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’

Wild in the Country

BLU-RAY REVIEW:  

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
 
Stars Elvis Presley, Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, Millie Perkins.

Underseen even by curiosity seekers who might be tempted to take a look purely on a what-the-hell? level, 1961’s Wild in the Country was a major crossroad in Elvis Presley’s movie career — maybe even the major crossroad — for giving him his one bonafide screen romance with genuine grown-up complications. So OK, King Creole (a better movie) did this as well, but only in melodramatic, underworld-subplot terms.

And there are times when this too slickly mounted Jerry Wald production for 20th Century-Fox threatens to go melodramatic as well, but arguably more often or not, does keep its eye on the ball. And the ball — get ready for this one — is to present The King as an aspiring young writer who early on is seen (like Frank Sinatra’s character in the movie of Some Came Running) setting up a small pile of serious fiction he keeps in his modest room for inspiration. (From its long-shot spine design and alphabet configuration, I think he has the same trade paperback edition of Look Homeward Angel I had in my youth). To stave off any waggish viewers who just can’t buy him as the next Proust, the story does present Elvis as a “raw” and natural talent, which is exactly how his acting style comes off here. He’s genuinely good and occasionally even forceful whenever the film itself isn’t getting in his way.

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Even the credits here make one blink a little, as when Christina Crawford’s (Mommie Dearest) name pops up — marking, one instantly speculates, the only time that these two performers with dramatically contrasting real-life mamas were ever part of the same screen project. And just about the time you’re fully wrapping your mind around this juxtaposition, Clifford Odets’ name appears as the credited screenwriter, adapting a J.R. Salamanca novel. The latter was a University of Maryland creative writing prof whose subsequent novel led to the big-screen flop d’estime Lilith, all of this serving as proof that we’re not about to be in a Hound Dog universe anymore.

So as my dad used to say all the time, here’s the shot: Shenandoah Valley youth Elvis has just been paroled after punching out a mouthy brother … and into the live-in custody of a shady tonic-manufacturer uncle who’d like a husband for his wayward daughter (Tuesday Weld), who’s been abandoned with a young baby. (I’m not sure where this would rate on the incest-o-meter.) This fake-smiling lout basically throws the girl at Elvis, and there’s plenty of evidence she’d like to be caught, even when she’s sober and not stealing snorts from the store inventory. But the lad also had a kind of emotionally unconsummated lifetime thing with one of the town’s “nice girls” played by Millie Perkins. Her role is either impossibly written or a case of helpful footage that never left the editing room — but in either event, Perkins is still plagued by that squeaky speaking voice and inability to project that had previously done everything it could to undermine George Stevens’ otherwise frequently admirable black-and-white epic of The Diary of Anne Frank. This, then, is the dilemma: Does Elvis go with noble Anne or gamble on a frolic with the screen’s future Pretty Poison.

Turns out there’s a third choice, and here the movie gets more interesting (though let it be said that you always count on Weld to be among this screen era’s most potent forces of nature). A widowed, court-assigned psychiatric consultant played by Hope Lange sees potential in this literary hot-head and finds that encouraging his talent is more rewarding than waiting for one of the town’s respectful types (John Ireland) to divorce his wife, not that Lange is exactly rhapsodic over tying the knot. Eventually — though the wheezy but still sturdy enough 1961 censorship still keeps it mostly clean — she has to decide who arouses more: The King or … John Ireland? Lange is excellent in her Elvis scenes and also makes him better. I don’t quite have a grasp on how her career got so derailed aside from the TV success that partially saved her, but taking casting advice from her then boyfriend Glenn Ford probably wasn’t the way to go about it.

The picture is kind of a mishmash that works (when it does) from a combination of Elvis earnestness and certain entertaining conventions we expect from an Elvis movie. Of the latter, I don’t mean the obligatory song cues; it’s all too apparent that the studio forced the shoehorning of three or four tunes on good-writer-turned-mediocre-director Philip Dunne amid a drama with genuine aspirations. (And what’s more, the songs aren’t all that hot.) But there’s a certain pleasure to be gleaned seeing an actor like the young Gary Lockwood playing a mouthy transparent punk and putting him in a roadhouse bar because you just know there’s going to be an altercation between him and Elvis that either will or won’t turn the picture into Donovan’s Reef.

Trouble is, the two halves of the mishmash don’t splice very well, which is why Country is a so-so movie that is also a pretty decent Elvis movie (there’s a distinction, which is why he was a star). Producer Wald, who always spent the money, again had the great cinematographer William Mellor, and this pretty Blu-ray boasts a few chamber of commerce shots of the town (which seems otherwise heavy on hicks) that are reminiscent of their glorious work on the blockbuster movie of Peyton Place, which was also Lange’s star-maker. You get the sense that, as in the previous Christmas’s Flaming Star, that the newly post-army Elvis was trying to go in new directions on the screen and show some class, or at least chops. He didn’t want to become the Memphis version of Bobby Van.

Unfortunately, the public rejected both pictures (eventually, Star became a first-rung cult item), just as the same period was giving Presley a pair of fluffy box office hits: G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii (the latter a huge Thanksgiving ’61 attraction where he kicked a lot of beach sand on Technicolor starlets). Colonel Parker counted the beans, and that was that, just as he did when it came to Elvis’s recording choices. This is why some of the rockin’ bluesy stuff we hear on the 1960 Elvis Is Back LP quickly zapped in favor of (within a couple years) the likes of “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car.” The point of this last road safety tip is, to be sure, is final word in sage advice; no one has ever denied this. But until late ’68, we were no longer looking at a growth industry when it comes to a career that may have tickled the IRS and at least one infamously Dutch grifter but didn’t tickle me.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Footlight Parade’ and ‘Wild in the Country’

Sony Bringing Documentary ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ to Disc Oct. 16

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release the three-hour HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher on DVD Oct. 16.

The film collects material from the archives of Graceland to present an inside look at a rarely seen side of the King of rock ‘n’ roll, taking the audience on a comprehensive creative journey from his childhood through the final 1976 Jungle Room recording sessions.

Containing never-before-seen footage and music recordings, the film features commentary and interviews from some of the biggest names in music, including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, music producer Jon Landau and Elvis’ guitarist, Scotty Moore, among others.

Also included is the featurette “In Conversation,” a Q&A with director Thom Zimny, executive producers Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling, and Grammy Museum executive director Scott Goldman.

A limited collector’s edition DVD will include commemorative packaging and a 20-page digibook featuring rare photos from the Graceland archives.