Sunday, June 2, 2013

Rockin' With Elvis in "Jailhouse Rock"!

His best film of all. They didn't call him the King for nothing.

I was still attending the early grades of Loyola Elementary and watching the Mickey Mouse Club when Elvis Presley exploded on the scene in the 1950s. In the West, as pre-teens, my friends and I fell for the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and our teenage years were launched with the Beatles. Later, Elvis seemed out of the past to us as we began rockin' with the Doors and the Jefferson Airplane. 

So I'm a late bloomer when it comes to Elvis. By the time I began to take notice of him, he had been exploited by managers, over-drugged by physicians, over-stuffed with fried peanut butter sandwiches by everyone, and over-costumed like Liberace. Not exactly a teenage girl's delight.

Recently, I've revisted several of his earliest films and have found myself astonished by his incredible talent. Of them all, Jailhouse Rock (MGM 1957) is my absolute favorite: for its music, his innocent-and-as-yet-uncorrupted star power and for an amazing confluence of events that contributed to what I see as its perfection.

Elvis Presley during the filming of Jailhouse Rock in 1957.

It was just his third film (his second that year) and his first for MGM. And though by 1957, MGM was not quite the Rolls Royce studio it had been in the 1930s and 1940s, it still had some legendary technical talent on tap. It was apparently Pandro Berman's wife who convinced the studio to take on the young Elvis and as producer, Berman knew both film and talent. Early in his career at RKO he had oversen such productions as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films as well as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Gunga Din (both 1939). Later, at MGM his credits included National Velvet (1944), Father of the Bride (1950), and Blackboard Jungle (1955).

The screenplay was by another fine talent--Guy Trosper, the writer of The Stratton Story (1949) and later, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), which he wrote and produced; and, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton, released in 1965 after Trosper's death.

It gets better. The hottest song writing team of the day, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller came on board too. And though legend has it they had to be locked in a New York hotel room in order to produce the music, you have to admit their work is great. How they came up with everything that goes into the title song "Jailhouse Rock," we can only imagine. Men dancing together! In 1957! You gotta love it.

"Number forty-seven said to number three/You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see/I sure would be delighted with your company/Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me!/Let's Rock!"

Paydays and deadlines are great motivators--and these guys after all gave us "Yakety Yak (Don't Talk Back)." The Leiber/Stoller deadline does explain one thing that's long been a mystery to me--"Treat Me Nice" and "You're So Square"--both in this movie and both great--sound like exactly the same song with different lyrics. I guess if you are Leiber and Stoller, a little short on time, and you write the songs, no one can accuse you of plagarization. 

One of the best musical and dance numbers on film. Right up there with Fred and Ginger and the best of Busby Berkeley.

Mike Stoller worked closely with Elvis in rehearsals and Elvis liked him so much, Stoller ended up in the film--playing piano in his backup band. You can see a lot of Elvis' friends in the film. I spotted George Klein, later the author of Elvis: My Best Man (2010) in one scene (looking about 17 years old), given an extra frame or two in his reaction shot. Actor Dean Jones, who later had a pretty good run as the star of the Love Bug movies has a nice little part in it too. Character actor Vaughn Taylor, who started out with bits in films starring James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne and went on to a hugely successful career in television, is wonderful as Presley's dour and bemused attorney.

Director Richard Thorpe led the production and he was known for his speedy work. His career began in silent films and by the time he died in 1991 at the age of 95 he had directed 180 movies. His skills and production values are first rate and the fast pace of his shooting may have been just the thing to capture the energy of its impatient young star. Thorpe did not miss a trick, yet the shoot lasted just a little over a month.

Elvis' acting is not polished but you cannot take your eyes off him. He's Marlon Brando without all the angst. He's contained when he needs to be, funny when he needs to be, and, I guess I better say it--really, really sexy. The pullover sweater he wears with a classy pair of pleased trousers in the pool party scene (only in California would you need a sweater at an evening pool party) is Elvis at his most alluring--he has the soft collar turned up with that natural chic that made everything he did unique.

Cable knit with the collar up. And a really spiffy pair of shoes.

And then there is Elvis dancing. Have you ever seen anything like the dance number in the title "Jailhouse Rock" scene? It was the first number filmed and its choreographer, Alex Romero, worked hard with Elvis to incorporate moves the young singer liked into what became one of the most iconic production numbers in film. Gene Kelly is said to have been in the studio for one rehearsal and cheered when he saw the run-through.  

Judy Tyler was Presley's co-star and there is a story there too--though maybe not the one you think. The two young people got along really well--as friends, since she was newly married and happy. In one scene, as the two sit together, they are required to laugh at themselves and do it so naturally there is no mistaking the fun they were having. These scenes are now all the more poignant. Tyler and her husband, heading back to their home in Manhattan from Los Angeles after the film wrapped, died in terrible car accident en route and she did not live to see the movie released. 

Judy Tyler (1932-1957) took time off from her roll as Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the "Howdy Doody Show" to co-star with Elvis in what would be her second and last film.

But she was lucky enough to live long enough to be part of one of the most memorable exchange of lines with the King--one of the most memorable of his entire career. Writer Guy Trosper put it on paper and probably went to his grave not knowing what he had wrought. But it's a two-line doozy that I certainly would be proud to have written myself. If I had thought of it.

Judy: "How dare you think such cheap tactics would work with me!"
Elvis: "That ain't tactics, honey. It's just the beast in me." (He kisses her. Walks away. Scene fades out.)

Why do I like this movie? It's just the beast in me.

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