King Creole

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Paramount;
Drama;
$29.99 Blu-ray:
Not rated.
Stars Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones,Walter Matthau, Dolores Hart, Dean Jagger.  

Well known to even cursory fans as Elvis Presley’s fourth and final film before Uncle Sam got him — and also, in the opinion of many, his best film — 1958’s King Creole was, like three of his four pre-army screen outings, shot in black-and-white. But there was nothing stingy about the production, and the New Orleans locales that producer Hal Wallis sprung for add immeasurably to the ambience right from the opening, synching beautifully with the studio-shot material that makes up the bulk of the drama. A lot of writers claim that KC is in VistaVision as you’d expect a Paramount realease of that time to be, but neither posters nor the on-screen credits say this, nor does it look like VistaVision to my eyes. It does, though, boast a first-rate cinematographer, Russell Harlan (Red River and To Kill a Mockingbird are two of many shot by him).

One of several seemingly endless projects intended for James Dean and taken over by other actors upon his death, Elvis’s character was changed to a busboy-turned-nightclub-singer caught between competing owners and two very different women. Of the latter, Carolyn Jones — heavily into that “kookie” phase that defined her entire career — is a bag of neuroses as mistress to the drunken nasty one of the two club rivals (Walter Matthau in one of the best of his early movie roles). The other woman is a dreamboat “nice girl” played by Dolores Hart, still my absolute favorite of that era’s newcomers, lover of porcelain beauty that I am. Working the counter at a local five-and-dime, she seems surprisingly OK with wanting to date Elvis, even though she’s the one employee who picks up on the fact that his singing-troubadour stroll through the store for the customer’s enjoyment is in reality an planned distraction so that his so-called colleagues ran rifle the joint.

Ahhhhhh, Sister Dolores, who is what Hart became after leaving Hollywood to become a nun in the early ’60s, but that’s for another time. Other than to note that this was the second time she’d performed heart-melting labors in an Elvis pic, following the previous year’s Loving You (which, by the way, is in VistaVision and badly needs a restoration.)

Elvis has, as they used to say, “fallen in with a bad lot” — partly in response to his proclivity for being forbidden from graduating from high school (this time, he pops a guy on school grounds before the very last day of classes). And partly in response to the lifelong wimp-dom of his pharmacist father (Dean Jagger), which was exacerbated by the death of the Elvis character’s mother, which led to the loss of the old man’s pharmacy and his worsening life reality of taking the worst kind of guff from everyone. (Including his new boss, something that Elvis covertly witnesses. This is after dad preaches unyielding adherence to the idea of graduation from school in lieu of the much bigger bucks his son can make headlining as a singer. Elvis sees how far that got him.

Of course, he’s hardly a headliner right off the bat and has to take patronizing guff himself of the kind busboys sometimes endure — until, in standard showbiz movie fashion, Matthau tries to humiliate him by asking him to sing for the customers, whereupon he’s a smash. At this point, what has been a straight drama becomes a drama with lots of music — too much for my taste, given that the score has its share of clunkers. Oddly, the tune that RCA Victor elected to release as an RCA Victor single — “Hard Headed Woman” (b/w “Don’t Leave Me Now”) is totally thrown away, though it went to No. 1, as did the soundtrack LP. Of course, this isn’t to say that winners don’t abound as well, including the title tune, also “Trouble” (which he reprised to kick off his 1968 comeback TV special), and “As Long As I Have You,” one his best ballads ever, which contributes to one of the most emotionally satisfying movie wrap-ups I know.

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Man, no wonder this is Elvis’ longest picture because his sister is falling for Matthau’s owner rival (Paul Stewart) despite a 20-year age difference (I love it that no one in those days, morals police or otherwise, gave a damn). To say nothing of mistress Jones going off the rails increasingly by minute, Matthau now trying to pimp her out, a needless production number by Liliane Montevecci, whose big-screen appeal I never got, and Elvis’s punk buddies (led by a very young-looking Vic Morrow) back in the alley with weaponized broken bottles trying to reengage him in crime. Maybe this is an argument for staying in school, but the money is suddenly good.

Directing this is veteran onetime superstar Michael Curtiz, whose career kind of fell apart after the collapse of the studio system, but he did manage White Christmas, this semi-ringer and my very soft spot for swan song The Comancheros, but by that time Curtiz was dying, and star John Wayne reportedly took over as director. Elvis responded with enthusiasm to having a name filmmaker, and both the star’s smirkily amused reactions to Jones’s machinations and reciprocated affection are credible. As natural as Elvis’s raw talent was, I doubt if frequent director and career-long albatross Norman Taurog could have gotten nearly as much out of him.

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For the launch of “Paramount Presents,” its sparse so-called Blu-ray “line,” Paramount has employed my old bud Leonard Maltin to give about a seven-minute overview — a pro job, obviously, but hardly an example of hoopla. He opines himself that this is Elvis’ best movie, but by a sliver-and-a-half, I think I’ll go with the second movie he made back from the army (Don Siegel’s Flaming Star), which was a commercial flop but tighter.

King Creole was Elvis’s only predominantly serious drama to catch on and sent him off to the army with great screen promise that Colonel Parker ultimately wouldn’t let him fulfill upon his return.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Olive;
Sci-Fi;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates.

Whether viewed as the sci-fi/horror classic it justifiably is, or as an example of inept studio suits sabotaging their own picture, or as an early example of a theatrical underachiever subsequently “made” by television showings, or even as a stepping stone project for producer Walter Wanger after he served time for shooting his wife’s lover in a parking lot (pant, pant) … the original 1956 screen version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has provided lots of fodder for yarn-spinning over the years. And this “Signature” Blu-ray from Olive Films is worth getting despite at best a marginal visual upgrade from that distributor’s 2012 predecessor because nearly of them all get discussed in depth on this bonus-heavy new package.

Originally released in non-anamorphic SuperScope (akin to today’s Super 35) but shown on TV for generations in 1.33:1, cult filmmaker Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s Collier’s magazine serial — intelligently adapted by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring — was either anti-communist or anti-Red Scare, according to whichever political faction was speaking after both eventually took the picture under their allegorical wings. Male lead Kevin McCarthy says here that he can recall no political discussion of any kind over an unbelievable 19-day shooting schedule (some say 24, but so what?) — but he does note that Siegel often referred to Allied Artists executives as “pods.” He was, of course, referring to the celestial seeds that, per the movie, co-opted and replicated the sleeping physical bodies of our parents, teachers and probably even Orval Faubus to produce alternative versions of themselves that lacked genuine feelings, emotions and, to be sure, imaginations.

At first, the studio seemed to have high hopes for the project because after his short prison term for shooting agent Jennings Lang over an illicit affair with actress-wife Joan Bennett, Wanger had begun his comeback with the Siegel-directed Riot in Cell Block 11, a sleeper “glorified-B” that had delivered on box office and prestige reviews in 1954. (Lang survived to produce a couple good films and a slew of howlers like Swashbuckler, Earthquake, The Sting II and three Airport sequels — though let it be said that without him, George Kennedy and Bibi Andersson would never have worked together). But Allied Artists was after more easily exploitable shlock — hence, the schlocky title they wanted affixed (Finney’s book was simply The Body Snatchers) against the wishes of Siegel, who liked McCarthy’s excellent suggestion: Sleep No More.

The studio also demanded a more hopeful and much belatedly filmed “frame” around the story that all kinds of people knock, though I was happy to hear the spear-headers of separate commentaries here — one by historian Richard Harland Smith, another by director Joe Dante with McCarthy and co-lead Dana Wynter — giving this part of the movie a little love, as I have always liked it myself. (The climactic look on Whit Bissell’s face when he learns that some guy has been dug out of a truckload of pods is worth the price of admission just by itself.) Dante also speaks up for Carmen Dragon’s score, which, to my surprise, Smith says has been criticized as well — though I love its insistent brass enough to have included the opening credits music in the March-April 1956 playlist of my audio archives history project — along with Elvis’s “Tutti Frutti” and Perry Como doing “Hot Diggity” (these were cerebral times).

In any event, the studio slapped on the trashy moniker and relegated Snatchers to second billing under lesser titles (even, madre de Dios!, Lon Chaney’s The Indestructible Man) — pretty well icing it, along with a New York-area premiere engagement in Brooklyn, that the Times’s now famously numb-nutsy senior film critic Bosley Crowther wouldn’t touch it for reviewing purposes. And it was fairly obscure; I, who began charting and making notes on film releases starting in early elementary school, never even heard about the picture until 1959 — when the best-looking girl in all of seventh grade unexpectedly told me about it while sitting across from me in art class (one of only a couple really substantive discussions we ever had because I spent years looking at the floor out of self-consciousness when taking to her). I finally saw it on local TV in about 1961 — on a bright Sunday afternoon at that — launching a lifetime of pod-ish enjoyment. (I also love Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake, which I saw first-run in theaters maybe 90 minutes before Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes — who lived a block over from where I grew up — famously slugged that Clemson player on national TV, thus ensuring an evening where I satisfied all the pop culture food groups.)

So as Dante reiterates, Snatchers owes its following (or at least its germination) to TV, where I don’t think the 1.33:1 framing ever bothered anyone at the time. This said, the famed bit in McCarthy’s greenhouse — a perfect movie scene if there ever was one — is so masterfully composed for a wider screen that we must have all been myopic in terms of what we were missing (has there ever been more dramatic use of close-ups?). Later, of course, the picture became a staple of rep houses that was also easy to double-bill because a) it runs only 80 minutes; and b) is also applicable to all kinds of programmable series concepts (say, did anyone ever do “Whit Bissell”?; it would run two years even if you included only half of his output).

As mentioned, the bonus extras rock. The Smith and Dante commentaries are appealingly complementary, though both dwell a lot on the outdoor locations that dominated the shooting schedule and exhausted McCarthy because he spend most days constantly running across them in pursuit by marauding pod people. Smith practically knows every supporting actor’s dental records — which is important here because the cast is packed with not quite peggable familiar faces (Sam Peckinpah plays a gas man who, like nearly everyone here, is up to no good). And Dante has terrific chemistry with the since deceased McCarthy and Wynter, something this humor-heavy duo further displays during their own interactions. McCarthy ended up making several films for the much younger director, while Wynter (who also shows up visually with her co-star in a look-back featurette) remained gorgeous as a senior.

Siegel’s real-life son with Viveca Lindfords (actor Kristoffer Tabori) reads from Siegel’s autobiography, which I’ve had in hardback for years but have not yet read (Dante calls it “remarkably uninformative” — or close). The passage is mostly about the troubles he had with Allied studio execs, whose one shining light must have been Walter Mirisch, a future Midas whose career trajectory spanned Bomba jungle epics to West Side Story and beyond. And don’t knock Bomba, who was played by Johnny Sheffield, who had previously been “Boy” in the Tarzan series; how would you like to spend your entire career heaving a spear and pounding your leopard loin cloth on a rock?

So what else? Other filmmakers (Mick Harris, Stuart Gordon, the always funny John Landis) chime in about what the movie has meant to them; there’s another McCarthy interview that is, again, remarkably personable; assorted documents; and a really fun then-and-now look at the locations, which scrambled Los Angeles geography yet still impress for their breadth-on-a-low-budget. Very informative and off the beaten track is a featurette with Mathew Bernstein, author of another possessed hardback I’ve long wanted to read but haven’t — his bio on producer Wanger.

Pre-gunplay, the latter’s credits included the cinematic wack job Gabriel Over the White House but also Stagecoach and Foreign Correspondent before sinking himself with the bank-breaking Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc. A decade later, there was a major post-Snatchers comeback with I Want To Live! (Oscar for Susan Hayward) before Wanger took on Fox’s Cleopatra, which did for his career what Vietnam did for LBJ’s. From surrounding bookshelf appearances, interviewed Bernstein is a fellow subscriber to the Library of America (good to see), and he knows enough about his subject to report that Lang was up and playing tennis before very long despite rumors (noted on one of the other bonuses) that Wanger had shot him right … there. Whew: The lob shot also rises — or apparently did, which is something pod people presumably didn’t have to worry about all that much.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Art School Confidential’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’