I figured it was only right to review an Elvis Presley movie, since his birthday was yesterday. I’m a casual fan of Elvis, the actor. I watched Viva Las Vegas a few years back, and despite the charms of Ann-Margaret, I found the film stale. With that, I decided to watch Jailhouse Rock which, according to the incomparable Robert Osborne, is Presley’s best film. I must say, I agree with that assessment as Jailhouse Rock is a rollicking B-movie where Presley shows “what could have been” with a solid performance evoking the best of James Dean.
After serving time for manslaughter, Vince Everett (Presley) finds success as a rock-and-roll sensation. As his fame increases, so does he ego which pushes him away from the strong-willed girl (Judy Taylor) who aided in his success.
The plot is a standard “dangers of stardom” tale, without that much danger. If you compare it to other movies in the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll,” genre, Jailhouse Rock is pretty tame. Vince is a jerk as his fame increases, but he never devolves into illegal substances or loose women! It’s makes for a pretty weird transition in the second act, considering he spends the entire first act taking offense to everything. I’m sure this is all due to Presley’s relatively squeaky-clean image. It’s shocking to see Presley shave his head once he enters prison at the start of the movie. What a way to say “I’m not my image” by removing one of his key identifiers. There is a joke earlier on where the guy Vince kills says, “Why don’t you run along, sonny, before I muss up your hair?” Presley seems to have had a sense of humor about his hair, and what a delight to know that he was so committed to the role that he’d be willing to change his trademark.
Jailhouse Rock is a black-and-white, B-movie, and I have to wonder if that aided in Presley’s acting, which feels relaxed and natural compared to Viva Las Vegas. The fact that the film was made on the cheap, compared to his other works, could have made him believe this was his chance to prove he had talent outside of singing. I kept seeing James Dean, à la Rebel without a Cause, in Presley; and how ironic that both are rebellious figures of the 1950s, although Presley is predominant in the singing arena, and had a more apple pie persona. In the film’s opening scenes, Presley (who famously memorized his lines and everyone else’s) isn’t just saying the lines; he’s feeling them. The only time I felt his acting was disingenuous is when he’s trying to be the smart alack and talk back to the warden and other male authority figures. Presley looks uncomfortable, and says the lines in a stilted, distanced manner, as if he doesn’t know how to insult someone; and yet, I never felt that when he’s insulting Peggy. Judy Tyler, who plays Peggy, has a tragic addendum as she ended up dying just a few days after filming concluded, in a car crash. Presley apparently had a thing for Tyler, and after her death he refused to ever watch Jailhouse Rock. Tyler definitely had the makings of a fine actress. I’m not sure if I could say she was the next Grace Kelly, but Peggy isn’t star-struck by Vince. She makes decisions logically, and Tyler conveys that well. There’s definite sparks between her and Presley because their love/hate scenes are the best scenes throughout.
As a few nitpicks, I can’t say the plot is original. It feels extremely repetitive for an hour and 45 minute movie. Before Vince becomes famous, the script follows a sequence of “Vince does something bad/insults someone, gets in trouble.” The movie starts off with Vince punching someone, and getting convicted of manslaughter; then it moves to Vince going to a nightclub to perform his act, and smashing his guitar on a heckler’s table; then he goes to a party at Peggy’s parent’s house, and insults a family member. The party scene especially didn’t give me any sympathy for Vince at all. The way it’s written makes it seem that Vince doesn’t have enough reason to fly off the handle, and the film is trying desperately to invent them. By the same token, he looks like a jerk for insulting his business partner’s parents for an insignificant slight.
I also took issue with the film’s climax. Vince’s ego becomes uncontrollable and he starts a fight with former cell-mate/friend Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy). Houghton starts punching Vince, but Vince won’t fight back and gets hurt. Who are we supposed to sympathize/root for here? Vince has been a jerk, and it’s been established that he fights back when slighted; however, Hunk has Vince’s doormat and did try to cheat him out of money. At the end, it’s feared that Vince’s throat and singing ability might be gone, but while Hunk apologizes, and we see that Vince has controlled/tackled his anger problem by not hitting Hunk, we never see Vince learn a lesson or apologize for his dickery. He lives happily ever after, and since we never see him do anything other than sing at the end, he could have gone on living like a total louse for the rest of his career. Are we meant to see that his actions weren’t that bad to begin with? I was left mixed on the ending, and thankfully Jailhouse Rock as a whole was good enough for me to see it as just a poor ending.
I’ll briefly mention the songs because it wouldn’t be an Elvis movie without songs! The first few songs reminded me of Johnny Cash, who I know came out later, but they’re in the same vein of being hymn/bluesy. As with the acting, the slower songs don’t focus on the bombastic and the rock ‘n roll, but Presley’s voice. I did scratch my head a few times because in the long shots it doesn’t look like he’s moving his mouth that much. The “Jailhouse Rock” number is the best, and I’d probably list it in my top musical sequences. It’s brash, it’s stylized, and Presley’s dancing doesn’t look choreographed, but methodical. It’s the highlight of the picture!
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Jailhouse Rock! I’m not sure if I’d seek out other Presley films, but I enjoyed this more than Viva Las Vegas. The plot is consistent for the most part, and Presley’s acting is the best I’ve seen. Happy birthday Elvis!
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