Thursday, June 12, 2008

Elvis' Co-Stars: Dolores Hart

Originally appeared at my Moon In The Gutter.

Even though it has been over forty years since Dolores Hart walked away from Hollywood, she has proven not easily shaken to fans who fell under her spell in films like LOVING YOU, KING CREOLE, LONELYHEARTS, COME FLY WITH ME and perhaps especially WHERE THE BOYS ARE.

I first became aware of her before the age of ten during my first viewing of KING CREOLE on late night tv. Her role in the film still remains my favorite of her career, and it is hard for me to imagine anyone not falling for her during the final moments of the film when Elvis sings AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU to her. She was also great in LOVING YOU with him, and can be seen in a haunting home movie with him in THIS IS ELVIS.

Of the dozen or so films she made in her career before she became a nun, I have only seen a handful, but she still remains one of my favorite actors of the fifties and early sixties. She always managed to bring something special to each project, and it is hard to imagine the period without her.

A few years ago I was privileged to be at an event where she sent a video sharing memories of working with Elvis from the nunnery where she lives. It was a really extraordinary thing to see.
Unfortunately only a few of her films are available (the two Elvis pictures and WHERE THE BOYS ARE) but the charming COME FLY WITH ME often pops up on TCM and LONELYHEARTS can occasionally be found as well. Dolores Hart remains a bit of a secret to many film fans, but she contributed something very special and real to cinema in the short, but sweet, time she gave to it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Elvis On Screen: King Creole (1958)

This originally appeared at my Moon In the Gutter Blog.

For the definitive word on this film, please check out Ger Rijff's beautiful book INSIDE KING CREOLE, which features the script, deleted scenes, a making of and many unpublished photographs.

Hungarian born director Michael Curtiz shot KING CREOLE (1958) just five years before his death at the age of 74. The film is a remarkably fresh and alive work though, one that seems to have been made by a very talented young man rather than someone nearing seventy.
Curtiz had an astounding directorial career, helming well over 150 productions. His most well known film is of course CASABLANCA (1942) but he worked exceedingly well in many genres including comedy (WE'RE NO ANGELS 1955), heavy drama (MILDRED PIERCE 1945) and musicals (YANKEE DOODLE DANDY 1942). Curtiz, in fact, worked in nearly every conceivable genre throughout his long career, and he did well in all of them.
KING CREOLE got its start as a heavy handed novel by CARPETBAGGERS mastermind Harold Robbins entitled A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER. The book sold fairly well on its release and was quickly optioned for a film version. The character in the book was originally a boxer, and the producers had it in mind to make it a vehicle for a young actor named James Dean. After Dean's tragic death, the name Marlon Brando was thrown around but the choice was finally made to turn the film into a musical and cast the young revolutionary star who had turned the entertainment field completely on its head, Elvis Presley.
Presley had only made three films when he stepped in front of Curtiz's camera, and they had all been critical duds but popular smashes. He had began to show a lot of flare though in LOVING YOU and JAILHOUSE ROCK (both 1957) and Curtiz immediately saw that there was something strong he could work with.
Joining Presley was an incredible supporting cast which included Dolores Hart, Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger, Vic Morrow and a young actor named Walter Matthau as the New Orleans crime boss Maxie Fields. They would all be working from a script credited to THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT scribe Herbert Baker and A HATFUL OF RAIN playwright Michael Gazzo.

Shot on location in New Orleans with style to spare by Curtiz with talented black and white Oscar nominated cinematographer Russell Harlan by his side, KING CREOLE is a stunningly beautiful movie to watch. Its rich black and white tones are a tribute to a very particular style of film making that is rarely seen anymore.
Everything about the film is first rate. The script is melodramatic but not overly so and the performances are all strong. The set design by Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy is superb and has a stylish realism to it that is particularly noteworthy. Special mention has to go to the sad little interior of Fisher's families apartment, and the spacious decadence of Maxie's spread. The costumes by Edith Head are refreshibgly controlled through much of the film, but are strikingly provocative on Carolyn Jones and the strippers in the New Orleans nightclub that Danny sings in.

The film opens with one of the most memorable shots in fifties American cinema. Curtiz's camera pans down a virtually deserted French Quarter path filming various singing street vendors, before we see Elvis (looking so incredibly beautiful here) walking out on his balcony singing CRAWFISH with one of them (the talented Kitty White). It is an amazing sequence that doesn't feel like anything else before or since.

The film is filled with those kind of special moments...from Fisher's first memorable meeting with Maxie to a touching scene where he takes Nellie (Hart) out on a river boat to show her where he was from. It is an intensely personal little film that just so happens to be a musical as well.
And what a musical...the songs are all top notch and Curtiz wisely elects to have the songs played on stage for the most part. The couple of sequences where he breaks this rule are well done, organic and believable. There isn't anything fantastical about the musical parts of KING CREOLE, except in how fine they are.
Curtiz's direction is quite splendid. He allows the scenes to play out and breathe, and his shooting style is commanding. Watch the way he expertly handles the mugging sequence of Danny's father, or the perfect way Elvis is framed from a slight distance when he breaks the bottle to protect Carolyn Jones from Maxie's thugs. KING CREOLE is a really expertly directed film by a very old pro.

As I mentioned the cast is especially good and it is to their credit that KING CREOLE doesn't feel nearly as dated as many 'youth' pictures from this period. Walter Mattheau is particularly good as a gangster not big enough to be untouchable but just big enough to be really dangerous. Carolyn Jones and Dolores Hart are both heartbreakingly sublime in their roles (has a girl ever been as pretty as Dolores Hart in this film?) and Liliane Montevecchi is very memorable in a smaller role as one of the dancers.
It all falls back onto Elvis though...and in the most demanding role of his career he is really very good. He delivers a performance with a lot of depth and soul that is made all the more impressive when one considers how young and inexperienced he was. Curtiz liked him a lot, as did the cast. Mattheau was especially impressed and would later say, "He [Elvis Presley] was an instinctive actor...He was quite bright...he was very intelligent...He was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate, and refined, and sophisticated." The critics were even impressed and Elvis garnered similar reviews to that of the twentieth centuries other great icon, Marilyn Monroe in BUS STOP (1956). Watching how good Elvis is in this makes his later film career (despite its pleasures and value) all the more disappointing.
KING CREOLE opened up in the summer of 1958 to strong business and mostly good reviews. Curtiz was proud of the film and predicted Elvis Presley would become a great actor. The iconic director would go onto finish an impressive six films before passing away in 1961. Hart, Jones, and especially Mattheau would all go onto to be stars in their own right.
Had Elvis not gone in the army right after finishing KING CREOLE there is no telling what might have happened with his film career. He did though, and then momentum from the film was lost. When he returned he made two dramatic films that would nearly equal his work for Curtiz, FLAMING STAR and WILD IN THE COUNTRY, but those films would be relative failures. Despite making several fine films in the sixties, Elvis Presley never again had the chance to work with a director as great as Curtiz or shine as an actor like he had in KING CREOLE. It really is one of the great losses in Hollywood history.

KING CREOLE is available on a bare bones DVD with a nice widescreen transfer but little else. Film fans who look upon it as just another 'Elvis film' are really missing out. It is a really finely directed and performed work from a period in Hollywood history often overlooked. On the eve of its fiftieth anniversary it deserves some serious reappraisal.

Elvis On Vinyl: King Creole (1958)

This originally appeared at my Moon In the Gutter Blog.

Recorded during a three-day session in the mid part of January 1958, with some additional work done in a day in mid February, Elvis Presley’s KING CREOLE album is one of his greatest and most diverse works. The album stands as a testament to the astonishing range Elvis had, as a vocalist and producer, and it is among the most consistently great of all of his LPs.
The album was recorded at Paramount’s Soundstage Studios with a Thorne Nogar operating as engineer. The producers listed are Paramount’s Walter Scharf and Phil Khagan although it is fairly well documented that Elvis himself was the one really responsible for the sound of his recordings up to 1968. Ernst Jorgensen notes in his book A LIFE IN MUSIC that songwriters Lieber and Stoller were also on hand to help with production duties for this difficult record.
Joining Elvis in the studio were his legendary sidemen Scotty Moore on lead electric guitar, Bill Black on stand up bass, and D.J. Fontanta on drums. Elvis himself is credited with much of the rhythm guitar playing on the album. Paramount and RCA enlisted the help of many top session musicians for the diverse selections including Neal Matthews on guitar, and a top Jazz combo. The ever-reliable Jordanaires appear on background vocals and vocalist Kitty White pops up on the legendary CRAWFISH track.
This was a volatile and rushed moment in the life of Elvis Presley. His draft notice had already come through, but he had successfully got the okay to complete work on the KING CREOLE album and film. This huge upcoming change had to be weighing heavy on Elvis’ mind and his vocals on the KING CREOLE sessions, featuring some of his most passionate and at times frantic, surely reflect this.
Elvis was commercially at the peak of his powers here, and it seemed that everything he touched in this period was a sure fire smash. With this in mind the KING CREOLE album can be viewed as somewhat of a risk, as stylistically it would mark a departure from much of his previous work. The album, the jazziest that Elvis ever produced, stands though as a tribute to the vision and talent of Presley, and a punch in the face to critics who claim all of his soundtrack work was garbage.

The album opens up with the startling Leiber and Stoller track KING CREOLE, one of the swampiest and most evocative tracks Elvis ever recorded. With his menacing vocals promising a “guitar held like a tommy gun” the iconic background work of the Jordanaires and a blistering Scotty Moore guitar solo, KING CREOLE is masterful introduction to the album and it holds up as well as any of his more popular work from the period.

The lovely Wise and Weisman composition AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU follows, and its sweet lilting melody and charming vocal as a perfect counterpoint to the intense opener. AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU is one of the great ballads Elvis ever sang. It is a shame he didn’t revisit it later in his career. It is harder to imagine a more perfect and simple love song, and the fact that it is delivered in less than two minutes makes it all the more haunting.

HARD HEADED WOMAN follows and I will let what I wrote recently on it stand. I will say here that I love the way this long player (it should be noted that KING CREOLE was originally released as two extended players) keeps switching things up. It’s a schizophrenic record whose sharp stylistic swings mirror perfectly the volatile part of Danny Fisher that Elvis played so well in the film.
The legendary TROUBLE follows, surely one of the dirtiest and most savage songs in Presley’s entire catalogue. His deadpan vocals on this original take make it all the more fascinating. This astonishing Leiber and Stoller composition would of course later open Elvis’ 68 comeback special in a roaring rock and roll take that tops this very jazzy and cool original.
The Claude DeMetrius/Fred Wise track DIXIELAND ROCK is sparked by a great lyric and a scorching Sax solo by Justin Gordon, and it is followed by the sweet HARD HEADED WOMAN b-side DON’T ASK ME WHY.
LOVER DOLL, a Wayne and Silver track, is one of the slightest tracks on the album. It sounds like an attempt to recreate the magic of the previous years TEDDY BEAR but it doesn’t have any of that songs power. It does have a nice smooth vocal by Elvis, and a cool time change at the end, but it is finally among the weaker moments on the album.

The Wise and Weisman track, CRAWFISH, on the other hand, is one of the best. Later covered by Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin, CRAWFISH is one of the most underrated of all Elvis’ work. Totally authentic sounding with the great Kitty White providing a great female counterpart to Elvis, CRAWFISH is really remarkable…it is no wonder the legendary New York Dolls axe-man chose to release it as one of his final singles nearly thirty years after this original.

YOUNG DREAMS is a contribution from Martin Kalmanoff and Aaron Schroeder and it is a passable song made great by Elvis’ passionate vocal take. The interplay with The Jordanaires is particularly good here also.
The short Lieber and Stoller track STEADFAST, LOYAL AND TRUE follows and while it works in a key sequence in the film, it is a minute that could have been left off the final album.

The slip up of STEADFAST, LOYAL AND TRUE gives way to one of the album’s greatest moment, the down and dirty Jazz romp NEW ORLEANS. Featuring a sizzling call and response between Elvis and The Jordanaries, and a scintillating lyric by Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett, NEW ORLEANS is a stunning closer to the album. It is just a shame that it is over in just a couple of minutes, as the band and Elvis sound like they want to play on and on.

KING CREOLE, the album, would street in August of 58 and it would climb to #2 on the album charts. It most surely would have gone to number one had it not been proceeded by the two Extended play releases the month before (which by the way did top the charts). It would be the last album of all new material before Elvis would enter the army (1959’s FOR LP FANS ONLY was a grab bag of Sun and RCA tracks) and it remains one of the great albums of his career. Short, to the point and incredibly diverse, KING CREOLE can stand proudly next to the likes of ELVIS PRESLEY, ELVIS IS BACK, FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS and I’M ABOUT TEN THOUSAND YEARS OLD as one of the great recorded tributes to the genius of Elvis Presley. It should be in every rock lover’s possession.
The album can be heard in its entirety on the massive box set THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL or even better in a 1997 re-release that features a bonus of the entire album in outtakes.