This is first Elvis Presley movie that I ever watched. This is the third film he made, when he was still young and trying to be taken seriously as an actor. Elvis loved acting, and his dream was to pick up where James Dean left off, and play the same types of roles that Dean played. And I believe that he could have done so, with the right material. Elvis was actually a pretty good actor. But it was Colonel Tom Parker who locked Elvis into a contract which had him making formulaic musicals, designed simply to capitalize off of Elvis’ singing talent, while turning down the chance for Elvis to star in more serious films like The Defiant Ones and West Side Story. But Jailhouse Rock could be seen as a nice compromise, since Elvis plays a rock n roll singer, so his singing in the film fits the plot.
In this movie, written by Guy Trosper & Nedrick Young, and directed by Richard Thorpe, Elvis plays Vince Everett, a construction worker and aspiring singer who gets into a fight one night in a bar and accidentally kills the guy he fights. He’s convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spends 20 months in jail, during which he shares a cell with an old former country singer named Hunk (played by Mickey Shaughnessy), who gives him some tips on how to sing. The jail puts on a talent show, which is broadcast on TV, and with Hunk’s help, Elvis performs the song Jailhouse Rock to great acclaim.
When he gets out of jail, Vince tries again to launch a professional singing career, initially to no success, having the one successful song he recorded stolen by a major record label who released it with another singer. So Vince gets together with a music promoter named Peggy (played by Judy Tyler), and they form their own record label and begin putting out Vince’s records themselves. Vince quickly becomes a big success, and gets offers to make movies, but the success starts to go to his head.
When Hunk gets out of jail, Vince hires him as his assistant, but eventually begins ordering him around like a slave. He also neglects Peggy, who began to have feelings for him, which Vince initially reciprocated, until he started getting attention from beautiful Hollywood actresses. When Vince gets an offer to sell his record label to the larger label that ripped him off earlier, he accepts it, over Peggy’s objection. Seeing what an a-hole he’s become now, Hunk quits and then beats up Vince. But during the fight Hunk injures Vince’s vocal cords, jeopardizing Vince’s future as a singer. The possibility of losing everything he worked for humbles Vince, and he makes amends with Hunk and Peggy. Then his throat heals, and he’s able to sing again.
I can watch this film today and it still holds up. Admittedly, the role isn’t much of a stretch for Elvis, as he’s playing a character that is so close to himself. But he plays it straight, there are no winks at the camera, which could have made this more like a farce than a serious drama. And while “Jailhouse Rock” is the standout song, this movie also features Elvis singing “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care)” and “Treat Me Nice“, which are two of my other favorite Elvis song. If only he could have kept making movies like this, his acting career could have been much different.
This film can be purchased on DVD via Amazon.com