TCM will show Jailhouse Rock on Thursday at 9:45 PM EST.
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Frank Sinatra appeared in more than 50 screen roles, was nominated for two Oscars and won one. Yet when we remember him, we think of a seminal recording artist. Conversely, Judy Garland simply belongs on screen. Never mind that she made highly-regarded records for both Decca and Capitol. Unlike Sinatra, Garland's CDs aren't often played at weddings or as background music for diners in Italian restaurants. Judy's a movie star.
Elvis Presley is harder to categorize. Thirty-five years after his death, his music is still very much with us. And so are his movies. While they are unarguably nowhere near as good as Garland's or Sinatra's, they are more intrinsically tied to his music and his persona.
It was designed that way. Col. Tom Parker and producer Hal Wallis saw Elvis' movies as a fast way to easy money through soundtrack sales. Parker and Wallis are the villains of the Elvis saga, because when Elvis entered the film business, he aspired to be a serious actor. After signing with Wallis, he confessed to friends that he wanted to be like Sinatra or Bing Crosby -- singers who became respected film stars and eventually earned Oscars to display along with their gold records. But neither of the men in charge of his career would allow him the time it would take to learn the craft. What if Elvis was a fad? They had to make their money as quickly as possible. It's sad that the man referred to as The King allowed himself to be exploited like a pawn. As it is, his movies are regarded as the father of today's music videos. He would have preferred them to have been considered the heirs to the great MGM musicals.
Because Elvis wanted to be an actor as well as a star, I'm happy that he's included in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, along with John Wayne starring in The Flying Leathernecks, one of the movies Elvis saw time and again when he was an usher at The Lowe's Palace in Memphis.
That teenage job at Lowe's had an impact because Elvis believed in movie magic. "I saw movies and I was the hero," he said. After seeing Tony Curtis time and again in Son of Ali Baba, Elvis began dying his naturally light hair jet black. Even though he was fired for (shades of Vince Everett) fighting, he retained his sentimental attachment to The Lowe's Palace and that's where Jailhouse Rock premiered in 1957.
The story. Vince Everett is a blue collar kid with a heart of gold. He happens upon a drunk harassing a lady and he intervenes on her behalf. A fight ensues and Vince accidentally kills the bum with a lethal punch. Convicted of manslaughter, he has a hard time conforming to life behind bars. The other prisoners don't accept him and the guards … well, at one point Vince is stripped to the waist and flogged. Soon the sweet kid disappears and a hardened cynic takes his place.
Vince is a hit and receives a ton of fanmail. Savvy old dog that he is, Hunk intercepts the mail before Vince can see it. Then he encourages his protegee to stick with music and -- key plot point here -- persuades him to sign a contract that provides Hunk with 50% of Vince's show business earnings.
Vince is paroled after 20 months behind bars. He's thoroughly corrupted by his experience with the justice system and prepared to do whatever it takes to be a success. While doing the rounds, he meets Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler). She's slightly older, a highly professional record promoter and, in her way, just as determined as Vince. She sees potential in Vince, telling him, "I like how you swing a guitar." They join forces to make him a star.
They agree to keep the relationship strictly professional and despite some setbacks along the way, their hard work pays off. It's a combination of Vince's talent and Peggy's dedication; she walks the record around town to music stores and radio stations, using her connections to make sure Vince is heard by anyone who can influence sales. When DJ Teddy Talbot (Dean Jones) asks Peggy out, and she actually goes, Vince is despondent. He realizes he's in love with her, but he's too proud. and too afraid of rejection, to show it.
Just as Vince is getting ready to premiere his new song, "Jailhouse Rock," on a major TV spectacular, Hunk shows up. Fresh out of prison, Hunk insists Vince help him jumpstart his own music career. When told there's no place for cornpone country on Vince's show, Hunk decides to hold Vince to the contract he signed long ago. By now Vince has good legal representation (Vaughn Taylor as an unlikely looking, but very deadly, "shark") and Hunk is advised that the contract is not valid -- in part because Hunk kept Vince's fanmail from him and signed him under false pretenses. Still, remembering how Hunk helped him out in the bad old days, Vince agrees to keep him around. But not as a partner, as (literally) his dog walker. This is not as altruistic as it sounds, for Vince enjoys bringing Hunk to heel more than he does the dogs.
Naturally "Jailhouse Rock" is a huge hit and Vince very happily lets success go to his head. He buys a house in Beverly Hills and fills it with hangers on and starlets. He also makes plans to buy Peggy out -- at a very fair price -- which breaks her heart. For while "keeping it professional" was originally her idea, she's fallen for Vince despite herself, and their business relationship is her only way of staying in his life.
Hunk has a hard time watching this. Here's Vince enjoying the career Hunk wants to have, spurning the affections of the kind of classy woman Hunk wishes he could have, and treating everyone like dirt. Tensions rise and Hunk's temper erupts and he attacks Vince. Even though we know from that first bar fight that Vince can do real damage with his fists, he refuses to hit back. Even after Hunk punches him in the throat.
Doctors warn that Vince may never sing again. Peggy is shattered. Not because Vince's singing has been her source of income, but because she finally saw his decent side. Hunk is beside himself, afraid that his temper may have silenced a great talent. Peggy and Hunk stay at Vince's side throughout his convalescence.
Their steadfast loyalty in these tough times softens Vince. At last the doctors tell him it's safe to give his voice a tentative try. When, still in his bathrobe, he wraps an arm around Peggy and begins to sing "Young and Beautiful," we know everyone is going to live happily ever after.
The production number. Has anyone not seen this iconic dance number?
Elvis gets the lion's share of the credit for its success, and he should. Veteran choreographer Alex Romero took a crack at staging it. Elvis said he was "unconvinced" with Romero's initial efforts, feeling the dance was more exuberant Gene Kelly than sullen Vince Everett. Uncharacteristically, he took the reins, adding moves and attitude from his stage show. If only Elvis had inserted himself this forcefully in his movie career more often!
As it is, this number is so impressive and indelible that The National Film Registry deemed Jailhouse Rock "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and worthy of preservation, right along with The Wizard of Oz and An American in Paris.
The "Jailhouse Rock" number is unique, arrogant and sexy -- elements sorely missing in the mediocre-to-crappy movies Elvis made after returning from the Army in 1960. Over the decade we saw him play a wholesome race car driver, a happy carnival worker, a romantic photographer, etc., as he serenaded beach bunnies, grandmothers and babies. But he was never again as unapologetically surly, ambitious and carnal as Vince Everett in Jailhouse Rock. It's as if the Col. and Wallis foresaw the cultural tsunami of the 1960s and consciously chose to position Elvis as a conventional All-American Boy, ceding the controversial, bad boy role to Brits like John Lennon and Mick Jagger.
It's too bad, because in his pre-Army movies, Elvis showed an innate ability to fuse his personal charisma with a character to create a real screen presence. It's not impossible to imagine Elvis having a career like Burt Reynolds', playing charming good ol' boys who face challenges and are redeemed by the attention of a mentor or the love of a good woman. (Elvis fans often play "what if" about A Star Is Born, because The King was Streisand's first choice for Kris Kristofferson's role. Not me. I wonder what kind of gentle magic he could have made with Dolly Parton in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.) But instead of waiting for decent scripts, Elvis was lazily used in an amazing number -- 27 in 9 years! -- of uninspiring films.
• "I Want to Be Free" is the song Vince sings in the prison talent show. By Leiber and Stoller, it's a straightforward and forgettable little ballad.
• "Don't Leave Me Now" is a bluesy number by Schroeder and Weisman. We see Vince sing it in the recording studio and watch his disappointment as he listens to the playback. Peggy encourages him to "sing it like you feel it." Inspired, he does it again, his way. "Burn me up this time," he tells the musicians. "Let's see if we can get a little fire in it."
• "Treat Me Nice" is Vince's first hit. Performed in the studio with his band, Vince is far more confident in front of the mic and his clothes and moves are more sophisticated and provocative. Also by Lieber/Stoller, "Treat Me Nice" was the B-side of "Jailhouse Rock." Today it's familiar to a new generation of theater goers because it's showcased in Smokey Joe's Cafe.
• "Young and Beautiful" is a saccharine ballad by Schroeder and Weisman. At the end of the movie, it's the song Vince warbles to Peggy to try out his voice and offer his heart. It's programmed to make young girls swoon.
• "Jailhouse Rock." #1 in the US for seven weeks (including the day I was born, perhaps that's why I feel such an affinity for it). It also hit #1 in the UK and, improbably, on the C&W charts, too. Rolling Stone ranked it #67 on their list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
That brought her to the attention of film producers. She began 1957 by playing the title role in Bop Girl Goes Calypso. She took a few weeks off to get married in Miami before returning to Hollywood for Jailhouse Rock.
Tragically, she was dead before either movie premiered. Just weeks after completing Jailhouse Rock, Judy and her husband got into a 1957 Chevy and headed for their apartment in New York. As they drove through Wyoming, he smashed head on into another car. The collision was so powerful that the other car actually penetrated the Chevy. Judy and the driver of the other car were killed instantly. Her new husband died a few hours later.
Elvis may or may not have had on on-set relationship with Judy Tyler. He used to say that he'd slept with all his leading ladies (except Mary Tyler Moore from Change of Habit). Yet members of Elvis' inner circle doubt they were romantically involved since Judy was so newly married. At any rate, he was shattered by her violent death. "All of us boys really loved that girl," he said, referring to the Jailhouse Rock crew. He could not bring himself to attend her funeral or watch the premiere of Jailhouse Rock. He posed for publicity photos at his beloved Lowe's Palace in Memphis, even accepting an honorary usher's cap from his old boss, but he left before the movie started. He couldn't bear to watch Judy Tyler.
*With whom she would share a grisly fate. Mansfield died in a car crash in 1967.