This review of the the 60th Anniversary cinema re-release of Jailhouse Rock was written to promote the ‘Vintage Sundays’ events at Picturehouse Cinemas, and as such was a review of the re-release rather than of the film itself as such. In fairness, I already knew full well what I thought about Jailhouse Rock, having been a major fan of Elvis Presley’s bafflingly-derided cinematic career ever since his films used to crop up in heavy rotation during the school Summer and Christmas Holidays, and although the one-time cause of anarchy in the aisles was probably a little too adult to find itself sandwiched between California Fever and What-A-Mess!, it was a film that I sought out at the first available opportunity and have seen innumerable times since. As it turned out, I had plenty to say about the cinema, the presentation and the audience – good lord, the audience – not to mention whatever other filler the BBC used to fling on in the holiday mornings… but you can read all of that below. Incidentally, the title of the review was a pun on Toots And The Maytals’ similarly incarceration-themed ska standard 54-56 Was My Number, using Elvis’ own convict tag from the movie. Which I later found out changes throughout due to an inattentive continuity manager.
You can find an expanded version of this review, with more wild tales of cinema visits and decidedly less wild tales of watching television in the morning during the school holidays, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
According to Smash Hits, Elvis Presley made about three million films, all of which were called either Elvis Has A Kiss-Up In Hawaii or Elvis Says It’s Swinging, Pops. And, if you watched BBC1 during the school holidays, didn’t you just know it.
Presumably as much on account of their cheapness and indeed sheer volume as it was due to tweedy old shirts behind desks thinking that Elvis was what ‘young people’ liked, Double Trouble, Fun In Acapulco, Girls! Girls! Girls! and all two thousand nine hundred and ninety nine thousand nine hundred and ninety seven others of them, some of which Elvis probably didn’t even realise he’d actually made, rolled round again and again and again alongside Why Don’t You…?, King Of The Rocket Men and all of the other holiday morning favourites. Oh and Play Chess. You’d be forgiven for assuming that youngsters came to resent this hip-swivelling intrusion into the schedules where the cheap swines could at least have put on Help!… It’s The Hair Bear Bunch! or something, but actually they proved quite popular; hardly surprising when you consider that the movies had the same sort of combination of pop-fuelled hi-jinks and exotic retro allure as The Monkees and The Banana Splits. They were especially prevalent around the Christmas holidays, to the extent that a generation associate sleigh bells and tinsel with a Glorious Technicolor Elvis in a loud Hawaiian shirt even by Hawaiian shirt standards being comforted by some youngsters on the stairs after momentarily losing the girl of his dreams.
There was, however, one very notable exception to this. Jailhouse Rock never seemed to find its way into these repeat seasons, presumably due to a combination of its black and white nature (not that this ever stopped them flinging out endless Edgar Kennedy ‘shorts’ nobody asked for), the slightly violent theme underpinning the storyline, and the fact that it was somehow seen as more serious and ‘worthy’, and thus the preserve of brow-furrowed Whistle Test spin-off ‘Rock Goes To The Movies’ theme nights. As absurd as it may sound, you usually had to ask to ‘stay up’ to watch Elvis Presley’s most famous film.
Now, however, you can just roll up to the cinema to see it. Jailhouse Rock is sixty years old – although, weirdly, now seeming far less culturally remote than it did back when Elvis films were a school holidays staple – and has just been re-released in a restored and staggeringly high quality print which makes those crumbly photocopy-esque bits of footage they used to use in things like The Rock’n’Roll Years feel like they came from another film entirely. What’s more, you can get an authentic flavour of those tabloid-alarming dancing-in-the-aisles times by watching it in a packed auditorium full of so many over-excited first-time-around Elvis fans that you start to worry that you’re about to see a re-enactment of Monty Python’s ‘Hell’s Grannies’ sketch; fortunately there were no vicious gangs of Keep Left signs to go with them, but at least they might have kept bloody quiet during the film.
Jailhouse Rock is a film that stands up far better than anyone might not unreasonably have expected it to. It may well have been a quick production-line effort rushed out to cash in on the international success of someone who said ‘well’ a
lot whilst TV cameras studiously avoided showing anything south of his shirt buttons, but those are just the specifics of its making. It’s tightly directed with convincing sets, is supported by a rock-solid script where the numerous musical numbers actually form part of the storyline (and for different reasons each time too), and despite essentially playing an even more exaggerated version of his stage persona at the time, Elvis acquits himself well as an actor, to the extent that you sometimes lose sight of the fact that you’re actually watching an Elvis Presley vehicle rather than simply a good film from the time. It also runs to an economical yet packed ninety minutes, with the main plot set up in less than three; something to bear in mind the next time you’re covertly looking at your watch while waiting for the latest film that everyone says you ‘have to see’ to actually get started.
There were funnier, weirder and more socially aware pop movies to come. There was a brutally effective inversion of the upbeat music business shenanigans it explores in Slade In Flame, which is in many respects a much more interesting film. And there was Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter, which people still think you’re making up if you try explaining it to them. Jailhouse Rock, however, remains a potent and effective – and surprisingly mature – effort from the very dawn of both pop music and youth cinema which probably few at the time would have expected anyone to care about even six years later, let alone sixty. Yeah, see you at the re-release of The Wayward Bus, then.
Of course, Elvis wasn’t alone in those schedules, and there was also a similarly unending procession of George Formby films on hand for the schedulers to fill time with. It’s no wonder Play Chess seemed so comparatively tolerable.
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You can find an expanded version of this feature, including my thoughts on The Wayward Bus and more detail than anyone ever asked for on the full stultifying monotony of Play Chess, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
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