A Stone For Elvis Presley
It's nighttime in The Big Easy. New Orleans looms in black and white, but the people of Bourbon Street live in shadows. There's a knife fight and a stabbing. There's a shooting and a robbery gone wrong. There's even a mute that they call "Dummy." There's jazz and rock'n'roll in smoky nightclubs. The whore across the street waves from a brothel balcony. The summer air drips with corruption and murder. Walter Matthau plays a New Orleans mob boss named Maxie Fields, who owns a joint called The Blue Shade and runs a lot of rackets on Bourbon Street. Vic Morrow plays Shark, a greasy young street punk with a switchblade who gets a job as muscle for Maxie. Carolyn Jones plays Ronnie, the faded ex-singer who became the Maxie's personal pet. Dean Jagger plays Fisher, a druggist whose spirit died when his wife died. Dolores Hart plays Nellie, the good girl who is bored with her life at a soda fountain and might go bad for the right guy. Paul Stewart plays Charlie LeGrand, the owner of the King Creole nightclub, the "only place on Bourbon Street that doesn't have Maxie's fingerprints all over it." Liliane Montevecchi plays “Forty Nina,” a stripper who peels bananas from her costume. The role of Danny Fisher, the singer who loses his fight to stay out of the rackets and sleaze, is played by a relatively young actor by the name of Elvis Presley.
"Forget-about-it," you say. Hold on one New Orleans minute there. This ain’t Clambake or Harum Scarum or the 1968 “Come Back” show. This is way before he was “The King” who made nice with Richard Nixon, shot holes in television sets, and gulped peanutbutter sandwiches. It ain’t Blue Hawaii or the bloated has-been in white bell-bottoms in Vegas or the early death at Graceland. This is the 1958 film noir King Creole with Maxie, Shark, Ronnie, Danny, Nellie, Forty Nina, Charlie LeGrand, and the kid they call “Dummy.” Try to stay with the time frame here.
“I don’t like losing things,” snarls Maxie Fields. “I don’t mind taking, but I don’t like to lose.” When Maxie buys places and people, they stay bought. He owns The Blue Shade nightclub and most of Bourbon Street, including Ronnie, a floozy that he lends out to friends and batters around when he pleases. The heavy drapes, wall hangings, and rugs in his lair can’t cover the stench of his sinister ways. Walter Matthau (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, The Laughing Policeman, Charley Varrick) had only a half-dozen films to his credit in 1958. He was not yet a member of The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, or The Bad News Bears. He played heavies like Maxie in westerns and crime pictures, chewing out his words in a New York accent like the real Walter Matasschanskayasky (his birth name). Before he was befuddled and funny, he was befuddled and mean as hell. With hooded eyes and churning jaw, Maxie Fields wants singer Danny Fisher for keeps. No one crosses Maxie.
“Every time I see him lying down,” Ronnie muses, as Maxie sleeps nearby, “I keep looking at his chest and hoping. But the pig keeps right on breathing.” Ronnie has come from Maine to New Orleans, either to live until Maxie has used her up or just to die a drunk, whichever comes first. She once was a singer, but that was miles ago. She still has great legs, and Maxie makes her raise her skirt to show off for Danny. She does it, of course, because she’s meat. She’s Maxie’s meat, and she is reminded of it every day. The liquor lubricates her slide to the grave. Early on, Ronnie tells Danny, “Maybe we'll meet some place by accident.” Later, she reminds him, “Today is a good day for an accident.” Carolyn Jones (The Big Heat, The Tender Trap, Johnny Trouble) gets all the best lines, doing a brunette Ida Lupino number as a hard, hard case. And Jones did have a great pair of sticks, although they spent most of the Fifties in sheath dresses with those impossibly small spiked heels, like they did in the Dragnet episode The Big Girl (1954). Jones was Mrs. Aaron Spelling at the time. She had been in pictures for only six years but had appeared in House of Wax (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In another six years, she would become Morticia Addams in The Addams Family television series. But for King Creole, she was hard as nails and slick as silk, putting her lips on Danny Fisher’s crooked little mouth like a drowning woman looking for air. Danny says to Ronnie, “You look like a kid.” Ronnie replies, “I am. A hundred and four year old kid.”
“Good boy…fights real dirty,” says Shark of Danny Fisher. Shark is a street punk with two partners, Sal (Brian Hutton) and Dummy (Jack Grinnage). Sal is a strong silent type by choice; Dummy is a mute, who Shark treats like dirt, stealing his share of the loot from a small theft. When the trio tangles with Danny Fisher, they lose. Danny makes Shark look bad and forces him to treat The Dummy fair. Shark never forgets the slight, and Dummy never forgets the favor. Later, when Shark is working as one of Maxie’s thugs, he figures it’s payback time. Vic Morrow’s Shark is only slightly up the criminal foodchain from the high school loser, Artie West, he played in Blackboard Jungle (1955). Morrow played bad hombres in westerns, grimy grunts in war pictures, and greasy hoods in gangster movies, until his television breakthrough as Sgt. Chip Saunders in Combat! (1962). In Dutch Schultz (1961) he played a gangster kingpin who climbed to the top over the bodies of fellow hoods. Morrow and Matthau would team again in 1976 in The Bad News Bears.
“Alright, so he’s starting in a sewer,” says Charlie LeGrand of Danny Fisher’s new singing career. “Sewers can’t be ignored. They run under the best cities. Some of them lead to the fanciest plumbing at the Ritz.” He has high hopes for Danny and gives him a job at his King Creole club, the first “sewer” on his road to fame. Danny’s father (Dean Jagger) doesn’t like the idea. Danny sister, Mimi (Jan Shepard) thinks the idea is swell and soon falls in love with Charlie. LeGrand is played by character actor Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane, Deadline - U.S.A., Hell on Frisco Bay, In Cold Blood). He began in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre with his deep, gravelly voice and prematurely gray hair and made a career of playing insightful wise guys and older gentlemen with fatherly advice. Here he plays the latter, stepping in as the father figure Danny Fisher lacks. Fisher’s spineless father is played by Dean Jagger (Revolt of the Zombies, Western Union, Bad Day at Black Rock, Firecreek). Both Stewart and Jagger appeared together in Twelve O'Clock High (1949). As the story of King Creole progresses, Charlie LeGrand emerges as the only character with both strength and integrity.
“I like you more than anybody I know,” Nellie admits to Danny, “and I don’t even know you.” Standing in the shadow of Ronnie’s femine allure are soda fountain good-girl Nellie (Dolores Hart) and long-suffering sister Mimi (Jan Shepard). Hart had already appeared with Presley in Loving You (1957) and made her name as the smart girl who loses neither her virtue nor her common sense in Where the Boys Are (1960). She left Hollywood to become, of all things, a nun in the mid-Sixties. Shepard had just finished appearing in the television series Captain Midnight and would be featured in Attack of the Giant Leeches (1960) as the girl who serves all the coffee and delivers the straight lines. French ballet-trained dancer Liliane Montevecchi has a very small but scenic part as a dancer-stripper, “Forty Nina, the girl who started the Gold Rush” in Charlie LeGrand’s King Creole club. Montevecchi’s physique and costume gained prominence, far beyond her actual on-screen role, on the video packaging of King Creole.
“You threw it all away,” Mimi tells her brother, “you, me, everything!” So Danny Fisher is in a bind. He’s been flunked out of school, so he’s looking for a job. He’s been a busboy all his life, but Charlie LeGrand thinks he’d make a good singer. Danny’s weak-kneed father can’t keep a job, but wants his son to have a real profession. Maxie Fields has other ideas. He wants Danny singing for him and only him. Maxie’s girl wants a knight in shining armor like Danny to pull her out of her sluttish life. Mimi Fisher wants Danny to work at Charlie LeGrand’s place, so Charlie will hang around and love her. Shark is waiting his turn to carve up Danny and anyone else in his way.
Based on Harold Robbins’ novel, A Stone for Danny Fisher, a gangster story set in Chicago, King Creole has a gritty Chicago tone to it, like Chicago Confidential (1957), Mickey One (1965), or Thief (1981). It is, however, richly draped in the somber ambience of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Co-writers Vincent Gazzo (A Hatful of Rain) and Hal Wallis regular script-man Herbert Baker (Jumping Jacks, Francis Joins the Wacs, Loving You) are responsible for the literate transition from Windy City to Big Easy. Paramount Studios producer Wallis and director Michael Curtiz (Angels with Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, Young Man with a Horn) were forced to rush into production in early 1958 so that their star could appear before being drafted into the United States Army. Paramount asked for and was granted a 60-day draft deferment for Presley.
For those who hate Elvis Presley movies, the Fast-Forward button can get them through the stage scenes. For those who love Presley, it won’t matter. For those who appreciate film noir, the textures of bitter dames and lost loves, mistakes made and heartless thugs are all finely woven in King Creole. Little wonder that it was whatshisname’s favorite film.