June 27, 2014

Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Richard Thorpe
Stars: Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, Mickey Shaughnessy

What it's about. Elvis' third film, made the year after he became the nation's top record-seller, and the year before he was drafted. Bad-boy Elvis Presley gets in a barroom fight and in the heat of the moment kills his opponent.

He is sent to prison for manslaughter and bunks with old-timer Mickey Shaughnessy, a former minor country star. Shaughnessy sees promise in Elvis as a singer, and, because it is a movie, steers him onto a national television special broadcast from the prison. Of course, Elvis is a smash and gets a mountain of fan mail, which Shaughnessy sees but Elvis doesn't.

Once out of prison, Elvis has the remarkable immediate luck of running into the hottest A & R woman (Judy Tyler) in the business, who, naturally, regards Elvis as a potential talent. In short order they are in business together with their own label, and Elvis as its sole hitmaker. The partnership also includes a crafty, cynical lawyer (Vaughn Taylor).

However, Elvis and Tyler are soon on the rocks. She demands respect and he craves exclusivity, or something like that. Shaughnessy gets out of prison and looks up Elvis, landing a post as his hard-drinking gopher. Finally, Shaughnessy roughs up his boss, putting Elvis in the hospital and causing a crisis that puts Tyler and Elvis back in the same groove.

How others will see it. Jailhouse Rock is generally regarded by film critics as either Elvis' best or second-best movie, along with his next feature, King Creole, which was also made prior to Elvis' two-year military service. Those two films were black and white, which gave them credibility relative to the comparatively lightweight color musicals that dominated his 1960s film career.

Financially, Jailhouse Rock did well. It was the second-biggest grossing MGM film of the year, trailing only Raintree County, which had bona fide moviestars in Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. As such, it outperformed King Creole, and it also had the better soundtrack, stocked with great Lieber-Stoller compositions (the duo had earlier written Elvis' most famous recording, "Hound Dog.")

Jailhouse Rock is also the only Elvis movie in the National Film Registry, although its 2004 entry was somewhat belated.

Surprisingly, though, Jailhouse Rock is less revered at imdb.com, where it has a middling 6.5 user rating with a meager 0.2 gender spread (women slightly prefer the film). Follow That Dream has an identical 6.5 user rating with a more sizable gender margin of 0.5 points. It seems that women prefer the bland, nice, romantic Elvis of Follow That Dream to the jerk and convict he plays in Jailhouse Rock.

How I felt about it. Naturally, I prefer the anti-Elvis. He doesn't have to act in Follow That Dream. In Jailhouse Rock, though, he gets to smash a guitar and act out. While this characterization may unsettle fans (especially female ones) who prefer the genial Elvis, the anti-Elvis is undoubtedly more amusing. "Lady, I don't know what the hell you're talking about" might be my favorite line of the film.

It is true that Judy Tyler is a find. Her smile is so warm it could melt the Antarctic, and her face, body, and voice gave her great promise as a moviestar. Unfortunately, she died in a car crash with her husband shortly after production wrapped.

Still, the Tyler-Presley romance is unconvincing. Their characters are in love, but pretend that their relationship is professional, all the while alternating between jealousy, bitterness, lust, and puppy-dog begging. Emotionally, they are still in junior high.

The post-prison relationship between Elvis and Shaughnessy is also odd. The later agrees to be Elvis' highly compensated flunky, and then proceeds to complain at length about his treatment until he nearly murders his keeper.

But it does appear that Richard Thorpe knew how to direct Elvis better than any of his successors. He plays him against type in terms of personality, yet his character has strong similarities to the real Elvis, who also became a leading record and film star.