11 January 2011

Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock Full of Elvis’ Charm and Finery
By Kristin Battestella

You’ve been educated previously about my favorite Elvis Presley picture King Creole.  Though Jailhouse Rock is my very close second, this 1957 romp is probably one of his most famous- if not THEE most lauded of his films.  Everyone knows the iconic titular dance number; and odd trivia like Elvis’ prisoner number dominate among fans of the King of Rock ‘n Roll.  Add compelling drama and musical fifties delights, and honestly, what’s not to love?

Jailhouse Rock (Deluxe Edition)Vince Everett’s (Presley) temper lands him a stint in the penitentiary along side washed up country singer Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy).  Although Vince can carry a tune, Hunk teaches him the ropes on the inside, how to play his guitar- and most importantly, the cruelty of the music industry.  Hunk hopes to get back into the biz with Vince when they get out, but upon his early release, Vince strikes out on his own.  After toiling with no money and no singing breaks, he meets recording scout Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) and cuts a record.  Peggy has faith in Vince and his music, and the two start up their own label after strikeouts and betrayal from the bigger recording companies.  Vince and his manager Mr. Shores (Vaughn Taylor) enjoy counting the money, and Vince finds himself in Hollywood with dames and the convertible he always wanted.  But is the price of fame worth the cost of Vince’s friendships and where he comes from?

Though Elvis is of course known for his irreplaceable music first and foremost and his often less than stellar acting career second, Jailhouse Rock is one of his finer performances- before all the carbon copy song snoozers. His Vince Everett is allowed time to develop his anger and rebellious youth before we get to all the singing and dancing. Yes, the music is an integral part of the story, but this isn’t the usual lighthearted fair with huge, colorful production numbers every ten minutes. Elvis is going to prison, getting his hair cut, and suffering in coal labor- this is heavy stuff for the screaming fans of 1957! By time we get to ‘Young and Beautiful’ fifteen minutes in, we don’t think it’s just an excuse for Elvis to sing.  Vince’s meager prison rising and subsequent stardom feel realistic and believable.  Sure, Jailhouse Rock is not unlike Elvis’ own humble beginnings-perhaps no other character has him so nearly playing himself, and the audience knows this.  However, Elvis brings his real emotion, skill, and more to Vince’s style and journey - be it his rough side, great sarcasm, or that undeniable singing persona.  He’s Elvis; he can’t really help that part, can he? Even if you somehow just landed on this planet and don’t know who Elvis is, you see him perform ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’ and you are hooked.

Balancing Elvis onscreen can’t be easy, but Judy Tyler (The Howdy Doody Show) is great as the fifties dressed but educated businesswoman who knows how to keep her head in the tough music business.  Of course, Peggy does harbor a wonderful soft spot, doesn’t she?  Her wavering over Vince is very well played, not girlie girl and melodramatic like so many of the over the top ladies of the day.  Instead of being merely a love interest, Peggy is a great antithesis and fulcrum for Vince because she can see beyond the fame and dollars.  Tyler is so lovely and charming here, and it is such a shame her life was cut short only weeks after completing filming.  Likewise, Mickey Shaughnessy’s (From Here to Eternity) Hunk Houghton adds layers to the prison life with his first guitar ditty ‘One More Day’. Indeed the harsh support is not in the traditional fifties musical atmosphere we expect.  We know Hunk might be a tender soul if it weren’t for the sour of show business and the prison system he’s established for himself.  Although he gets Vince straight laced and on the musical path, we don’t like when Hunk comes sniffing around Vince again. However, the audience feels for him all the same when Vince gives him one humble on the chin after another.  Eventually something has to give between the two former kings of Cell Block 21. Thankfully, Vaughn Taylor (Psycho) is a lot of fun as the bespectacled calculator Mr. Shores and keeps Jailhouse Rock light hearted when needed, too.

Naturally, if you don’t like good old-fashioned rock and roll or classic fifties looks and musical stylings, you might not be interested in Jailhouse Rock. Though black and white (forget those blasphemous colorized versions), the mid-century clothes and accessories are fun to see.  How swanky everything looks- the drinking and cigarettes, upturned collars, plenty of greased hair, the old record players and studio design.  I mean, they have record booths!  The cars are sweet and the pads are mod.  We even get a great old-fashioned montage with ‘Treat me Nice’, too.  Of course, the big jailhouse titular number an hour into the film is, well, its ‘Jailhouse Rock’.  We don’t have many more fifties iconic Americana than this.  Ironically, the routine is black and white cardboard, small scale, film within a film tight, all men, and not the best dancing to some by today’s standards. With that said, the streamline design, risqué moves, and damn fine music still works specifically because it is so different than other Broadway styled spectacles of the time. Jailhouse Rock is not There’s No Business Like Show Business. Time isn’t wasted on such cinematic choruses.   Actually, there’s not even that many songs here- after ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care’, we end wonderfully with a ‘Young and Beautiful’ reprisal.  A musical without a lot of music? It just goes to show you maybe Elvis can really act after all.

Director Richard Thorpe (Knights of the Round Table, Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda) keeps Jailhouse Rock together with a nice blend of story and drama, allowing for performance in a plot that just happens to be about a singer and some music.  Though well paced and evenly displayed here, Vince’s humble roots, rise to the top, and errors of the high life learned are perhaps predictable to us now.  Nedrick Young (The Defiant Ones) and Guy Trosper’s (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) fine and mature tale is actually fairly modern and still plays well today.  Though innocent for contemporary youthful audiences, Jailhouse Rock was actually kind of kinky and suggestive for its time. Oh my goodness prison whippings and women lying on beds!  What, also, is implied with the forced studio coupling of Sherry (Jennifer Holden) with Vince?  Was this one of those suggestive gay cover-ups- only to have Sherry ‘converted’ by a kiss from Elvis?  There’s certainly some steamy and amusing subtext- particularly in the titular routine- for those who want to find it.

Honestly, this is the first time I’ve sat down with Jailhouse Rock since seeing Emmy nominated and Golden Globe winner Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) in the 2005 television biopic Elvis. I’m a little surprised to see how alike the shows are.  Meyers puts on his best angry, brooding, hip, and sexy; yet, it doesn’t quite compare.  Jailhouse Rock is still vivid, serious, and heavy enough for today’s complex audiences.  Of course, the prophetic Hollywood gone awry plot here is wonderfully ironic, too.  Whether by his own acceptance or management interference, Elvis does sell out later in film- Tickle Me and Fun in Acapulco? Come on.  We laugh at the woefully bad majority of Elvis’ pictures indeed- and yet like the gawking crew within Jailhouse Rock, we still can’t look away, 50 years later.

Jailhouse RockAvailable in several DVD editions, my older copy of Jailhouse Rock offers both full and widescreen, and subtitles not always matching the dialogue as its biggest extra offerings. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play in any of my computers for screen captures. Bummer.  Thankfully, fancy sets and a new blu-ray edition have all the glory, bells, and whistles for collectors and Elvis enthusiasts. Casual classic fans or musical lovers and budding Elvis aficionados also can’t go wrong with a television viewing or other affordable rental option. Spend the night doing a little Jailhouse Rock and you’ll understand why Elvis is, well, Elvis. 

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