Should I Watch..? 'Jailhouse Rock' (1957)
What's the big deal?
Jailhouse Rock is a dramatic musical film released in 1957 and starred Elvis Presley in only his third movie, his first for MGM. Directed by Richard Thorpe, the film casts Elvis as a young man imprisoned for manslaughter who begins seeking fame and fortune after his release. The film also stars Judy Tyler, Mickey Shaughnessy, Dean Jones (who would go on to star in Disney's The Love Bug) and Vaughn Taylor. Despite a pretty hostile reception from critics, the film grossed enough to make MGM a profit and turned Elvis into one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood at the time. Elvis himself is rumoured to have never seen the finished film, however after the tragic and untimely death of Tyler and her husband in a car crash a few months before the film's premier on October 17th, 1957.
What's it about?
Construction worker Vince Everett is found guilty of manslaughter after accidentally killing a drunk during a bar-room brawl. Sentenced to between one and ten years, Vince quickly befriends his cell-mate Hunk Houghton who is a former country singer who still entertains the other inmates. After impressing Hunk with his singing voice, Vince learns how to play the guitar and soon performs at a televised prison talent show. With Vince's fan-mail flooding in, Hunk ensures that Vince never discovers how popular he is outside. After being released, Vince follows Hunk's advice and heads to a club ran by Hunk's friend with the promise of a singing job.
After his temper gets the better of him, Vince walks away from the job and soon attracts the attention of Peggy Van Alden, a music promoter working for current singing sensation Mickey Alba. With dreams of stardom and riches, Vince and Peggy soon begin to fashion Vince into a legitimate pop star. But can Vince ever escape his history and will his arrogance and attitude threaten everything he holds dear?
What's to like?
Even if, by some freakish chance, you had never heard of Elvis, you can understand why so many people fell for him watching Jailhouse Rock. He is almost impossibly good-looking with his heavily slicked-back hair and quivering lip while his singing voice is in fine form. Of course, his hip-shaking dance routine is about as contemporary and controversial as a hoop and stick but the man has a swagger about him that is undeniable.
Ignoring the leading man for a moment, the film is your standard rags-to-riches tale with little to surprise in between the musical numbers. Tyler and Shaughnessy provide good support for their clearly inexperienced co-star while the story itself actually feels a little like an autobiography for The King. It isn't hard to imagine Elvis being manipulated in the way Vince is in the movie (Hunk is Colonel Parker in all but name) while his move to films also feels a little too close to reality. Whether Elvis was as much of a jerk as Vince is, I doubt it. In fact, it's the sheer unlikable nature of the lead character that put me off the film.
- Elvis' real-life band appeared alongside him in the film, although they were all uncredited. They were Scottie Moore on electric guitar, DJ Fontana on drums and Bill Black on the double bass.
- In addition to Elvis' band, the piano player in the studio was played by Mike Stoller - one half of the song-writing partnership behind the song Jailhouse Rock and many other early rock & roll hits.
- Elvis mimed all of the songs heard during the movie. The soundtrack was recorded between April 30th - May 3rd 1957 while shooting for the film began ten days later.
What's not to like?
Vince Everett is, in no uncertain terms, an unpleasant and violent bully. Able to get away with smashing a guitar on a customer's table without instantly being sent back to jail, Vince has no concept at all about how his actions have repercussions for those closest to him. He also is a pretty thin character - there is no mention of any family for him or why he sees violence as a solution to life's problems. There simply isn't any depth to Vince or any of the other characters whatsoever. Perhaps this is why Presley's performance is as wooden as his guitar but I prefer to think of it as Presley being way out of his comfort zone.
The film also suffers in other ways - its age counts against it because it feels so similar to countless other films like A Star Is Born or (more importantly) any of Elvis' self-indulgent back catalogue like King Creole, Viva Las Vegas or Girls! Girls! Girls!. The film has the feel of a very long commercial for its star, which I suppose possibly isn't that far from the truth. Elvis is in every scene, he has virtually every musical number and the story so closely seems to mirror Elvis' own (with the obvious exception of jail-time) that it's hard to escape that impression.
Should I watch it?
Fans of The King will undoubtedly enjoy this cheesy and unusual drama about the biggest jerk finding success as a music star. But for non-fans of Elvis, the film feels a little off-kilter by having Presley play such an unlikeable role. Musically, the film has more to offer than the rousing title track but Elvis himself needed more acting experience and a better role to make this truly unforgettable.
Great For: Elvis Presley fans, rock & roll lovers, musically-gifted ex-cons
Not So Great For: modern viewers, black-and-white snobs, anyone looking for an explosion
What else should I watch?
Elvis himself once claimed King Creole to be his favourite film of his career. Released in 1958, the film sees Elvis as a young delinquent taking a job as a nightclub singer to support his family and running afoul of local gangster Walter Matthau. Although Elvis never achieved the same levels of success as an actor as he did a singer, one of his more respected efforts came in Loving You - another musical film which sees Elvis play a delivery man launched onto the road to stardom and get muddled up in romantic entanglements. I'm seeing a pattern here...
The longer his movie career went on, the worse the films got. Clambake was a low point for Elvis, who was becoming despondent about the lack of success his movies were achieving after the poorly received Double Trouble and Frankie And Johnny. Despite seeking less musical roles and more serious drama, Elvis' movie career was dead by the end of the Sixties. He would only go on to appear in concert films after 1970 and would ultimately pass away on August 16th, 1977 at the age of just 42.
Peggy Van Alden
DJ Teddy Talbot
Guy Trosper *
Release Date (UK)
17th January, 1958
U (1992 re-release)
© 2016 Benjamin Cox