Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 27, 2020)
When Elvis Presley became a major pop star in 1956, his management quickly moved him into films. These flicks sold lots of tickets, and to the surprise of many, Presley demonstrated decent talent as an actor.
Due to the draft, Presley entered the Army in March 1958, an event that ostensibly put his career on hold for two years. However, that aforementioned management stored enough songs that Presley continued to release singles while in the military.
This situation didn’t suit Presley’s burgeoning film career, though, so fans had to wait more than two whole years between movies. With 1958’s King Creole, we find the fourth – and final – of his 1950s flicks.
High school student Danny Fisher (Presley) finds too much on his plate to graduate. Because his widowed father’s (Dean Jagger) grief makes it tough for him to keep a job, Danny and his sister (Jan Shepard) must take on various forms of work to survive.
Danny’s talent as a singer comes to the fore before long, and he finds himself at work as a nightclub crooner. Many personal and professional conflicts ensue, especially as Danny can’t make a romantic choice between girl-next-door Nellie (Dolores Hart) and Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), the mistress of local gangster Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau).
Of Presley’s first four movies, Creole comes with the best pedigree due to the other talent involved. In addition to veteran actors like Matthau, Jones and Jagger, Michael Curtiz took the reins as director.
Among other films, Curtiz helmed Casablanca, a fact that makes him seem overqualified to work on a jukebox drama like Creole. At least no one can claim that Paramount failed to give Presley the tools to star in a credible movie before he departed for Army life.
At his best, I think Presley earned “praise” for not being awful. I don’t get the sense many thought Elvis could really act, or at least not on a level that would afford him a career without his pop stardom involved.
As seen in Creole, Presley holds his own. While I can’t claim he presents great skills as the troubled teen, he manages enough surly charm to succeed.
Given that Presley’s movie career functioned as an attempt to send him into the mainstream, Creole makes Danny awfully sleazy. Perhaps some felt he could take over the mantle from James Dean and become the sensitive, angst-ridden sort, but it still comes as a surprise to see our ostensibly sympathetic lead abet criminals and lie to women to bed them.
Creole comes with a decent story about a young man torn between the proverbial light and dark, but it can’t find enough consistency to prosper. Danny seems less like a character pulled in different ways and more a kid who just wanders around wherever the script tells him to go.
Part of the problem stems from Creole’s heavy embrace of melodrama. It burdens the characters with borderline laughable dialogue and presents a slew of tough to swallow plot threads.
A little simplicity would’ve gone a long way. A more streamlined, coherent narrative could’ve turned into a more appealing film.
Musically, Presley shows his amble charisma when we see him on the nightclub stage. We don’t find any Elvis classics – and a few of the numbers seem like pretty obvious rewrites of earlier hits – but these moments add spark to the proceedings.
Much needed spark, in fact, as too much of King Creole comes across like fairly flaccid 50s melodrama. While not an objectively bad movie, it seems clear no one would remember it without the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as the lead.