Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Elvis movie TCM didn't show

Today marks the 74th birthday of Elvis Presley. Elvis made a string of popular but undemanding movies in the 1960s, with the emphasis on the undemanding. This was probably in no small part due to Elvis' manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, who thought that this was what Elvis fans wanted to see. While Elvis' songs may be enjoyable, the later movies are little more than time capsules thanks to the insipid plots. Elvis did, however, show that he had some real acting chops, with the movies that he made early in his career before being drafted into the Army. TCM showed one of these in King Creole; one that they didn't show is Jailhouse Rock.

In Jailhouse Rock, Presley plays Vince Everett, a young man doing manual labor and living for the weekend. One Friday night, however, he gets in a bar fight thanks to his temper, with the result that the man challenging him to the fight dies in the fight. As a result, Everett gets sentenced to prison on a manslaughter charge. While in prison, Everett is taught guitar by his cellmate, Hunk Houghton (played by Mickey Shaughnessy). This, combined with Elvis' natural singing abilities, stand to serve him in good stead once he's released from prison, as he meets a young lady (Judy Tyler) and gets a singing contract. However, success also goes to his head, which could be disastrous for his relationship with Tyler.

Elvis has to play a lot of things here. At first, he comes across as a naïf, and it seems that everybody is going to walk right over him. Later in the movie, though, we learn that he's got a lot more street smarts, getting back at Hunk, who is trying to sponge off of Vince's success. There's also a troubled side to Vince, especially in that he doesn't want to deal with the rich people who are the higher-ups in the entertainment business and who really have classist attitudes toward a man like Vince. Elvis does a pretty good job of displaying all of those contrasts; one wonders if Elvis wasn't dealing with a lot of these very same things in his own life. (Other than the prison, of course.) Still, Jailhouse Rock is a movie that has its high points in the musical numbers. Chief among these is a TV special in which he performs the title song. (If you've ever seen clips of the performance and wondered why the jail doesn't look like a real jail, this explains it. The hypothetical TV producers wouldn't have been striving for reality.) Elvis' dancing, especially the hip-swivelling, is powerful, even though it's nothing like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly would have done. The singing is arresting, too, and Elvis' presence during the muscial numbers is charismatic. It's easy to see why Col. Parker would want later Elvis movies to focus more on the musical numbers.

Jailhouse Rock is available on DVD. Even though the plot isn't quite as good as, say, King Creole, it's still passable, with a performance from Elvis interesting enough to give a glimpse into his true acting ability. And don't forget -- Elvis could sing, too.

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