Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Director: Richard Thorpe                              Writer: Guy Trosper
Film Score: Jeff Alexander                           Cinematography: Robert J. Bronner
Starring: Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, Mickey Shaughnessy and Dean Jones

Let me just start by saying that I love early Elvis, before the army, and of course I’m talking about the music not the films. So I was stunned the first time I saw Jailhouse Rock, stunned about just how much I hated it. For an actor who was supposed to appeal to women, I found this one of the most misogynist movies of all time. Elvis’s character becomes embittered during a stint in prison and never recovers. He’s a jerk from then on, to everyone around him, especially women. The ultimate irony is that he goes to prison for accidentally killing a man in a bar in defense of a woman’s “honor.” In the end there’s absolutely nothing appealing about his character and he is so repellent on screen that it’s difficult to watch. And the fact that Judy Tyler continues to chase after him the entire film makes it even worse.

When Elvis goes to prison he is put in the same cell as a former country singer, Mickey Shaughnessy, who puts on a show in the prison for a television audience. When Elvis gets a bag full of fan mail, Shaughnessy realizes his talent and quickly cons him into signing a contract where he gets half of whatever Elvis makes playing music. Elvis gets out before Shaughnessy and begins to get his career together, performing in a club and smashing his guitar on the table of a customer who wasn’t paying attention. He’s rude to Tyler, rude to her parents, rude to the record executives, rude to everyone. When he records a song and it becomes a hit, his career takes off. But pretty soon Shaughnessy shows up demanding his fifty percent, and that’s when the music hits the fan.

As far as the music goes, you couldn’t have a more ironic song than this jerk singing for women to “Treat Me Nice.” But this is the first song in the picture that approximates the excitement that his music really generated. The title song happens about halfway through the film, and it’s quite a choreographed music video for the late fifties. Of course it’s great to see Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana but in the end this is a film, and cinematically, is the soundtrack enough to negate the picture’s flaws: bad acting, a bad script, and a positively hateful lead character who deserves none of his success? I don’t think so. I really like Elvis’s first album, but I really hate this film.

And what I also hate is the way that it seems cinematic greatness counts for almost nothing in The A List. Here we have yet another film on the list that shouldn’t be there, but makes the list simply because of Elvis’s popularity at the time. My god, critic Carrie Rickey states right up front, “Jailhouse Rock is not the best Elvis movie . . . And heaven knows it’s not a particularly good movie.” Then what the hell is it doing on this list! She claims that Elvis represents teenage rebellion in this film, but he doesn’t. He’s a man who has a job and lives by himself. He’s not a teenager living at home. When he’s at Tyler’s parents’ house and they and their friends are talking about jazz, Rickey says that Elvis “finds this beside the point.” Are you kidding? He’s a complete a-hole to all of them because he's embarrassed by his own ignorance.

I really dislike the way she becomes an apologist for the film, first claiming that Elvis’s character is justified in his behavior because of what the people around him have done to him. Really? Convicted felons and record executives, two groups that share more in common than not? When you hang around with those kinds of people, what do you expect? But worst of all is her ends-justify-the-means argument which relies on interpreting Elvis’s reluctance to engage in violence with his former cellmate as proof of his being, “rehabbed into a good citizen.” This is bunk. The fact that he accidentally killed a man the last time he got into a fight explains the reluctance, and other than the lyrics of the song he sings at the end, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that he has changed at all. Jailhouse Rock may be the closest thing we have to an autobiographical film about Elvis, but it’s definitely not good cinema.

No comments:

Post a Comment