’s perfect pitch.
When her date continues to rough-handle Ronnie, she asks him, exasperated, “Who do you think I am?” When he answers her rudely, she continues:
It’s a lifetime study to find out who you are. To thine own self be true. And it follows as the day…To thine own self be true...if you can afford it
Thus a theme in the film is being true to yourself. Yet it also touches on the conflict, which is that sometimes outside circumstances force us to compromise on our principles and our vision of who we would like to be. “To thine own self be true” is all very nice, but in the real world one cannot be so pure.
Danny almost intervenes in the abuse of Ronnie, but then thinks better of it, and says he’ll leave. But when the hoodlum smacks her to the ground, Danny breaks a bottle and yields it as a weapon.
In the cab, Ronnie indicates her interest in Danny, yet bitterly refers to Fields as her benefactor. She asks him,
“What don’t you kiss me?”
As the cab stops in front of his school, Danny gives Ronnie a kiss. Another student says, “Hey Danny, you’re blushing.” At this point, Danny punches the student in the face. This brings Danny to the principal’s office.
In the principal’s office, in one of the funniest lines, Danny respond to his middle-aged female teacher’s scolding:
“Well, look honey.”
It’s as though the Elvis persona inappropriately emerges, creating an ironic situation. The principal informs Danny he won’t graduate, either because of the fight or possibly because of a teacher who is also in the office who insinuates that he is not passing her class. But the principal is sympathetic to Danny’s predicament. Danny explains to the principal that he’s not a hoodlum, and proceeds to list every menial job he’s worked while in high school. In this scene we feel Elvis’s righteous indignation, as though he’s recounting his own struggle to success. Danny explains:
“I’m not a hoodlum, but I am a hustler.”
Shortly thereafter, a gang of boys tries to jump Danny, because one is the brother of the student whom Danny punched. But Danny successfully fends them off.
Another conflict is the lack of income in Danny’s family, with his father out of work. Danny needs to work instead of going to school. From his perspective, the need for money is more important, especially after failing to graduate. In an argument with his father (played by Dean Jagger), we learn that Danny considers his father weak, that he doesn’t fight back, and his plan for honest work doesn’t impress Danny. After all, Mr. Fisher is unemployed, despite being a certified pharmacist.
As if to prove this point, Danny decides to team up with the same gang of boys who tried to jump him. Together, they plan to rob a store. Danny provides a distraction by playing an acoustic number while the other boys rob the place blind. Here Danny meets the beautiful, fair-skinned Nellie (Dolores Hart) whom Danny abruptly asks out on a date (but hey, it works!).
When Danny encounters Fields at the The Blue Shade Nightclub, where he works as a busboy, there is an immediate animosity. Fields notices that there seems to be some history between Ronnie and Danny. “Why does the bus boy look at you like that?” he asks her contemptuously. To test Ronnie’s story that she knows Danny from a musical performance, Fields demands that he sing right there on the spot. Elvis brilliantly preforms one of his best, “Trouble”, backed by a black New Orleans jazz brass section outfitted in maxing tuxedos and bowler hats:
Elvis moves his body as if possessed and flops his hair up and down in the cacophony of the bright jazz/ rock music backing him. With the lyrics of “Trouble,” and Elvis’ defiance of mob-boss Fields, Elvis reverts to his “bad boy” on-screen persona.
Based on this excellent performance, Danny is offered a gig singing at the King Creole by Charlie LeGrand (Paul Steward). Fields observes this offer with a hint of perturbation.
On their first date, Danny wastes no time and takes Nellie to a hotel. She is visibly terrified by the situation. After giving her a false name, he changes his mind, telling her his real name, and demands,
“Are you coming in?”
Danny’s aggressive behavior is inconsistent with his characterization earlier in the film. Is he supposed to be a scoundrel or a decent guy? Later, Danny apologizes to Nellie, claiming that he thought she was also looking for a quick hook-up. When Danny realizes that’s not the case, he seems like he’s ready to move on.
Danny seems more interested in the more “loose” woman, Ronnie. So is that what Danny is all about, a transactional relationship? It furthers our impression of Danny as a “bad boy.”
Charles LeGrand goes to the Fisher household and tries to convince Mr. Fisher to let Danny sing at his club. “He has the right to think for himself,” he says to Mr. Fisher, who is not persuaded. The middle-aged LeGrand’s consolation is that he finds he rather likes Danny’s sister, despite their twenty year age difference.
To skip forward a bit, a conflict emerges between Danny and the mob boss Fields due to Danny’s continued refusal to go sing for him in his club. Fields has a scheme to get some leverage over Danny, which ultimately leads to Mr. Fisher getting attacked. Thus brings the climax when Danny has a final confrontation with Fields and his men. Danny emerges safe and sound, performing triumphantly at King Creole.
Critical Response and Conclusion
It was Elvis’s third film, and the critics at the time seemed pleasantly surprised that he could act. Elvis himself considered it his favorite role. It might be the only Elvis film praised by critics (100 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes). According to Flick Direct, the film is considered to have “added more credibility to his acting career.”
Still, the issues with Elvis’ acting are the same: Elvis doesn’t know quite who he wants to be as an actor. Is he a bad boy like Brando in The Wild One? At times, that seems to be his template. But compared to Brando’s masculine charisma, Elvis has merely a boyish charm. Yet Elvis is a formidable physical presence on screen, just as he is on stage as a musical artist. For the ‘50s, Elvis is an above average but not great actor. He is charming and has a winning way on screen, but he is not a vehicle through which to express and communicate the full range of human emotion; neither exhilaration nor tragedy.
When also considering Elvis’s dynamic musical performances in King Creole, however, one must conclude that it is indeed a great film.
King Creole. Directed by Michael Curtiz. performances by Elvis Presley and Carolyn Jones, Paramount Pictures, 1958.