Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jailhouse Rock (1957, Richard Thorpe)

One thing that bugs me is that in the immediate dismissal of the Presley filmography there is near unanimous assumption that Jailhouse Rock is among his best work.  If his later films were marred by recycling tired formula, how about here at the beginning where he followed up Loving You with another movie in the same year about the same thing?  One must separate the stark, brilliant music video of the title song and suffer through a pretty tired melodrama that Leonard Maltin calls "Presley's best film."  Full stop.

Like his character in Loving You, Presley's Vince Everett is a noble brawler, this time getting pegged for incidental manslaughter.  A single punch in defense killed a man in a bar, and a single punch later would bring his near demise.  Elvis picks up the guitar in the slammer, is taken under the wing of, ahem, washed-up country singer Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) and the two intend to form a music partnership when Houghton finishes the ten remaining months of his sentence after Vince get out of the pen.

Though deeply implicit (to the point that Elvis was probably unawares), the special bond between the two in prison can't help but raise an eyebrow when coupled with title track lyrics like "you're the cutest jailbird I ever did see" and "I wanna stick around a while and get my kicks", not to mention what Little Joe was doing to the slide trombone.  Though easily construed as a homosexual reference (and you'd have a hard time convincing me songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller didn't know what they were doing), the content speaks more closely to Elvis's loyalty to the male leadership in his life.  It's a wonder that Colonel Parker allowed the portrayal of characters like Loving You's Glenda Markle and Jailhouse Rock's Hunk Houghton that are fairly transparent in their similarities between a yoked Elvis and a malevolent, driving Colonel.

Where Loving You is endearing for doe-eyed Elvis awed by the world in front of him, Jailhouse Rock plays into his rebellious public persona at the time that reads as fairly disingenuous.  Also like Loving You, much of the second act is bogged down by a cyclical performing of songs, his career moving slower than intended, performing more songs, and eventually getting a lucky break.  It doesn't make for the most engaging cinema, and the love-interest (Judy Tyler as Peggy Van Alden) straightening the ex-con doesn't have a lot of chemistry.  It is probably Elvis's most bad-boy performance that titillated the poodle skirts, but reads as the least believable.  Not just because they revamped the persona post-Army to have Elvis start hanging out with young orphans, but his portrayal of sincere angst is laughable.  The biggest laugh in the movie occurs when Peggy takes Vince home to meet her parents and, after spouting intellectual bourgeois about jazz musicians, Vince marches out saying, "lady, I don't know what the hell you talking 'bout."  I cheered too, but less in a misunderstood outsider fist-pumping kind of way and more in a modern, meta prism Gary Coleman kinda way.

Where much of Elvis's early film career tried to imitate James Dean-- nay, James Dean on screen, his better "rebel" pictures (Love Me Tender, Loving You, and later the superior King Creole and Wild In The Country) are remarkable because of Elvis's unique natural intuition.  We knew what he was trying to do, but it somehow filtered through a natural charisma that worked as an odd actinide.  Where Jailhouse Rock fails is in its overt artifice.

The contrived melodrama reaches its boiling point when Vince gets punched in the Adam's Apple and losing his voice.  His career hangs in the balance as medicine waits to see if he can regain what he once took for granted.  In a film about artifice, the most ironic element is in the moral:  Vince learns that money isn't the reason to get in the entertainment business and, though Vince eventually launches a film career, it is for the expression, the joy and the creativity that art is created.  If only Elvis's future in film didn't also present this as artifice.  -- **½ / four stars

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