#547) Jailhouse Rock (1957)

#547) Jailhouse Rock (1957)

OR “King in the Clink”

Directed by Richard Thorpe

Written by Guy Trosper. Story by Ned Young. Songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Class of 2004

The Plot: Blue collar Vince Everett (Elvis Presley) is sentenced to prison for involuntary manslaughter after beating a man to death at a bar. While in jail, Vince’s cellmate/former country singer Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) recognizes Vince’s musical potential and convinces him to pursue a singing career once he’s released. A year later, Vince is on the outside, struggling to become a recording star; but with help from promoter Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler), creates his own label and releases a hit single. More records and a movie deal come to Vince, but will all this success go to his head?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “edginess”, and calls the title dance number “both ridiculous and infectious”. An essay by film critic Carrie Rickey admits that “Jailhouse” isn’t a great movie, but “remains the most eloquent record” of Elvis and ’50s teenage mania.

But Does It Really?: This is another missed opportunity from the NFR. Sure, there should be an Elvis movie on a list of significant American films, but why this one? Yes, the “Jailhouse Rock” number is arguably the King’s most iconic movie moment, but the rest of the movie is such a drag. Where’s “Blue Hawaii” or “Viva Las Vegas”? If “Jailhouse Rock” could be partially preserved with just the title number, I’d agree to this choice for the NFR. As it currently stands, however, this is not the best Elvis representation.

Everybody Gets One: Born in 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley (yes, that’s his real name) seemed to develop his musical talents early, despite his inherent shyness about performing. A recording session with Sun Records (see “Listen to This”) led to radio and live performances. His first single with RCA – “Heartbreak Hotel” – was an instant hit in 1956, and quickly made Presley the face of the booming rock and roll movement. By year’s end, Elvis made his film debut with a supporting role in “Love Me Tender” (a film whose title was changed to capitalize on another Elvis hit). “Jailhouse Rock” was Elvis’ third movie in less than a year, and his second starring role.

Title Track: This movie was originally titled “The Hard Way”, and then later “Jailhouse Kid”. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller procrastinated on writing the score until one month before shooting began, and in one day cranked out four songs, including “Jailhouse Rock”. The song was released as a single six weeks before the film premiered.

Other notes 

  • It was Kathryn Hereford who suggested to her husband, MGM producer Pandro S. Berman, that he should make a movie with Elvis to cash in on his popularity. It was the first movie under Berman’s company Avon Productions, though Berman spent most of the “Jailhouse” production preoccupied with another movie: “The Brothers Karamazov”.
  • Known primarily for costume dramas, Richard Thorpe was an MGM mainstay known for his quick productions (he typically printed the first take). “Jailhouse” aside, Thorpe is best remembered for the NFR movie he didn’t direct. Thorpe helmed the first two weeks of “The Wizard of Oz“, but was replaced when the producers felt his footage lacked a certain fantasy quality.
  • Elvis’ infamous manager Colonel Tom Parker is listed in the credits as a “Technical Advisor”.
  • I wasn’t expecting Elvis’ acting chops to be on par with Olivier, but on the whole he’s…almost good. It always stuns me when someone who is so charismatic and energetic in their musical performances can be so stale and uninteresting when handling basic dialogue.
  • I’ll go ahead and assume prison isn’t nearly as fun as this movie makes it out to be. Also, is this the same prison where Johnny Cash was sent to after shooting that man in Reno?
  • A big “screw you” to the audience: the first song in the movie isn’t sung by Elvis/Vince, but rather by his cellmate Hunk.
  • I feel like becoming a hit musician would be a lot easier today. No need to get a record deal; just go viral and let the deals come to you.
  • Ooh, Elvis said “Hell”. How did this movie maintain a G rating? This is followed by Vince forcing himself onto Peggy, claiming “it’s just the beast in me”. Wouldn’t someone who hates “women-beaters” also be anti-assault?
  • Vince is upset because someone became more famous by covering one of his songs? Not so fun on this side, is it Elvis?
  • Making their sole NFR appearance is Dean Jones, seen here as a local DJ/friend of Peggy’s, still about a decade away from his run of Disney comedies such as “The Love Bug” and “That Darn Cat!”.
  • To ease Elvis into production, the “Jailhouse Rock” number was the first scene filmed for the movie. The original choreography by Alex Romero left Presley unimpressed, so Romero watched Elvis dance and based the new routine on his improvised moves. It’s definitely the movie’s highlight, but that’s not saying much.
  • If nothing else, the “Jailhouse Rock” number shows “Elvis the Pelvis” at work. Tame by today’s standards, but I see why ’50s America was up in arms. He could put an eye out with that thing.
  • My favorite random shout-out: When Vince and his new leading lady Sherry go out to be seen, Vince takes her to Knott’s Berry Farm! I legitimately laughed out loud.
  • What even is this movie? I get that Vince is supposed to start out as a jerk whose experience in show business helps him become a better person. Unfortunately, Elvis isn’t a good enough actor to make these shifts, and we’re left connecting the dots on our own. I went into “Jailhouse Rock” figuring this would be an easy, fun write-up, but instead it was a simultaneously frustrating and boring viewing experience.

Legacy 

  • Both the movie and song of “Jailhouse Rock” were hits with audiences, but were both unfortunately overshadowed by a real-life tragedy. Shortly after production wrapped, Judy Tyler and her husband were killed in a car accident near Rock River, Wyoming. They were both 24. Elvis was so shaken by this, out of respect for Tyler he did not attend the film’s premiere (and allegedly never saw the final film).
  • After “Jailhouse”, Elvis would make another 28 movies over the course of 12 years! Elvis was so focused on his films and records that he stopped doing live performances in 1961. Unhappy with most of his movies (and the lack of offers for more dramatic work), Elvis left Hollywood when his various contracts expired, and returned to live shows with his famous 1968 comeback special. Presley continued his reign as the king of rock and roll until his tragic death in 1977 at age 42.
  • This is your reminder that indie film/TV star Riley Keough is Elvis’ eldest granddaughter. She’s Lisa Marie’s daughter with her first husband Danny Keough.

Listen to This: Elvis’ first professional recordings for Sun Studios in 1954 were part of the National Recording Registry’s inaugural class of 2002. The NRR write-up includes an essay by guest writer James L. Dickerson. Also on the NRR are two songs made famous by Elvis, but preserved here with their original artists: Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”.

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