Elvis Presley movies are easy to mock and often face scorn and ridicule. After he returned from military service in Germany, Elvis was directed by his manager, Col. Tom Parker, to star in lightweight fare that highlighted his singing ability, but never challenged his acting ability. Col. Parker wanted to make Elvis look like a wholesome alternative to The Beatles, while providing a showcase for his records.
While the films were enjoyable and highly profitable, most critics and "serious minded" film goers were not impressed with the formulaic flicks. However, Elvis' immense fan base ignored the bad reviews and made the pictures successful.
Before he was drafted into the Army, Elvis was on the road to an interesting and more serious film career. He made his motion picture debut in a western, Love Me Tender, and rocked on in Jailhouse Rock, but 1958's King Creole, the last film he would make before joining the Army, was his best. Why not celebrate what would have been his 65th birthday this weekend (January 8, just one day before mine) by renting one of his best films?
Shot entirely on location in New Orleans, this musical-teen-film noir (how's that for critic talk? :-) finds Elvis playing the role of rebel teen Danny Fisher. The kid is having trouble with all forms of authority, since his mother died three years ago and his father lost his pharmacy.
Danny feels that the system is against him. His teachers are flunking him and the principle thinks he's nothing more than a hood. They don't understand that he works before and after school to feed his family and pay the bills, while his father continues to grieve. He's a rebel with a cause.
Finally, against his father's wishes, Danny has had enough and drops out of school. He continues to work as a bus boy in a Bourbon street bar, but he has a great, undiscovered talent. Yes, he can sing.
Danny gets an opportunity to show his singing and entertaining ability, wows the crowd and gets a moderately paying job as the main attraction at a rival nightclub. However, the dastardly crime boss Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) wants Danny to sing at his bar and will stop at nothing to force him into a contract.
Will Danny be able to stay away from a life of crime and domination by Maxie Fields? Will he find true love with Nellie, a nice girl from the local five-and-dime? Can he repair the damaged relationship he shares with his father?
The film starkly contrasts with our preconceived notions of an Elvis movie. In King Creole, Elvis plays a rebel wanting a better life for his family, but no faith that he can do so through legitimate means. It's a classic film noir dilemma: should our hero stay away from the seedy characters or use them to his benefit?
Elvis gets his chance to sing and dance, which he seems a little embarrassed about. Presley realized that he was going to get parts due to his marketability as a singer, but this role challenges him to play against his good boy image. When not singing, he puts in a strong performance reminiscent of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Elvis was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, so he is able to draw upon the difficulties and shady characters he had to deal with to become a successful rock icon. Like any good film noir hero, we sympathize with his plight even if greed and ambition cause him to make mistakes along the path to redemption.
You're going to see some surprising faces in this movie. First, Walter Matthau is excellent as the evil crime boss, Maxie Fields. We are used to seeing Matthau in comic performances, but he does a good job of acting like the intimidating tough guy.
Another familiar face is Carolyn Jones who plays Ronny, a down-on-her-luck entertainer who fell into Maxie's clutches and wants to keep Danny from making the same mistakes. She puts in a solid performance that is burdened by her tendency to overact early in the film. You probably remember her as Morticia Addams from TV's The Addams Family.
The early portion of the film does a solid job of establishing the characters, their motivation and backstory (as well as letting Elvis belt out a few tunes to fill out the soundtrack), but the movie really takes off in the last 45 minutes to provide a fantastic and suspenseful finale.
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Herbert Baker and Michael Vincent Gazzo
Based on the Novel "A Stone for Danny Fisher" by Harold Robbins
Elvis Presley Danny Fisher
Carolyn Jones . Ronny
Walter Matthau ... Maxie Fields
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