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20 October 2018

KIng Creole: Was Elvis a Movie Star?

Elvis easily joins in a New Orleans street vendor's call

From the beginning, rock stars have been seen as subjects for quick exploitation, which led to dozens of cheap quickie movies with little to recommend them today except the chance to glimpse some long gone artists. Fortunately for Elvis and all of us, with King Creole producer Hal Wallis decided to create a quality product, with a very suitable story by best-selling novelist Harold Robbins, and a more than competent cast featuring Carolyn Jones, Vic Morrow, Dean Jagger, Paul Stewart, and a superb Walter Matthau. Best of all, he  enlisted veteran director Michael Curtiz. 

You can see this is going to be a damn good movie from the first minute, as Elvis, completely alert and together, joins a New Orleans street vendor (Kitty White) in her traditional cry of "Crawfish for sale!" With his usual mysterious (because, after all, he was Hungarian) grasp of American folkways and rhythms, Curtiz takes advantage of the exotic, hip, and jazzy atmosphere of the city, with its inevitable undertone of danger, and links Elvis' distinctive style to it naturally.

This is a musical drams, not a musical comedy. Elvis is entirely convincing as Danny Fisher, a teenager struggling with school, family and money problems These include temptations of sex, in the person of Carolyn Jones, and crime, first from teen thug Vic Morrow, then a scarily cold-hearted Matthau, complicating his existence. Danny and his sister, Mimi (Jan Shepard), work to keep their family together after their mother's death seems to have completely devastated their father (Dean Jagger). Danny briefly gets involved with a small gang of punks, headed by Shark (Morrow), including a mute called Dummy (Jack Grinnage), who he protects from the others. He is thrown out of school, gets involved with a mobster's girlfriend, and reluctantly takes part in a robbery; his life seems to be unraveling.

Maxie's girlfriend Ronnie is troubled and dangerous to know
Another 1950's phenomenon plagues Danny -- like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, he is torn between love and scorn for a father he sees as being painfully emasculated. Elvis is very good conveying the simmering anger and resentment powering his explosive talent. For,fortunately, just when he needs it most, and after a blistering impromptu rendition of Leiber and Stoller's "Trouble," Danny is offered a job singing "folk songs" in a Bourbon Street dive. Of course, he becomes a huge hit.

Danny hits one out of the park with Leiber and Stoller's "Trouble"
Unfortunately, this just causes Danny more trouble, because mobster Maxie Fields has attained a stranglehold over almost all the venues on Bourbon Street. The only exception is the King Creole, run by an old adversary, Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), which happens to be the one Danny has turned into a success. In a rather sweet subplot, a May-September romance develops between LeGrand and Danny's sister Mimi (Jan Shepard). Danny has met and been attracted to a nice girl, Nellie (a very appealing performance by Dolores Hart), but he's also warily attracted to Maxie's girlfriend, Ronnie (a riveting Carolyn Jones).

Danny is fought over by two club owners

The story explodes into violence as Maxie, after setting him up, pressures Danny into leaving LeGrand's club and moving to his. This brings him into close contact with the alluring but troubled Ronnie, who has developed quite a crush on him. This doesn't exactly please Maxie, but he controls his anger since Danny is packing the club every night. Things eventually come to a head, however, when Maxie maliciously causes a rift between Danny and his father. Danny, whose resentment is always simmering beneath the surface, storms up to Maxie's office and attacks him; Maxie is bigger and meaner, but Danny is much younger and faster, and very angry, and by the time Ronnie manages to part them Maxie is down. But after Danny leaves, Maxie calls his minions, including sneering teen thug Shark (Vic Morrow), who attacks Danny with a knife. This leads to one of the iconic movie fights of the fifties, the staging re-enacted by teenage boys everywhere for decades.

A final fight with Vic Morrow
Danny is injured in the fight, but Shark is killed. Danny staggers home, but his father has locked the door. He collapses on the street, bleeding. Ronnie arrives with her car, drags him into the front seat, and they go on the run. Danny and Ronnie have a few days of peace together at a beachside cottage she owns. But Maxie's thugs track them down, and as they try to flee Ronnie is shot. All that saves Danny is the kid he helped, Dummy, who tackles the gunman just as the police arrive.

Ronnie is dead. LeGrand and Mr. Fisher have provided enough evidence to have Maxie arrested. Danny, reconciled with his father, rerturns to the King Creole club to continue his career.

The tight script, expert direction of emotional, action, and musical scenes by Curtiz, and the really fine performances all around, would make this a good movie whoever starred in it. But in this one, early in his career, Elvis Presley was quite capable of holding his own with talented and experienced actors like Matthau, Jones, and Jagger.

Elvis backed by the Jordanaires on "King Creole"

Making a good movie takes a lot of thought, work, and preparation. Later in his career, Elvis -- or at least his manager, Tom Parker -- wasn't willing to make that commitment, and many of his films were, frankly, terrible. But it wasn't because of lack of talent or ability. He was a real movie star -- for a while.