Friday, October 24, 2008
You can take all of the great scenes and moments from the American films of the fifties and few would measure up to the thrill of seeing Elvis Presley burn up the screen in Jailhouse Rock. Playing the most bad ass character of his life, Elvis is simply stunning in Richard Thorpe’s expertly rendered 1957 film and even after fifty years the picture and performance still seem as fresh, potent and alive as ever. Jailhouse Rock is not only one of the best musicals of the fifties, but one of the best films of that undervalued decade in general.
The incredibly prolific Thorpe made nearly 200 films in his four decade career. Starting out with some silent film work in the early twenties, the Kansas born Thorpe became known for his sure handed and economical filming techniques and was well liked and admired by his peers and the many actors he directed.
The tireless Thorpe had just worked with another one of the great icons of the fifties, Dean Martin in Ten Thousand Bedrooms, when he came on board to direct MGM’S Jailhouse Rock. Working from a script by Oscar nominated Guy Trosper (from a story by Nedrick Young), Thorpe’s fine and well thought out direction gives Jailhouse Rock a real solid and distinguished feel. Jailhouse Rock might not be the best Elvis Presley film but it is one of the best directed and the performance Thorpe helped bring out of Elvis is startling.
The film, concerning a young punk named Vince Everett who hits the big time as a singer after being released from prison, is one of the ultimate Rock ‘n’ Roll films…bristling with energy and intensity with an absolutely killer soundtrack (including the title track which would have an overwhelming impact later on both heavy metal and punk), Jailhouse Rock is timeless and will stay so as long as the sound of a buzz saw guitar remains dangerous.
Elvis is surrounded by one of the best casts he ever worked with, including the tragic Judy Tyler (who was killed in a car accident right after the filming wrapped up), the great character actor Mickey Shaughnessy, future Disney favorite Dean Jones and pretty starlet Jennifer Holden. All give very solid performances and they are captured well here under the lens of Robert Bronner, whose black and white cinematography is one of the films biggest assets.
Adding to the film’s quick pace and ferocious energy is Oscar winning editor Ralph E. Winters, one of the unsung heroes of the film. Winters had just wrapped a couple of great Bing Crosby features, including High Society (1956), when he lent his talented editing skills to Jailhouse Rock and his cutting methods serve the film incredibly well, especially in the smashing title number sequence.
Shot beautifully in the 2.35 ratio and later hailed by Martin Scorsese as one of the key films to ever use the format, Jailhouse Rock caused a huge stir when it was released just before Halloween in 1957. One of the year’s biggest money makers, Jailhouse Rock would have been notable without Elvis but it wouldn’t have become an instant legend like it did.
Elvis is quite astonishing in the film. Building on the momentum of his performance in Loving You, Elvis is clearly relishing playing a flawed character like Everett. Taking a cue from his acting idols Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, Elvis plays Everett with a snarling intensity but gives the role an added dimension of humanity due to his overwhelming warm screen presence. Even when Everett is being the biggest jerk in the world, you want him to be okay simply because of the goodness nestled in the heart of Elvis himself. It’s a remarkable performance on many levels, especially in the musical sequences (where Elvis shows his incredible natural grace and skill as a performer) and in the smoldering love scenes with Tyler and Holden, which have a real erotic intensity to them that hold up to this day.
The film would prove to be a major hit throughout Europe as well, especially in France where the French New Wave was emerging as the most important cinematic movement of the decade. Known as Le Rock du bagne in France, Jailhouse Rock (despite being a major studio production) would fit in surprisingly well with the youthful and chaotic energy of the New Wave and would be embraced by many young teenage film goers and young future filmmakers in that country as well as in Italy, Sweden, Germany and the rest of Europe. It would have a big impact in Asia as well where it would prove equally successful.
Jailhouse Rock, one of the triumphs from Elvis in the fifties, would be soured for the young singer after Judy Tyler’s death and he was said to have never watched it again. Pity, as it contains some of the best and most bruising work he ever gave in front of a camera.
The film has never been out of circulation since it came out in 1957 and it can currently be seen on a nice special edition DVD which features a crisp widescreen presentation, a critical commentary and a documentary. A bastardized colorized atrocity pops up occasionally and should be avoided at all cost.