Herbert Baker and Michael Vincent Gazzo based the King Creole screenplay on the 1952 novel A Stone For Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins. Until I read the book, my knowledge of the author was limited to the following exchange between Jim Kirk and Spock in 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
In the film, the Enterprise crew has journeyed back in time 300 years to 20th century Earth. Kirk has been trying to fit in with the natives.
Spock: Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with, shall I say, more colorful metaphors….
Kirk: You mean the profanity?
Kirk: That’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word. You’ll find it in all the literature of the period.
Spock: For example?
Kirk: Well, the collected works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins.
Spock: Ah. The giants.
With Vulcan sarcasm in mind, I was not quite sure what to expect from Robbins’ novel.
While I feel the acting potential of Elvis Presley was never fully realized, even I acknowledge that he probably would have been less than convincing in 1958 playing a Jewish boxer from Brooklyn. Who am I to say, though? Maybe he would have pulled it off.
While Danny Fisher morphs into a religiously-ambiguous singer from New Orleans in King Creole, the interesting thing about reading the novel is that it does feel like the same character. The book, then, acts as an excellent back story for the film. According to biographer Peter Guralnick, Elvis even read the novel as part of his preparations for the movie (Last Train To Memphis, page 450).
Guralnick’s claim is backed up by the sheer strength of Elvis’ performance in the role. The character seems more than what is on the page of the film script, and I believe Elvis reading the novel beforehand is part of what makes Danny so believable. This is a character who has already lived, already has a history, before the events of the movie begin. Compare that with Vince Everett of Jailhouse Rock, who seems to fade into existence just to serve the purpose of the movie.
A Stone For Danny Fisher is written in first person perspective, meaning in this case that Danny is actually the one telling his story. I could not help but imagine much of the book with Elvis as Danny.
As one would expect, the novel captures a much broader story than the film does. While the movie focuses on Danny at 19-years-old in 1958, the book covers his life from 8-years-old in 1925 up until 27-years-old in 1944.
Only touched upon in the film, one of the recurring elements of the novel is Danny’s house. Danny’s family moves from a tight apartment into a more spacious home. Moving day is his eighth birthday, and his father tells him the house is his present.
I turned and pressed my lips to the cool floor. “I love you, house,” I whispered. “You’re the most beautiful house in the whole world, and you’re mine and I love you.”
Danny’s father loses the house during the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, and they are forced to move again. From that point on, his relationship with his father is different.
That was the night when for the first time I admitted to myself that it was not my house, that it really belonged to someone else, and there was no heart left in me for tears.
As in the movie, Danny takes Nellie to see his old house, vowing to someday buy it back.
The movie version of the scene is illustrative of the issues in the relationship between Danny and Nellie. More so than any other point in the movie, Danny is being open with Nellie and sharing something that is extremely important to him. She misses this entirely, barely reacting at all. It is a telling moment, as the two characters appear to be in the middle of completely different conversations.
Danny: You see that house over there? Way over there. See it? That used to be our house. Pa bought it when I was about 8-years-old. It was kind of my birthday present. We sure had a lot of happy times there. I’m gonna buy that house back someday or one just like it. And I guarantee nobody’s gonna take it away from me. Nobody.
Nellie: I told my mother about you. I told her I met a million-dollar boyfriend in a five and ten cents store.
In the novel, Nellie is much more present in the scene. It draws them closer together, while the film version seems to distance them.
We were standing on a dark empty corner, almost ten o’clock at night, in a neighborhood in Brooklyn she had never even known about. I raised my hand and pointed across the street. “See it?” I asked. […] “It’s my house. I used to live there. Maybe soon we’ll be able to move back.”
A sudden light came into her eyes. She glanced quickly at the house, then back at me. Her mouth softened gently. “It is a beautiful house, Danny,” she said in an understanding voice.
My hand tightened on her arm. “Papa gave it to me for my birthday when I was eight years old,” I explained to her. […]
“And now you will move back here,” she whispered softly, pressing her face against my shoulder. “Oh, Danny, I’m so happy for you!”
As told through Danny’s eyes, the writing of the novel varies from crude to eloquent. Even the movie shows some of this dichotomy of character. Think of the crudeness of Danny propositioning the innocent Nellie outside of Room 205 versus the eloquence of him singing “As Long As I Have You,” for instance. While the overall tone is often gritty, I was surprised at the beauty of certain passages of the novel. Though a boxer and later a business man of questionable virtue, Danny has a poet’s soul.
I find Danny in King Creole to be a frustrating character because he seems to have a good heart, yet keeps taking the wrong steps or simply getting bad breaks. The novel version of Danny has many of the same qualities. Like his house, true happiness often seems just within his reach, before it is ripped away from him. Seeing this pattern, Nellie eventually becomes afraid of the house, afraid of what will happen when Danny finally obtains what he has sought for so long.
Reading the book made me realize that Baker and Gazzo’s screen adaptation represents a masterpiece of writing in its own right. It pulls bits and pieces from the novel and carves out a new, yet familiar story. To reference more recent Star Trek movies, King Creole feels like an alternate universe version of the Danny Fisher story.
It was almost as if I were watching this from a seat in the movies. I wasn’t really a part of it. It was another guy named Danny Fisher, and he had gone away two years ago and never really come back.
Though the fates of certain characters differ from the film, the book also offers the rare opportunity to find out “what happens next.”
While a departure from what I normally read, A Stone For Danny Fisher is a worthwhile, well-written novel that sheds more light on the story behind King Creole and the material that inspired how Elvis portrayed his character.
My grandmother worked in the ticket booth of Richmond’s Westhampton Theater for decades. I dedicate this series of movie posts to my grandmother, who would have turned 103 this month. I often remember her when I watch movies.