When a hot property hits Hollywood, producers follow the scent of money
and exploit it. One prime example is Elvis Presley, who cranked out
thirty formula movies from 1957 to 1969 that vary from embarrassingly
inept to mediocre in quality. Most, however, are fun—especially the early films where Elvis didn't get hung up on acting and overcoming the exploitation of the Elvis persona. What's not to like about a supreme musical talent rocking out the joint, using his natural charms to woo beautiful women, and promote his young rebel image through stylized James Dean body language? Among his better early movies is Jailhouse Rock, where Elvis plays quick-tempered Vince Everett, jailed early on for accidental manslaughter.
As fate would have it (or savvy scriptwriters), Vince's cellmate is veteran country music singer Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), who runs a thriving internal cigarette business out of cell block 21 and just happens to have an acoustic guitar hanging on the wall. In short order, Hunk teaches the King a few chords along with his business philosophy, and young Vince seeks a country music gig after his release. This all sets up the basic premise of the film, which basically follows how a young music talent makes it in the brutal dog eat dog world of the music business.
As Leo Durocher once proclaimed, "Nice guys finish last." Elvis doesn't play a "nice guy" here (though his basic goodness always lies transparently under the exterior). Vince sizes up the situation and uses it to advantage. When music talent scout Peggy (Judy Tyler) shows interest, Vince pounces on the chance (literally—though kissing is about as far as 1950's movies would allow on screen), deflecting her half-hearted protest adroitly: "That ain't tactics, honey. It's just the beast in me." He's hooked more than he shows, as Vince keeps his emotions close to the vest unless he's beating up an abusive asshole, actively joining a mass food fight, or quieting an obnoxious drunk by smashing his guitar.
Along the way, Vince parallels the musical success of the King, showing the early struggles of a young country singer that changes his style to match the Rock 'n Roll times, makes tough business decisions that disregard personal loyalties, and heads to Hollywood where the country bumpkin is assigned a beautiful blonde leading lady, who regards him as a rube until undergoing the full Elvis charm (and passionate kiss). Some of the more enjoyable moments occur when contrasting Elvis in unnatural habitats—the wide eyed Hollywood tourist with the obviously bored bombshell and the unsophisticated ex-prisoner with Judy's highly educated parents, who attempt to relate to the young musician with Dave Brubeck and jazz discussions about atonality.
The plot holes are huge. Characters are introduced and dropped without development and blatant shortcuts are overused (note the repeated jail cell monthly calendar references), but these are easily overlooked. Elvis' young rebel persona complete with lip snarl comes through along with his tender side, and the King bares his torso a few times in prison to shovel coal and get whipped. But above all are the musical numbers! Most everyone has seen the set piece for "Jailhouse Rock." Its inclusion in various Elvis compilations is justified. Highly choreographed, it highlights Jailhouse Rock and rightfully takes its place among the best Rock ‘n Roll numbers ever recorded. The score includes other well known Leiber & Stoller songs like "I Want to Be Free" and "Treat Me Nice," but two other tender ballads ("Young and Beautiful" and "Don't Leave Me Now") serve as suitable tributes to the King's leading lady, Judy Tyler, who tragically died in a car crash before the film was released. For that reason, Elvis never saw a print of the film himself, but don't let that stop you from seeing it.
The single "Jailhouse Rock" number doesn't reflect the complete charms of the film. Director Richard Thorpe exploits the King's talents effectively without asking him to do too much. Elvis plays himself for the most part, and his nature shines through effectively when confronted with pretense, providing many of the film's more enjoyable moments. Once again the singing carries the day, just as we'd expect in an Elvis movie. And that all adds up to rank Jailhouse Rock among the best of the Elvis canon.