6 KING CREOLE
Released in the USA September 19 1958
Hollywood director Michael Curtiz made some great films, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and more. And like Elvis with his records, Curtiz made some stinkers. The director had two weaknesses. Both were indulged by his peers and regarded with amusement. The Hungarian born director arrived in the States just before he turned forty years of age. He never did master the English language. His malapropisms in his second language were not quite as famous as those of Sam Goldwyn but they were exaggerated by a heavy accent and remembered by those that gossiped. The second weakness of Curtiz was more serious. He pestered young actresses for sexual favours, an activity in which he was shameless and relentless.
One evening after shooting had finished on a particular Curtiz film the Hollywood cast gathered around the high balustrade that lined the perimeter of the walls of the set. After a demanding day the tired workers wanted sport. They peered over the surrounding walls. Below them a young woman was performing fellatio on Curtiz. Either someone on the balustrade giggled or ecstacy tilted the head of Curtiz away from his director’s chair and towards heaven. When the Hungarian director saw the grinning crowd he slapped the top of the head of the woman and shouted, ‘Good God, girl, what are you doing?’ The tale was told at more than one Hollywood party. It did nothing to diminish the authority of Curtiz in Hollywood. At their first meeting Curtiz told Elvis to lose fifteen pounds in weight and shave off his sideburns. Elvis did as he was told.
All this happened a long time before the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and in 1958 it was how the powerful in Hollywood and the rock and roll businesses operated. Elvis had no concerns about the predatory behaviour of Curtiz. As everyone said goodbyes and left the set, Elvis walked over to Michael Curtiz and thanked him. The singer told the randy Hungarian that he had always wondered what a director did and now he knew. King Creole was popular and although some remained unconvinced the critics were positive about the film. This combined critical and commercial success that greeted King Creole makes it unique amongst Elvis films.
Plenty of photographs emerged from the making of King Creole. The movie stills reveal Elvis as a haunted and troubled hero obliged to make his way in a difficult world. In the posed publicity shots Elvis looks very different from the mixed up hero he plays in the film. He smiles like someone who is more than comfortable with his sudden success. The actresses from the movie surround him like ornaments, and Elvis has his favourite Gibson guitar in his lap. After the behaviour of Curtiz, the Gibson guitar represents a kind of moral progress. Perhaps it allows the self-satisfied grins of Elvis to be forgiven.
The movie was important to me as a child because I saw it with my father. I remember my father taking just me to the cinema on three occasions. King Creole was the one film of the three that we both liked, and that shared pleasure was important to our relationship but not enough for my father to ever take me to the cinema again. Before watching the movie we had visited the ailing mother of my father. The woman lived in nearby St Helens and had experienced a difficult life. She had worked in service for a family more affluent than her own and later she was employed at one of the local mines. My grandmother was thin and drawn. There always had been sadness and bafflement in her eyes. Ill and close to death the remote sadness filled the room where she slept.
My father took his mother two bottles of Mackeson Stout. The local doctor had said the stout was permissible providing it was taken with warm milk. It may have given my grandmother relief but it did not aid her recovery. She died soon after the visit from my father. Somewhere in that final conversation with his mother either he or she suggested that my father and me spend the afternoon in St Helens. My father said that we might go to ‘the pictures’. Not realising she was making an important decision, my grandmother replied, ‘There’s not much on. Just that Elvis Presley.’
Despite the reservations of a woman who was not in the best of spirits the trip into the town centre doused me in loyalty that I have never shaken off. The movie and the record album are both great. Curtiz filmed King Creole in black and white and, as he had in the classic melodrama Mildred Pierce, he extended and deepened an escapist genre by adding a noir dimension. In this instance film noir was combined with a rock and roll musical. Jailhouse Rock is remembered for its punk authenticity, and its cynicism gave the film distinction but no elements from film noir existed in Jailhouse Rock. King Creole had eleven songs, a hero that had to struggle against gangsters, lots of Curtiz cinematic style and some subtle arguments about morality and authenticity. No other early rock and roll movie compares.
The movie was based on a book by Harold Robbins, an author that sacrificed all of his literary potential to make a fortune writing overheated and bulky pulps loaded with sex and melodrama. Two of his books, though not short of melodrama, have merit. These are A Stone For Danny Fisher and Never Love A Stranger. Both books inspired half decent films. King Creole was based on A Stone For Danny Fisher. In the book the hero is a prizefighter and has to struggle against being poor and Jewish. The criticism of antisemitism, which was a strength in the book, does not feature in King Creole. In the movie the prizefighter became a singer and was no longer Jewish. The winter schedule for the shooting of the movie and the absence of sunshine complemented the noir style of King Creole. The 60 days it took to film the movie began in January and ended on the 10th of March. Two weeks later on the 24th of March, Elvis was in the Army. The Hollywood wardrobe department had been replaced by a kit bag.
The record album is short. It lasts twenty two minutes, and one of the songs is an irritation in an album that has a rock and roll identity. The school song Steadfast, Loyal and True makes cynical sense in the movie. Hardcase Elvis sings the song under protest. On the album the song, though, is redundant. The influence of Hollywood is apparent elsewhere. Some of the songs feel as if they have been written in a rock and roll factory rather than having emerged organically from a music culture. Fortunately, Leiber and Stoller had been successful in balancing rhythm and blues and pop. The songwriting pair were present in the recording studio and they helped keep everything focussed on a productive middle ground. Elvis added his own magic. The song Trouble is presented in the movie as an antidote to Steadfast Loyal and True. In an interview much later Jerry Leiber was critical of the record Trouble. ‘Muddy Waters it ain’t’ said Leiber. He was half right. Elvis lacks the threatening masculinity in the spoken verse but in the chorus he adds a bluesy rhythm that is the equal of anyone. And Leiber has no right to be superior. Thanks to Elvis the half written song was extended into an album track of a decent length.
Crawfish and Lover Doll are obvious items from a Hollywood songwriting factory but Elvis transforms them into something memorable. Most critics ignore the lyrics of Crawfish and relish the bass line and the performance of the singer. Crawfish is a favourite amongst musicians that are not Elvis fans which must make it a supreme example of how performance or form can transcend content. Like Teddy Bear in the earlier film Loving You, the song Lover Doll is rescued by what appears to be the good natured charm of Elvis. Apart from the ballad As Long As I Have You the rest of the album is rock and roll and doo wop. When it drifts into Hollywood blues in New Orleans the unrestrained performance of Elvis adds protest and authentic urgency. And even the ballad As Long As I Have You is essential. The lyrics promise eternal if routine contentment but the ominous Elvis baritone loads the song with a dread of fate.
When Paul McCartney heard the album he was critical of the horns used to add New Orleans jazz to the music. McCartney suggested that additional instruments compromised rock and roll. God knows why he said that because the jazz musicians are great. In the book that accompanies the Sony Release Elvis Presley The Album Collection the musicians are mentioned. For the record their names are Mahlon Clark, clarinet, John Ed Bruckner, trumpet, Justin Gordon sax, Elmer Schneider and Warren D Smith, trombone. Kitty White delivered the bluesy accompanying vocals on Crawfish.
One thing is clear from both the movie and the album. Elvis may have been no hero in dealing with the bullying bluff of Colonel Parker but in and before 1958 the affectation of heroism had been important to the success of the performances and music of Elvis. Young rock and roll fans wanted a performer that could be seen not just to intrude into the adult world but conquer. Elvis had responded to challenges not just in individual songs but also those presented by the Sun and RCA recording companies and then television and Hollywood. In succeeding he had filled the role of hero. His good looks and swagger helped the illusion. The heroism may not have been in his nature but without that pretence these early achievements of Elvis would have been less significant. How the relationship between his need to affect an imitation of heroism and the requirement to sustain productive work would contribute to success and failure and his own problems as a human being would only become clear later.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book Go Break Bad is now available here.