Filmed and released in 1958, King Creole was Elvis Presley’s fourth film. Elvis’ induction into the US Army was postponed so that he could complete this movie, and by the time it hit theaters, he was already a soldier.
“Which one is King Creole?” my wife asked when I recently mentioned the film.
“It’s the one where Elvis is down on his luck and then becomes a singer,” I said.
She stared at me blankly.
“It’s the one where he is torn between two women,” I offered, trying to be helpful. I would never attempt to confuse my wife on such an important matter, now would I?
Despite my great clues, this also did not help.
“He gets in a fight in a bar,” I said, trying again.
“That could be any Elvis movie!” she finally exclaimed.
“Yes, but this one is in New Orleans. At least I didn’t say he plays a singing race car driver.” For some reason, she looked like she wanted to slug me at this point.
Of course, despite some outward similarities, King Creole is not just any Elvis movie. All discussions of his best performances as an actor have to include this film. Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), King Creole is probably the most artistic film in Elvis’ body of work.
Elvis stars as Danny Fisher, a high school student in New Orleans on the verge of graduating. After a chance encounter with Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), a woman tied to crime boss Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau), Danny’s life turns upside down as he is lured into a dark world and ensnared by Fields.
Along the way, Danny does indeed become a singer as well as the object of the affections of Nellie (Dolores Hart). He also proves to be great with his fists, for King Creole is perhaps Elvis’ most violent movie. Sure, there are fistfights in many Elvis movies, but the King Creole fights are at a different intensity.
When I went to pull out the DVD of King Creole a couple weeks ago, it became obvious why my wife had to ask what it was about. While she is not a huge Elvis fan, she has picked up on many things over the years just because she happens to be married to someone who is.
Yet, there, in my DVD collection, sat King Creole still in its original shrink wrap. I’ve had the movie long enough to not even remember how I obtained it, yet in all those years, I had not once opened and watched it.
This meant that it had been over ten years since I had watched King Creole, as my previous copy was a VHS tape. Thinking back, it was probably more like 14 years ago. I know, I know, time to turn in my Elvis fan card.
Among his four 1950s movies, Jailhouse Rock and Loving You seem to be the ones I gravitate towards. I enjoy watching most Elvis movies, though, so why had I neglected King Creole – undeniably one of his best – all these years?
When I watched the DVD of King Creole that night, I began to remember my impressions of it as a 23-year-old and understand why I did not revisit it often. There were really two reasons I did not connect with King Creole very well back then.
The first was that I found it really frustrating to watch Fields manipulate good-hearted Danny. I kept wanting Danny to see through the ruse. Of course, that would have made for a much shorter movie.
The second reason was that I just could not understand why Danny found the broken Ronnie so compelling compared to the innocent Nellie – who he treated rather coldly at times.
After watching the movie twice last month, however, I realized that this actually has much more to do with the fact that I find Dolores Hart (Nellie) to be one of his most attractive co-stars (right up there with Ann-Margret and Shelly Fabares) rather than anything the movie actually presents.
Plus, since Hart also appeared in a larger role in Loving You, I was really combining her two characters into one. While I view some aspects of Danny’s conflict differently than I did when I was 23 (more on that in a future post), I still love Dolores Hart. I would not have been torn. (As it turned out, Hart had a higher calling and left Hollywood a few years later to become a nun.)
While I’ve not seen the movie often, I’ve listened to the soundtrack countless times. It was fun to see Elvis perform the songs I’ve been listening to for so long.
I have at least a dozen ideas for posts around King Creole. I’ll try to squeeze in as many as I can over the next few months.
My grandmother worked in the ticket booth of Richmond’s Westhampton Theater for decades. My parents also met there. You could say my love of movies is truly in my blood.
I dedicate this series of posts to my grandmother, who would have turned 103 this month. I often remember her when I watch movies.