Even if the plot is thin, the characterizations are solid, and the music is some of Elvis's best.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: In the following review, both John and Dean offer their opinions on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
Elvis's remarkable career falls neatly into three sections: (1) His early years as a rock-and-roll sensation in the mid-to-late 1950s; (2) his movie-star years in the late 50s and 60s; and (3) his final years as a Las Vegas headliner in the 1970s. For me, it was always the first part of his career I found most interesting and entertaining, so it's no surprise that I think "Jailhouse Rock" from 1957 is the best movie he ever made.

Most of Elvis's films were formulaic--boy meets girl, boy and girl (although usually just boy) sing up a storm, boy often gets into a fight, boy and girl live happily ever after. By the 1960s Elvis and his manager, Col. Tom Parker, were content to produce dozens of these lightweight, paint-by-the-numbers musical comedies, usually followed by a soundtrack album. But in 1957, they were early enough in the singer's career to try something different. MGM hired a veteran director, Richard Thorpe, to helm "Jailhouse Rock." Thorpe was an old-line director who had started in silent films and did such things as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Great Caruso," "Ivanhoe," and "Knights of the Round Table." Together, Elvis, Parker, Thorpe, and MGM made a darker, edgier, grittier film than Elvis would ever make again. I mean, how many times do you get to see Elvis being whipped in a movie? I mean literally whipped. And it contains some of the King's best, most-rocking music.

The studio also decided to do a film that was more autobiographical than most other films Elvis would do, yet it was not quite Elvis. It concerns a young country boy who breaks into singing stardom and finds trouble adjusting. The main character Elvis plays, Vince Everett, is alternately polite, sulky, kind, sullen, rude, greedy, pugnacious, charming, surly, courteous, conceited, generous, selfish, and rebellious. According to the assistant director on the film, Elvis tried to act that way off camera as well, sort of tough, but it was clearly an act he used to keep in character. Most people who knew Elvis say he was a kind and generous man, so we have to remember that "Jailhouse Rock" is, after all, just a picture.

Vince is a poor, backwoods Southern fellow, likeable but rowdy and quick tempered, who accidentally kills a man in a bar fight and finds himself in prison for over a year. In jail Vince meets a cell mate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnesy), who teaches him to sing, and when the state releases him, Vince goes into show business and becomes a sensation. The movie follows Vince's career as stardom goes to his head, he begins to forget his friends, and he starts to think only of himself.

Along the way he meets the requisite romantic interests, in this case a music industry insider, Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler), who tells him "I like the way you swing a guitar"; and a movie starlet, Sherry Wilson (Jennifer Holden). And he has the requisite difficulties deciding how to deal with them. Plus, he meets a no-nonsense lawyer, Mr. Shores (Vaughn Taylor), who helps steer him into financial success; and a popular DJ, Teddy Talbot (Dean Jones), who promotes his first record. Best of all, we meet briefly one of Hollywood's most-recognized character actors, Percy Helton, playing a nightclub owner. If you don't know who Percy Helton was, you'd recognize him the moment you saw him or heard him speak. He appeared in films for over sixty years, starting in the 1920s and continuing through the 1970s. Think of Sweetface in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Mostly, though, the filmmakers are savvy enough to build their movie around music, much of it pure rock-and-roll, and here you'll find such tunes as "Young and Beautiful," "I Want to Be Free," "Don't Leave Me Now," "You're So Square Baby, I Don't Care," and the megahits "Treat Me Nice" and "Jailhouse Rock." John's film rating: 7/10

The Film According to Dean:
I want more Elvis Presley on disc. In one night, I sat down and enjoyed "Viva Las Vegas" and "Jailhouse Rock." The films looked absolutely amazing and sounded brilliant. They showcased Elvis' ability to entertain and provided for a very nice evening with my older sister, who is a tremendous Elvis fan. "Viva Las Vegas" was a fun romantic comedy musical, while "Jailhouse Rock" is a far superior film but lacks the humor and good nature of the later film. Where "Viva Las Vegas" was the beginning of the end of Elvis's hold on the entertainment industry, "Jailhouse Rock" was released at a time when the King's stature was growing taller all the time and there was no hotter star in the world. When Elvis's third film, "Jailhouse Rock," was released, there was nobody bigger, and "Jailhouse Rock" stands as a testament to Elvis Presley's ability to act and sing. This film showed he was a complete entertainer.

Elvis had struck gold with his first two films, "Love Me Tender" and "Loving You." "Jailhouse Rock" was the third film released in short order for the singer. It was released at a time when rock-and-roll music was still not fully accepted by the American public and Pelvis Elvis was looked upon as being too racy for many viewers. Regardless of some of the public's hesitation to accept Elvis as a megastar with limitless talent, he was seen as a rebel. "Jailhouse Rock" downplays the rock-and-roll aspect of Elvis's career and paints a picture that the star is a cocksure and arrogant rebel. This is in strong contrast to how the singer truly was, and his character, Vince Everett, provides a vehicle for Elvis to show his talents as an actor but does not paint a picture of the man himself. This film showed a harder and stronger persona of Elvis than the more tender first films.

In "Jailhouse Rock," Vince Everett is placed in prison after killing a man in a barroom fistfight. The prison's warden (Hugh Sanders) wants to make an example of the man convicted of manslaughter and he is placed in a jail cell with a former country star, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), who is behind bars for a bank robbery when his musical career floundered. Hunk educates the young Vince on the merits of keeping his nose clean in prison and the value of a carton of cigarettes. Hunk quickly realizes that Vince has a great singing voice, but is not very strong with a guitar. Hunk lands Vince a spot on a televised musical special from the prison, Vince quickly becomes a heartthrob with American audiences, and the prison is inundated with fan mail addressed to the prisoner. Hunk wants to capitalize on Vince's future success, and the Warden does not want the letters to be given to Vince, so they are kept hidden until Vince is set free.

During their time together in the same cell, Vince and Hunk create a strong friendship. Vince takes a beating after he strikes a prison guard, and Hunk tells Vince that he offered all of the cigarettes he had to prevent the whipping from happening, but that he did not have the three hundred packs required. Vince signs a paper contract with Hunk in prison that gives Hunk fifty percent of any future earnings by Vince. Hunk knows the music business and feels that fifty percent is a fair number as a managing partner.

When Vince is released, he gets his fan letters and quickly sets out to find a guitar and begin his musical career. Vince travels to a pawn shop and puts everything he has into purchasing a guitar. He is cocky and feels that success is guaranteed and quickly takes a job working as a bus boy for a restaurant with a live band and a stage. He storms the stage at the restaurant and sings a song against his manager's wishes. Unfortunately, his performance bombs, but he catches the eye of Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler, who was sadly killed in a car accident after the film), a woman who works for the music industry by checking the numbers of juke boxes for information on the biggest hits and helping to move record singles. Vince is eager to work with Peggy and find out how he can succeed. He had destroyed his guitar when a patron refused to stop laughing.

Vince and Peggy begin a strong friendship, and after some missteps and troubles breaking into the musical business, they succeed and Vince Everett becomes a huge star. His unchecked ego gets in his way, though, and his desire to have more and more money pushes Peggy away. The two have found a bond, but Vince continually ignores his feelings for her for fame and fortune. He ends up with a leggy and gorgeous blonde and nearly loses Peggy as a friend and partner. Eventually, Hunk leaves prison and hunts down Vince. He mentions his contract and asks Vince for a chance to have another go in the musical business. Hunk bombs in his performance, but Vince tells Hunk he will continue to give him ten percent for trying to bribe the Warden from beating him too badly. Hunk sees how much Vince has changed and tries to save him from self-destruction.

In the end, Vince discovers the wrongs in his ways and begins to change for his friends. He gets the girl but gets to keep his fame and success, too.

"Jailhouse Rock" is an entertaining picture that shows Elvis had true talent. He was not a trained actor, but he could bring believability to his performances and his turn as the arrogant Vince Everett could easily make one believe that Elvis was not a very nice man in real life. This is, of course, not the truth, and although he portrayed a young superstar and some of the things seen on-screen could mirror Elvis' own career, he shows a character that is a jerk and completely different from his own demeanor. The story is perhaps Elvis's best-written picture, and the movie displays one of his strongest performances. It does not feature as many hokey, oddly placed musical numbers as many of his later films, and the songs fit nicely into place with most of the scenes in the film. The rest of the cast performs admirably, but Elvis lacked the chemistry that he showed in "Viva Las Vegas" with Ann-Margret. "Jailhouse Rock" is a strong film from an incredible talent that has been greatly missed. Dean's film rating: 8/10

Sometimes black-and-white cinematography shows up better in high definition than color does. Here, we find the HD DVD video only a tad soft, but with excellent contrasts, good depth, and an exceptionally clean screen. Obviously, Warner Bros. restored the print to some degree before transferring it to disc, and they retained its 2.40:1 CinemaScope dimensions as well. The results are a revelation for anyone who enjoys B&W photography; and for those viewers who don't care for B&W, I guarantee that by the time they finish the picture, they won't have even noticed it wasn't in color.

The disc offers the audio options of Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, and Dolby Digital Plus 1.0. Obviously, the mono track is there for purists who want to listen to the original soundtrack, while most of us will listen to the remixed 5.1 tracks. Both TrueHD and DD+ offer a good, wide front-channel soundstage, with plenty of zip to the musical numbers, fine mid-to-upper bass, and a well-integrated midrange. In TrueHD you'll also get a bit more smoothness and what to my ears sounds like less center-channel dominance. There is only so much the audio engineers could do with a soundtrack of this vintage, however, so there are a few limitations. The audio feeds very little information to the rear channels; the dynamics feel somewhat constricted compared to today's movie standards; and because the filmmakers dubbed the musical numbers, there is some small coordination mismatches in the sync with lips and lyrics (having nothing to do with the audio transfer, however). I thought the soundtrack on the HD DVD of "Viva Las Vegas" was more room-filling, but, still, "Jailhouse Rock" holds its own.

This HD DVD contains the same extras as on the "Jailhouse Rock" SD Deluxe Edition, and again Warner Bros. present them in standard definition. Probably the most important item is the audio commentary by Steve Pond, author of "Elvis in Hollywood." His comments are informative and honest, and for the Elvis fan, especially, they provide a wealth of historical detail and background trivia. In addition, there is a new, fifteen-minute featurette, "The Scene That Stole Jailhouse Rock," which helps put the film into the context of the times. For instance, legendary rock-and-roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller explain how they came to write "Jailhouse Rock" and several other songs for the film, and why the movie was so groundbreaking for the era. Even though Elvis's gyrations seem tame to most of us today, they caused quite a stir at a time when high school kids were still doing the hokey-pokey.

The extras wrap up with twenty-six scene selections but no chapter insert; a non-anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As always on a WB HD DVD, we also find pop-up menus, bookmarks, a zoom-and-pan feature, a guideline to elapsed time, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
As Dean points out, "Jailhouse Rock" was not a depiction of the true Elvis Presley, but it was probably what a lot of people imagined Elvis was like in 1957--a smug, overindulgent, defiant country boy who had suddenly become the most-popular singing star in the world and didn't know how to handle it. Turns out, Elvis handled his popularity quite well, and it would not be for another couple of decades that his personal problems would get the best of him.

Even if the plot of "Jailhouse Rock" is thin, the characterizations are solid, and the music is some of Elvis's best.


Film Value