Jailhouse Rock (1957) dir. Richard Thorpe
Starring: Elvis Presley, Mickey Shaughnessy, Judy Tyler and Dean Jones
By Greg Klymkiw
Make no mistake about it - Elvis Presley was a great actor! While one would be hard-pressed to agree based on most of his post-military titles, cobbled together and foisted at him by the dubious Col. Tom Parker, everything Elvis Aron Presley did onscreen prior to his service to Uncle Sam was really special.
Though King Creole is, without question, the best Elvis Presley movie ever made, a recent re-screening of Jailhouse Rock via the Warners Home Entertainment Blu-ray release, has convinced me that it's only a pubic hair or two below the former title. Rather than calling it Mr. Presley's second-best movie, let's just say it ties with the Michael Curtiz-directed King Creole.
Presley was a natural for the silver screen. The camera loved him and he charged his early work with the same kind of smouldering intensity provided by such greats as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. The difference with Elvis was that he could dance and sing - and man (!) could he sing.
Jailhouse Rock features Presley as Vince Everett, a young man who serves a two-year term in prison for manslaughter (he pounds the bejesus out of a woman beating pimp). While in stir, Vince bunks with cellmate Hank (Mickey Shaughnessy), a former country and western singer who recognizes the talent Vince has and mentors him in all things musical. When Vince is released, he promises to split his earnings with Hank. While out of stir, Vince hooks up with a gorgeous young music promoter Peggy (Judy Tyler, a former regular on "Howdy Doody" and the victim of a fatal auto accident soon after shooting wrapped). Peggy uses her connections to get Vince in the door of a major record company, but he is screwed so mightily, that Peggy begins her own label to promote Vince. Our hero becomes a huge star, but has a thing or two to learn about loyalty and humility as he becomes an egomaniacal knob to both his old prison pal and Peggy. Eventually, Vince gets his much-earned comeuppance and shoots into the stratosphere - clean and pure.
While the picture is a basic rags to riches show business tale, it's full of lots of frank, tough talk, sex (by late 50s standards), two-fisted action, some great music and with the title song, one of the greatest musical numbers ever committed to celluloid. Most of all, the picture has Elvis - giving his role a depth and sensitivity most actors can only dream of delivering.
Director Richard Thorpe was no grand stylist, but the sort of meat and potatoes craftsman who was probably what the doctor ordered for the picture. Thorpe was a grand studio hack who directed almost 200 (count 'em!) feature films over his long career (including the 30s "Huckleberry Finn" and a few excellent entries in the "Tarzan" and "Thin Man" series). Thorpe doesn't let his lack of style get in the way nor detract from the proceedings. He captures the action like a pro and makes sure to keep his camera trained on Elvis in a variety of succulent poses.
Elvis was lucky with this picture. Instead of the usual studio suffocation, he and the team were left to their own devices to create movie magic. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that legendary studio producer Pandro S. Berman was in charge. One of David Selznick's junior producers at RKO and eventually a major talent there before he was snapped up by MGM to work his magic (which, more often or not yielded superb work), Berman produced a great picture.
And thanks to producer Berman, the burgeoning star that was Elvis Aron Presley had a script worthy of his talent, an excellent overall production, a superb supporting cast and solid direction from Thorpe.
Most of all, the picture had that great title musical number choreographed by Alex Romero with Elvis and a whole lot of hunky guys - gyrating with devil-may-care abandon in a splendidly homoerotic mash-up in prison clothes.
And trust me - it doesn't get sexier than that.
Jailhouse Rock is part of a three-film "Elvis Collection" on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. It features an informative, but occasionally monotonous commentary track and a cool little short on the creation of the title musical number. And, of course, the picture looks great on Blu-ray.