Written by General Jabbo
Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley’s third movie — and first for MGM — is widely considered to be one of his best. Certainly the dance sequence set to the title song is one of the most iconic moments of not only Presley’s career, but for musicals in general.
Presley stars as Vince Everett, a hothead who ends up in prison after accidentally killing a man in a fight. His cellmate is Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) a former country singer who robbed a bank when his bookings dried up. Houghton runs the show, bribing other prisoners and even guards with packs of cigarettes to get preferential treatment, something Everett learns the hard way when he gets a terrible haircut that Houghton could have bought his way out of.
When the prisoners get rowdy, Houghton plays a country song on his guitar to settle them down. It is here that Everett learns Houghton used to be a country singer. Everett is intrigued by the idea of making money singing and proceeds to play “Young and Beautiful” to great response in the jail. Sensing his talent, Houghton convinces Everett to sing in the televised prison talent show where Everett performs “I Want to be Free.” Everett starts getting fan mail in droves, which Houghton hides from him because he wants to ride Everett’s coattails on a tour when they both get out of prison. Everett agrees to split everything with Houghton 50/50. After a prison fight breaks out, Everett is whipped as his punishment. Houghton laments he didn’t have enough cigarettes to buy his way out of it, something not lost on Everett when he gets out. Before Everett’s release, Houghton refers him to Sam Brewster, a man who he says can help find him gigs singing. The warden hands Everett a large bag of all his fan mail when he leaves and Everett learns they had been holding his mail back.
Everett goes to see Brewster at his club and he offers him a job — as a busboy.
Everett decides to sing anyhow and bombs miserably, attempting to smash his guitar over a mocking patron’s head. In spite of this, he captures the attention of record executive Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) who encourages him to make a recording so he could practice and get better. Van Alden says he needs to sing with more passion. Van Alden is a shady character herself, working in payola with her other artists, most notably Mickey Alba.
Everett records “Don’t Leave Me Now” and Van Alden shops it around, finally selling it to a new label, but when she and Everett go to the store to buy copies, they find out that Everett’s arrangement had been stolen by Mickey Alba as the label wanted a proven star. Not willing to give up, Everett decides to form his own label with Van Alden distributing the records. Everett’s new song, “Treat Me Nice,” is a big hit and Everett is on his way.
In his lust for fame though though, Everett forgets the people who helped get him there. When Houghton is freed from jail, Everett reluctantly agrees to let his old-style country number into his TV appearance — the same one that features the dynamic “Jailhouse Rock” dance number. Houghton’s song gets cut and he reminds Everett of the contract while Everett reminds him of the mail scam. They compromise and Houghton becomes Everett’s paid flunky, forced to do such tasks as walking the dogs. When Everett treats Van Alden poorly though, it is all Houghton can take and he takes several swings at Everett. Not wanting to hurt the older Houghton, Everett doesn’t fight back; something Van Alden considers an act of love. Everett once again wins over her affections. Houghton had given Everett what he had coming to him and Shaughnessy delivers the scene convincingly. Likewise, Presley succeeds in making Everett a very unlikable character prior to his redemption.
This DVD is part of the Elvis 75th Anniversary DVD Collection and was supposed to include a commentary by the director, a retrospective featurettes, the theatrical trailer and soundtrack in both Dolby 5.1 stereo as well as the original mono. Instead, one may select the language or view the trailer. This is an obvious mistake on the part of Warner Brothers that will hopefully be corrected in later pressings.
Jailhouse Rock is different from most Presley films in that he plays the antihero. He was a killer; he curses and treats everyone with disdain, making the film edgy for its time and certainly among Presley films. When people say Presley had the potential to be a good actor, they point to films such as Jailhouse Rock as proof. Sadly, Presley was ever given much of a chance to prove himself with more serious material — especially post Army — and the world will never know Presley’s true acting potential.