The aftershocks of King Creole by Paul Simpson

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
March 1, 2014

In the second of two articles, Paul Simpson traces the impact of 'King Creole's comparative commercial failure on Hal Wallis, Elvis Presley and the King's movies.

The question that has long mystified many critics is why Elvis didn't build on the glory that was 'King Creole'. Yet as the film generated significantly less box office revenue than any Presley movie to date - even adjusted for inflation it has made significantly less than the vastly inferior 'Kissin' Cousins' - the answer is depressingly obvious. For the studios, the producers, Parker and Elvis, it was more lucrative to design pictures to appeal strongly to his hardcore fans.

As good as 'King Creole' was, the movie was not a game changer. Many people in Hollywood - even Actors Studio guru Lee Strasberg - believed Presley could act, but it could have taken a few more pictures as strong as 'King Creole' to persuade millions of skeptical cinemagoers. And the studios, in their quest to widen Elvis' box-office appeal, would have had to take the same risk as Twentieth Century Fox did with 'Flaming Star' and 'Wild In The Country', and trim - or scrap - the songs.

Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker on the set of King Creole
Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker on the set of King Creole.

There ain't nothing like a song

No music meant no soundtrack albums - not a precedent Parker wanted to encourage. For the Colonel, his client's acting aspirations were an inconvenient distraction. Why did Elvis want to risk trying to become a great screen actor when he was already a great singer?

Parker believed the films existed to make money, not win Oscars - and the surest way to do that was to sell Elvis' music. The only way that strategy was likely to change was if Presley confronted his manager - and that, as we know, never happened.

A pity because Elvis might have found Wallis supportive, lending his experienced voice in favor of - at the very least - more flexibility in the kind of films Presley made.

So 'King Creole' was not a blueprint for the King's celluloid future. Biographer W. A Harbinson has even suggested the tension between the competing strategies for Elvis' movie career is reflected in Curtiz's movie: there are no rock songs in the last half of the film.

As enjoyable as many of Wallis's subsequent Elvis movies are - 'Roustabout' and 'Blue Hawaii' standout in different ways and 'G.I. Blues' has a lovely glow - they are conventional star vehicles in which, as producer, Wallis seemed less creatively engaged.

By the time 'G.I. Blues' (1960) was made, the cultural mood had changed radically. Presley was mostly playing it safe in the studio and on screen. The all-round family entertainment, musical comedy travelogue formula struck box-office gold with 'Blue Hawaii', the 11th biggest grossing movie of 1961, selling more tickets than 'Breakfast at Tiffanys'.

After that, the die was truly cast. With diligent, dutiful Norman Taurog usually directing, Wallis's next five Elvis movies were all variants of 'Blue Hawaii'. The best - 'Roustabout' - presented a more rebellious Presley and challenged him with a strong cast, forcing him to spar with Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest actresses from Hollywood's Golden Age. Yet even as early as 'Fun In Acapulco' (1963), the shoddy back projection in many scenes seems to indicate Wallis's changing priorities: with cost savings on the agenda, it seems to legitimate to ask whether, at this point, Wallis was developing Elvis or exploiting him.

Commercially, the musical comedy travelogues did reasonably well until 1965. Yet even Wallis dreamed of shaking things up - after Roustabout's success, he suggested that his next Elvis film would cast the star as a hero with a chip on his shoulder who did something about it. Presumably he couldn't find the right material because it was back to basics with 'Paradise, Hawaiian Style' (1966).

Wallis's last farewell

By then, the diminishing returns - commercially and creatively - were painfully obvious to the producer. An excruciating contract negotiation with Parker - who was, at this point, overplaying a very weak hand by arguing over almost every clause - helped convince Wallis enough was enough. Although he still found time to fulminate about Elvis' hairstyle before Easy Come Easy Go entered production, he refused to pay for more songs and signaled his disinterest by advising director Rich to 'put them through their places'.

After that lackluster effort - and a $25,000 pay-off in response to Parker's complaint that Easy Come Easy Go hadn't been promoted properly - Wallis never made another Presley film. He left with regret ('I grew to be very fond of Elvis,' he said once, 'he was utterly without guile, malice or even ego.') but was shrewd enough to decode the box-office returns, his star's visible disenchantment and realize that, with the peculiar dynamics of the Parker-Presley relationship, the status quo was unlikely to change.

Wallis had to consider the opportunity cost: if he could only produce to or three films a year, why make ones as artistically and commercially negligible as 'Easy Come Easy Go', when he could win John Wayne an Oscar - and enjoy a box office smash - with 'True Grit'?

All things being equal, Wallis wanted to make good movies. Yet with Presley stuck in what he later described as 'that big rut off Hollywood Boulevard', increasingly resigned to the fact that he would never become a 'proper actor' (as he confided to Elsa Lanchester on the 'Easy Come Easy Go' set), and budgets skewed to benefit the star and his manager, quality was hard to come by. 'Easy Come Easy Go', Elvis' 23rd movie, which Paramount nearly didn't bother to release, seemed, to Wallis, a perfect time to leave.

Infuriated by a rash interview in which Wallis suggested that Presley pictures existed primarily to finance more artistically significant films such as 'Becket', Elvis may not have seriously regretted the producer's departure - yet he was astute enough to realize what it signified for his own fortunes in Hollywood.

Regrets, Wallis had a few

Yet the producer seemed to feel he had unfinished business with Elvis - and continued to nurse the faint hope that the star could make a breakthrough in Hollywood. Feelers were put out to see if Presley would play Texas Ranger La Boeuf in 'True Grit' but, possibly because Parker wanted top billing or the usual $1m fee, Glen Campbell was cast.

Anthony Lawrence, who co-wrote Easy Come Easy Go, Paradise Hawaiian Style and Roustabout with Weiss, says in his memoirs 'Slow Fade To Autumn', that in the early 1970s, he 'got a call from Hal Wallis who wanted to make another Elvis movie'. Lawrence developed a story for a karate film only for Wallis to regretfully inform him: 'Paramount felt Elvis was no longer commercial, and they didn't feel another of his movies would make money'.

Paramount's disinterest signaled a rather anti-climactic finale to Wallis's association with Presley. Though blamed by many for perfecting the formula that wrecked the star's movie career, the producer had been audacious enough to create 'King Creole', a fascinating film that reminds us of roads not taken, gloriously refutes the sneers that Elvis couldn't act and probably gave its star as much artistic satisfaction as anything he ever did.

For that, we are all in Wallis's debt.

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