If you haven’t seen King Creole (1958), it’s probably because you’ve dismissed it as “just another Elvis movie.” Even if you’ve heard that it’s his best film, you likely smirk, “Well, the competition isn’t that rough; they’re all just some schlock created around pretty babes and musical interludes.”
I’m certainly not the one to dismiss classic Elvis kitsch films (I adore the music, fashion and the babes right along with looking at The King himself), but I have to tell you that King Creole isn’t just good by comparison to his other films; it’s a good film period.
Now real film critics will tell you that Elvis was saved by a good director (Michael Curtiz — yes, the one behind my film nemesis, Casablanca), a movie based on book (the 1952 novel A Stone for Danny Fisher, by Harold Robbins) as opposed to one with its plot concocted by gyrating bodies and rhythms, and, the real cynics, will point to the fact that Elvis’ handlers hadn’t yet sold him out on settling for the safety of a screen franchise — and all of that’s true to one degree or another — but what makes this film really work is all of the above and the fact that Elvis has a supporting cast of real actors, as opposed to entertainers. The cast included Walter Matthau, Academy Award winner Dean Jagger, and Academy Award nominee Carolyn Jones.
In short, it was a real film project.
The proof of which is the official film history notation that James Dean was set to play the lead role of King Creole as straight drama but when he was killed in a car crash, the role was open for Elvis — at which time, the musical numbers were added. And when I say “added”, that’s what I mean; this film is a story, not a music vehicle. In fact, some argue that they find the music lackluster in comparison to the acting — something I’m not sure how they can say after the film’s opening with jazz vocalist Kitty White:
While the promotional materials (in color, while the film is black and white) showed Elvis surrounded by the usual bevy of babes, that’s rather misleading. The film is a more character study than romance — and in fact, it wouldn’t be wrong in my book to classify this as film noir. Or at least film noir lite.
In any case, there’s only one woman who stands out in this film. That woman is Carolyn Jones. Her performance is equal to, if not better than, Elvis’s. But then it would have to be. She plays Ronnie, a victimized moll about as cliché as it gets. While the rest of the girls are virtually bobby-soxers in comparison (even the cheeky Banana Girl), Jones’ Ronnie has all the dark romance such a character ought to have — at least to be alluring.
She blends sophisticated sexuality and the alcoholic’s self-medicating self-loathing with exhausted victimization & a dash of “maybe I’m not too-worldly-to-hope?” In today’s terms, she’s an over-experienced cougar with an unsure hand forced to manipulate a teen-aged bad boy (one who actually is less likable, actually abrasive with his anger, resentment and shame than the iconic standard). There’s certainly chemistry.
Danny may be drawn to Ronnie for all the right reasons, or even the wrong ones, but in any case, these two are doomed in several ways… But enough of the plot; let’s move onto the glamour.
In terms of glamour, the best thing to discuss is Carolyn’s hair.
While her hair is the chic and sophisticated bob which matches her role as former sultry singer, woman of the world, now owned as both a trophy & a tool by the gangster, there are those bangs…
The bangs are both blunt and severe, emphasizing the mature lines in her face, yet those open spots, those pixie-like wisps, pose the question of play… But what kind of game is this? Those bangs beguile with the questions they beg.
But what really mixes the message of Ronnie’s character are those soft curls, which, especially when seen from the side, offer more than some glimpse of the clichéd hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold but offer up a softness, a tenderness, which contradicts her otherwise worldly air.
It’s those curls, which we & Danny see when we take those sly side glances at her while we try to secretively evaluate her, which make us want to rescue her — and therefore find escape ourselves.