As the lad himself might say, cut my legs off and call me Shorty! Elvis Presley can act.– Howard Thompson for The New York Times, 4 July 1958
It isn’t easy to talk about Elvis Presley the movie star without dealing with counterfactuals. As the story goes, Elvis’ greatest ambition was to one day win an Academy Award for acting. He idolized James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Tony Curtis, prodigious performers who successfully mounted challenging material. Was ever there a version of events where Elvis could have joined the ranks of explosive young actors defining the struggles of class and masculinity for their generation?
What if producers and studio executives had offered him better scripts? What if he had been able to rebuff his manager Colonel Tom Parker’s insistence that every film contain a marketable soundtrack? What if critics and collaborators had been able to look past Elvis’, well, Elvisness? Could his film career have gone the way he dreamed as an adolescent? And, perhaps most important to any fan of The King: might that have granted him the kind of longevity that comes only through the freedom for creative evolution? Glimmers of these possibilities emerge throughout Elvis’ prolific and derided Hollywood career, but the true light of his potential never shines brighter than in King Creole.
If Elvis were ever going to become a serious actor, King Creole, the 1958 film directed by Michael Curtiz (whose bona fides to that point included Casablanca and Mildred Pierce), was his chance. It is a fascinating piece of media because it signifies both the actor that Elvis could have been and the brutal reality of his critical reputation. Widely regarded as Elvis’s best work and containing resonant themes such as generational animosity, urban poverty, and sexual maturation, King Creole has much in common with enduring classics such as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause(1955), Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), and Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955).
Elvis plays Danny Fisher in King Creole, a young man whose family has fallen on hard times after the death of his mother. In both an act of rebellion and an effort to support himself, he becomes a singer on the organized-crime-controlled New Orleans nightlife scene. The film also features an electrifying supporting performance from Carolyn Jones as Ronnie, a world-weary moll projecting the fantasy of innocent love onto Elvis’ troubled teenager. It has, in other words, the substance and staying power of a much more critically successful film. Although Elvis had made three previous films, King Creole feels like a debut performance: not skilled, exactly, but portentous of great things to come. So why, exactly, are audiences so unwilling to consider King Creole as anything other than the best of Elvis’ 31 films, merely the most watchable option in a filmography that, to quote critic Pauline Kael, ‘ranged from mediocre to putrid’? The answer seems frustratingly simple: King Creole starred Elvis Presley.
Elvis’ lack of autonomy over his career is well-documented. From the moment he signed with infamous talent manager Colonel Tom Parker in 1955, at the age of 20, he sealed his fate as a salable image rather than the transgressive artist he had briefly been. Still, at that point, the product of Elvis Presley was as yet unformed. Because he was emblematic of the adolescent consumer’s loudening voice, filmmakers initially positioned Elvis as a spiritual heir to James Dean. After the success of Rebel Without a Cause, Dean had come to represent the figure of the discontented youth; that film was one of the first to interrogate the stressors and anxieties of teenagers, a stage of life that had only recently been identified and classified as such in the postwar economic boom.
Elvis, who had newly erupted into the national eye, seemed for a moment like he might naturally take up this mantle. He was young and seemed younger: babyfaced, hormonal, excitable. His father, Vernon, had gone to jail for eight months in Elvis’ childhood for writing a bad check. The family had lived in poverty, first in Mississippi, then in Memphis. His accent was thick, his sense of humor coarse. This background promised an ability to convey the same hardened knowingness about the world that Dean had achieved in Rebel Without a Cause.
The casting of King Creole tested this theory directly. Producer Hal Wallis had acquired the rights to Harold Robbins’ novel A Stone for Danny Fisher in 1955, with the lead role of Danny originally written with Dean in mind. Briefly abandoned after Dean’s death, the picture was revived and rewritten for Elvis in 1957. The setting was moved from New York to New Orleans, and a full soundtrack of Elvis songs was added at Parker’s insistence.
Despite these mercenary impulses regarding the merchandising of their star, however, Elvis’ well-heeled collaborators on the film were cautiously optimistic about the journey ahead. They also tended to express genuine surprise about Elvis’ talent and dedication to the project. Curtiz, at first convinced that Elvis would be vain and demanding, is quoted by actress Jan Shepard as saying that he was “a lovely boy, and he’s going to be a wonderful actor.” Walter Matthau, who played gangster Maxie Fields, told a BBC interviewer that he struggled to call his 23-year-old scene partner “an instinctive actor because that is almost derogatory of his talents…he was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate” (Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis).
It is tempting to read these assessments as relative, just as it is tempting to judge King Creole against the 27 critically reviled Elvis films that followed it. But in watching King Creole, one is confronted with a young actor delivering a naturalistic yet ‘elegant’ performance, not for Elvis, but unequivocally. Elvis’ scenes with his downtrodden, ineffectual father (played by Dean Jagger) are particularly affecting, for the bitter contempt he conveys. True, he is nothing like James Dean. But his own artistic point of view is compelling in a different way. What made Elvis special as a vocalist was his sincerity, the ability to approach even the most bombastic material with utter conviction. Similarly, he doesn’t entirely avoid melodrama in King Creole, but he challenges the audience to accept the emotional truths of the picture without irony.
King Creole had plenty of points in its favor from the outset: timely themes, a successful director, an acclaimed cast with both film and stage credentials, a famous young star at his most focused. The sum total of the points against it, beyond any failing in the film itself, seemed to be what music publisher Jean Aberbach referred to as “the process known as Elvis Presley”. For example, the musical numbers: though Colonel Parker considered these essential for cross-promotion of Elvis’ recording career (as if, in 1958, sales were in any danger of dipping), his idiosyncrasies as a performer strain the credulity of his ‘Danny Fisher’ identity.
Perhaps the first step to removing King Creole from serious consideration was the Elvisification of the character. As Peter Guralnick writes in his biography Last Train to Memphis: “In reality, the score was independent of the picture; the character that Elvis played was a singer, it was true, but the story was up-from-poverty, and the protagonist might better have remained the boxer that he was in the novel in terms of the dramatic impact of the story.” Though Parker was convinced the songs would draw in viewers, they ultimately make the film less watchable and less arresting than it might have been had the original story been preserved.
The musical numbers also gave critics a convenient way to maintain the status quo in their opinion of Elvis’s value. Indeed, though The New York Times reviewed the film favorably, Howard Thompson’s positive impression was tempered by “eight or so of those twitching, gyrating musical interludes” (clearly a comment on Elvis himself, not Danny’s Bourbon Street nightclub act). Variety’s review, which takes a tone of lukewarm enjoyment (“Presley shows himself to be a surprisingly sympathetic and believable actor on occasion”) nevertheless notes that with “13 new songs, including a title number, [the] film runs a little long.” The musical numbers made it impossible for critics to suspend their disbelief that this was Elvis Presley, and, almost unanimously, they didn’t like Elvis Presley.
Elvis’ three films before King Creole (Love Me Tender, Loving You, and Jailhouse Rock) had gone a long way to cement him in the critical eye as, essentially, a gimmick. “Appraising Presley as an actor, he ain’t,” proclaimed Variety of his debut role. “Not that it makes much difference. There are four songs, and lotsa Presley wiggles thrown in for good measure.” By the release of Jailhouse Rock in 1957, the New York Times had adopted a tone of breezy dismissal in its coverage. The review, which calls Jailhouse Rock a “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer showcase for Elvis Presley” notes snidely that “the sound technicians must have closed in, for this time most of [Elvis’] singing can actually be understood”, but otherwise hardly deigns to engage with the quality of the film at all.
But King Creole is not Love Me Tender or the thinly-plotted semi-biographical Loving You. Nor does it have much in common with Jailhouse Rock, a film now widely regarded as a must-see for Elvis fans for its titular musical sequence. Instead, King Creole is the only film in Elvis’ oeuvre that feels even remotely like an ensemble piece, with character actors Carolyn Jones and Walter Matthau, in particular, providing key dramatic performances. Perhaps because it wasn’t written to be ‘an Elvis movie’, it feels in keeping with the concerns of the day, engaging with the so-called decline of cities, and examining warring archetypes of midcentury masculinity from Jagger’s weak father to Matthau’s thuggish bully. The story has real stakes. The cinematography is gritty, even noirish. It is the only film that Elvis ever starred in where the creative impulses behind it seem to extend beyond his casting, the only one that never even hints at the girls-and-guitars formula that would emerge after the success of G.I. Blues in 1960.
Elvis’ growth as an actor from Love Me Tender to King Creole suggests a future of films that never ultimately materialized. Again, it is tempting to drift into counterfactuals: Elvis had proven himself, at least to influential stakeholders like Curtiz, worthy of darker, more challenging material. Had he not been drafted in 1958, allowing Parker to mount an all-American rebrand of his absent client, could he have followed this performance with ones of similar caliber? Could Elvis have proven to his fans that he could maintain their interest without picking up a guitar? Could he have silenced his detractors the same way? Perhaps most interesting about King Creole in terms of its placement in Elvis’ filmography is that it might have, barring roadblocks such as Elvis’ military service and Parker’s management, represented a necessary course correction.
The films Elvis was in talks for and yet didn’t make, around the time of King Creole, provide as much insight into the career that could have been as King Creole itself. There were abandoned biopics of Hank Williams and, inevitably, James Dean, both of which languished in development. There was a proposed musical based on Nelson Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side, directed by On the Waterfront’s Elia Kazan. This was rejected by the Colonel, who felt that songwriters Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber had failed to move it through the proper channels. There was the 1958 crime drama, Thunder Road, wherein Robert Mitchum wanted Elvis to play his younger brother until the Colonel demanded too much money, and Mitchum cast his son instead. All of these unrealized possibilities come closer to capturing what it was about Elvis that had struck a chord with young America in the first place: he was rough around the edges, defiant. He was even alienating, but only to people who had never felt alienated.
Stories about what Elvis might have accomplished onscreen given the proper material and without the interference of the Colonel continue well into the ’70s. Though the constant churn of ‘Elvis movies’ in the ’60s (which were, to quote Mark Feeney for The American Scholar, little more than “females, fistfights, [and] forgettable songs”) took a toll on Elvis’ reputation, record sales, and his mental health, what he had accomplished in King Creole still seemed relevant for would-be collaborators. Others in Hollywood seemed to appreciate, even if by that point Elvis himself could not, that he was capable of tackling complex material with his trademark rigor.
According to a recent New Yorker article, his name came up during casting for 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, the X-rated film about the friendship between a con man and a male sex worker that went on to win Best Picture. Elvis was briefly considered to play Joe Buck, a naïve young man from Texas who tries to make a living as a gigolo in New York City, a role to which he might have brought any number of his own experiences as a poor Southern kid cum sex symbol and commodity. Barbra Streisand wanted Elvis to star opposite her in her 1976 remake of A Star Is Born as the mentor-lover character of John Norman Howard, a rock star facing the dual horrors of middle age and career decline.
These were gritty roles, daring and unflattering; these were characters dealing with lost innocence and bruised egos. They were, to put it differently, Danny Fisher, no longer a kid. Actually, the stifled rage and moral ambivalence Elvis was able to bring to Danny in King Creole would have been right at home in any number of more jaded movies from the ’70s. (I, for one, can picture him in Shampoo as the aimless, womanizing hairdresser played by Warren Beatty.)
In assessing Elvis Presley’s legacy, it is difficult not to write off his film career as doomed from the start or as something so hopelessly mangled by Colonel Parker’s machinations that it could never have been anything other than what it is. But King Creole is a brief (and now our only) glimpse at a world in which the words “starring Elvis Presley” don’t necessarily strike fear into the hearts of their listener. Furthermore, King Creole allows us to look more closely, not at Elvis the phenomenon, but Elvis, the person. The actor it platforms possessed profound yet somewhat unwieldy talent, imperfect and yet utterly compelling. Watching this film, one is forced to confront the legacy of ‘the Elvis movies’ as a tragedy: a purposeful and cynical misrepresentation.
In the 45 years since his death, Elvis Presley has come to represent America with all our excesses and contradictions. What does it say about America, then, that our most totemic artist is one who left behind such an extensive repository of capitalistically-motivated trash? Most of these films – with telling names like Girls! Girls! Girls! – offer the least insightful interpretation of Elvis’ appeal. Jammed with mediocre songs, underwritten characters, and often placed in picture-perfect vacation locales, these films serve as extra-long advertisements for the idea of Elvis Presley while remaining completely divorced from the carnality and rebelliousness that had once seemed so thrilling and threatening. King Creole, however, taps into these traits. It uses them in a fully realized story and the context of complicated human experience. And as a result, it’s the only ‘Elvis movie’ that feels like it’s really Elvis.
Dewayne & Tammy. “Elvis Presley: Composer Mike Stoller recalls the day The King died“. KBGO FM. 16 August 2018.
Feeney, Mark. “Elvis Movies”. The American Scholar. 2001.
Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. 1994.
Menand, Louis. ” The Making of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and The Remaking of Hollywood“. New Yorker. 5 April 2021.
Thompson, Howard. “Actor With Guitar“. The New York Times. 4 July 1958.
Thompson, Howard. “Double Feature on the Loew’s Circuit“. The New York Times. 14 December 1958.
Variety Staff. “King Creole“. Variety. 31 December 1957.
Variety Staff. “Love Me Tender“. Variety. 31 December 1955.