It wouldn’t be the first time Richie Fahey’s cover art prompted me to buy a book I’d normally dismiss (it’s how I first discovered Stuart Kaminsky’s wonderful Toby Peters detective novels). But the 2007 Touchstone reprint of bestselling trash-master Harold Robbins’ 1951/52 A Stone For Danny Fisher didn’t disappoint. And mind you, I don’t particularly care for novels (or films) set in the boxing world. Robbins later settled in to a repetitious but highly successful formula that produced glitzy bestsellers like The Carpetbaggers and 79 Park Avenue. But here the writer’s closer to his own roots, perhaps, with Depression-era Brooklyn teenager Danny Fisher’s family relocating to the Lower East Side after hitting hard times, where Danny’s forced to reckon with crushing poverty, squalid surroundings and rampant anti-Semitism. While his talent for amateur boxing gets him a spot in the ring, it also gets him mixed up with gamblers crooks and mobsters, even while he tries to navigate (and not so well) relationships with two very different women – a prostitute who fits right in with the seamy world Danny’s been thrust into, and the ‘good girl’ determined to set him free.
What I never knew until I’d finished A Stone For Danny Fisher is that it was adapted (mighty loosely) into Elvis Presley’s 1958 King Creole, a pretty legit and gritty movie quite unlike the silly romps Presley was forced to star in after he got out of the Army. Credit that to the movie being directed by none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas and so many other classics), who was understandably concerned about working with the pop sensation, but took the project seriously and decided to shoot in black & white with a very dark palette for a distinctly ‘noir’ look.
Apparently, Hal Wallis bought the rights to A Stone For Danny Fisher as a vehicle for James Dean, but the project was shelved after the actor’s death. Later, after an Off-Broadway theatrical version got some buzz, the project was revived, now to star Elvis, but doing what Hollywood does best (i.e. toss out everything they paid for, more or less). Elvis’ Danny Fisher is no longer a boxer but a singer and the setting’s changed from New York to New Orleans. He’s still mixed up with hoods and two very different women, the ‘bad girl’ played by Carolyn Jones (sister of Shirley Jones and better known as Morticia Addams on TV’s The Addams Family series) …the ‘good girl’ played by Dolores Hart, whose short Hollywood career ended in 1963 when she left to become a Catholic nun.
Strangely, Elvis did end up playing a boxer several years later in Kid Galahad, a sorta-kinda (but not really) remake of a 1937 film with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart.
King Creole was produced pretty quickly, the studio getting a sixty-day deferment for Presley to delay his induction into the Army. Still, it really is a pretty good movie, whether you like Elvis films or not. Mind you, I wouldn’t go comparing the storyline to Harold Robbins’ A Stone For Danny Fisher. Check them both out, though. Just enjoy each on its own merits.