It’s hard for younger audiences to understand what a truly subversive figure Elvis Presley was in the 1950’s. Throughout the 1960’s he made safe, sanitized films that seem quite tame today, and his later Las Vegas persona has been parodied to death (and indeed, Presley became a parody of himself in the 70’s). But back in the day, Elvis was the original punk rocker, his gyrating hips and perpetual sneer causing quite a scandal among adults brought up on sedate Bing Crosby-type crooners. Teenagers were attracted to this new, rebellious musical style, and Presley became their King. Hits like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and “All Shook Up” topped the charts, and a plethora of rock’n’roll artists jumped on the bandwagon. Elvis had already done two films by the time JAILHOUSE ROCK was released, a triumph of punk attitude about a convict’s rise to the top of the music heap.
Young hothead Vince Everett (Elvis) kills a man in a bar fight over a woman, getting him ten years in jail for manslaughter. The cocky Vince is schooled in prison life by his cellmate Hunk, an ex-country singer who runs the prison’s black market economy where cigarettes are “the coin of the realm”. Hunk finds out Vince’s a pretty fair singer himself and lands him a spot in the warden’s talent show, being broadcast coast-to-coast to promote a good image. Vince sings “I Want to Be Free” and the jail’s flooded with tons of fan mail. Hunk has it all withheld and concocts a scheme to draw up a 50/50 contract with the brash younger con.
Eventually Vince is released, and the warden gives him his sacks of mail. Hunk has arranged for Vince to work at the Club LaForito, which turns out to be a sleazy strip joint, whose owner wants him to bar back. He bombs onstage, but PR lady Peggy takes a shine to him, and soon he’s in the studio recording “Don’t Leave Me Now”. Peggy takes Vince to a swanky party hosted by her parents. To say he doesn’t fit in is an understatement, as the guests are discussing the latest in modern jazz. Vince leaves after insulting everyone, and when Peggy follows, he gives her a rough kiss, stating “It’s just the beast in me”.
“Don’t Leave Me Now” becomes a hit, but not for Vince, as the Geneva Records owner steals the arrangement and gives it to his biggest star Mickey Alba. Hotheaded Vince gets hot again and beats the tar out of the weasel. He and Peggy hire a lawyer and begin their own label. Vince records “Treat Me Nice” (one of Presley’s 50’s hits) and go out on the hustle, promoting the disc with DJ’s and stores. The song breaks big, and next thing you know Vince is a national star.
Television comes calling, and Vince is booked to appear in a number titled “Jailhouse Rock”. This is probably Presley’s finest moment in movies, an uptempo rocker set in a cellblock. Elvis choreographed his own dance moves, and though the tune’s a bit Hollywoodized compared to the original recording (adding a con’s chorus and some horns), it captures the spirit of young Elvis Presley at his best:
Success goes straight to Vince’s head. Hunk is released and, learning their jailhouse contract isn’t valid, is made into Vince’s flunky. His womanizing with starlet Sherry Wilson causes a rift between him and Peggy. When Vince wants to sell out his company and leave Peggy in the cold, Hunk loses it. A fight between to the former cellies winds up with Vince getting punched in the throat, unable to breathe. He’s rushed to the hospital with a damaged larynx, and may never sing again. But who are we kidding, of course he does, and we get a happy Hollywood ending with Vince reprising the song “Young and Beautiful”.
Elvis’s surly demeanor as Vince is right on target. Of all his films, JAILHOUSE ROCK is right up top (along with KING CREOLE and FLAMING STAR ) as showcases for his acting ability. Not only that, he gets to sing some great Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller songs. Besides those I mentioned earlier, The King does another of his great rock anthems, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”. The music here’s better than the sappy tunes he sung in his sanitized 60’s films, and only KING CREOLE comes close in the soundtrack department.
Pretty Judy Tyler (Peggy) was known to 50’s children as Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the pioneering TV show HOWDY DOODY. After filming JAILHOUSE ROCK, she and her husband were tragically killed in a car accident, causing Elvis so much grief he never watched this, his best movie. Mickey Shaughnessy (Hunk) was a dependable comic character actor who appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. Future Disney star Dean Jones has a role as a friendly DJ, while other Familiar Faces are Vaughn Taylor, Bess Flowers, Percy Helton, Bill Hickman, Donald Kerr , and Glenn Strange. Elvis’s backup band Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana play Vince’s band, aided on keyboards by songwriter Stoller.
Guy Trosper’s screenplay was based on a story by blacklisted former actor Nedrick Young, who would come back the next year working with Stanley Kramer. Director Richard Thorpe was an old MGM warhorse dating back to the 20’s who lensed everything from Tarzan’s swinging adventures to Esther Williams splashtaculars. Producer Pandro S. Berman, another of Hollywood’s old guard, was coaxed into making an Elvis movie by his wife. Berman put his usual care into the production, and came up with another big hit for both the studio and Elvis. Critics of the time ripped JAILHOUSE ROCK apart, but today it’s seen as a milestone of the rock’n’roll movie, and Elvis Presley’s brightest, shiningest moment on the silver screen. Those of you who only think of Elvis as a bloated, jumpsuited Vegas lounge singer need to see JAILHOUSE ROCK to discover why he’s called The King. His loyal subjects (including yours truly) already know.