December 7, 2011 § 4 Comments
Jailhouse Rock is supposed to be one of Elvis’s better movies. What this means, apparently, is that it contains all the standard Elvis movie tropes–Elvis sings, Elvis gets in a fight with another man over a woman and wins, even the rare woman that starts out hating Elvis ends up loving him–but here, unlike in most of Elvis’s films, they’re actually integrated into the plot. For example, that whole fight-with-another-man-over-a-woman thing? Elvis knocks out a woman-beater so thoroughly that he ends up dead, and that’s how Elvis ends up in the pen on a manslaughter charge. And all the songs take place in recording studios, at parties, for television film crews–places where it’d make sense for Elvis to be singing. Nowhere in this film does Elvis just whip out a guitar in the middle of a barnyard to perform a fully scored song (no backing band in sight) to the delight of a crowd of young ladies. (Can you tell I just watched Tickle Me?)
While still too telegraphed and sentimental to be a good movie, it’s true that this is better than Elvis usually got. The rise-and-fall-of-a-star plot allowed him to play to his strengths. And fortunately Elvis is compulsively watchable even in a mediocre film. Hell, I would watch a movie of Elvis eating peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches. (Well, I’d watch 20 minutes of it.) It helps, too, that he landed a more substantial co-star than the frothy featherweights he’d later get stuck with: Judy Tyler, who died tragically in a car crash only a few days after filming ended. Jailhouse Rock is one of the few films Elvis ever appeared in where his female lead is more character than scenery. (And, on a more personal note, it helps that this contains my all-time favorite Elvis song, “You’re So Square.”)
Given its reputation as a “good” Elvis film, I was surprised to see that most of the reviews upon its release were overwhelmingly negative. Apparently, Elvis repelled early critics as much as he excited later ones. Here’s Time: “For moviegoers who may not care for that personality, Presley himself offers in the film a word of consolation: ‘Don’t Worry,’ he says, ‘I’ll grow on you.’ If he does, it will be quite a depressing job to scrape him off.” And The Spectator: “Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley’s new film, is so nasty that it makes our Elvis, who just passes in a merely silly film like Loving You, seem dangerously near being repulsive. Presumably aimed at adolescents (who else?)”
Now? Jailhouse Rock is in the National Film Registry. How times change.