King Creole [1958]

Before his handlers convinced him to settle for the safety of a screen franchise, the young Elvis Presley harbored riskier dreams as an actor, not just a star. This 1958 drama, his fourth feature outing, hints at the underlying seriousness of that goal. Presley plays Danny Fisher, a New Orleans teenager struggling to graduate from high school while working in a sleazy French Quarter club to support his family. He's also characterized as a troubled youth with a dangerous temper and feelings of shame and resentment toward his meek, unemployed father (Dean Jagger). When Danny's gift for singing provides him with a potential career break (and the requisite excuse for Elvis's production numbers), his involvement with a ruthless gangster (Walter Matthau) and his sultry, alcoholic moll (Carolyn Jones) soon threatens both his future and his family. That story line, with Danny torn between a budding romance with a good waitress (Dolores Hart) and the bad moll, Ronnie (Jones), proves as effective as it is predictable, hardly surprising given its source in an early Harold Robbins bestseller. But King Creole also boasts an impressive production pedigree (including the team behind no less a classic than Casablanca, producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz), and the supporting cast helps elicit one of Presley's most emotional performances. Jones in particular rises above her role's inherent clich├ęs, her self-loathing and sexuality both palpable. Presley, still a few years away from the more sanitized image that would be integral to those franchise features, is young enough to be a credible teen, but more crucially he makes his rage and yearning largely convincing. Ironically, the dramatic sparks prove all the more welcome in light of the largely forgettable music, which variously plunders Chicago blues ("Trouble," a knock-off of "Hoochie Coochie Man") and unconvincingly crosses Presley's Memphis rock with Crescent City jazz ("Dixieland Rock"), all to far less effect than Presley's two preceding movies, Jailhouse Rock and Loving You. --Sam Sutherland

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