Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
At only 20 years old, up and coming singer Elvis Presley signed his first major record label deal with RCA Victor. Presley was so young in fact (and still a minor), that his father had to sign the contract for him. Soon after in March of 1956, the singer’s debut album Elvis was released. Twelve weeks later the first single from that record, “Heartbreak Hotel,” hit number-one on the pop charts. Elvis became the first rock-and-roll album to top the Billboard charts, a position it held for 10 weeks. Elvis Presley had made his presence felt in the musical world.
During a two-week tenure at a Las Vegas casino, the singer got a shot at achieving one of his other career goals: movie stardom. Presley’s manager had previously snagged a screen test for the crooner with a leading Hollywood talent agency, but nothing came out of it. Elvis then auditioned again for a supporting role in The Rainmaker starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster but did not secure the part. He managed to get the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Hal Willis, and Presley signed a contract allowing him to make films with other studios in April 25, 1956.
Elvis’ on-screen debut was in Love Me Tender, a black-and-white western made for Fox. The film had musical scenes written to capitalize on the singer’s popularity. “Love Me Tender” became a commercial success released as a single, selling over 600,000 units. The next film, a Technicolor musical drama titled Loving You, was Elvis’ first top billing in a movie. For the crooner’s third motion-picture, Presley looked for a role combining his musical prowess with the desire to emulate his on-screen idols like James Dean and Marlon Brando. That third film, Elvis’ first for MGM, was Jailhouse Rock.
Jailhouse Rock centers around a young man named Vince Everett (played by Presley) who is sentenced to prison for manslaughter. While in prison, Vince is mentored by his cellmate Hunk Houghton (played by Mickey Shaughnessy) who helps develop Everett’s musical ability. After being released from jail, Vince meets a music promoter (played by Judy Tyler) who helps launch his musical career. Along the way, as Vince’s stardom rises, it starts to strain and test his personal relationships.
Elvis’ “rebel” demeanor developed largely from his role in Jailhouse Rock. Like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Elvis introduced mainstream audiences to the “rock and roll movie.” Usually, these types of films featured troubled teenagers or young adults and captured that rebel attitude associated with rock music. Perhaps his greatest moment on screen, Elvis’ rock-and-roll persona is exemplified in the “Jailhouse Rock” dance sequence. The movie’s choreographer originally wanted the number to emulate Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire’s graceful moves. However, Presley was unsatisfied and decided to use his own moves to choreograph the number. Over 50 years later, the sequence remains one of the most memorable musical numbers in Hollywood history.
The film was released in October 1957 and was considered a box office success. Jailhouse Rock ranked as the 14th most successful movie in terms of box office gross for the year. Elvis’ popularity also soared; he was ranked the fourth leading box office commodity in the film industry. The singer went on to make 31 films total during his 16-year-long film career. Most of these films were musicals, but none matched a scene as iconic as the jailhouse dance number of his third feature. Today, many film and music historians site the “Jailhouse Rock” sequence as the birth of the modern music video.
Gene Kelly was actually on set watching Elvis perform the “Jailhouse Rock” number as it was being filmed.
Elvis’ co-star Judy Tyler was tragically killed in a car accident two weeks after completing filming for the movie. The singer famously declined to attend the premiere and watch the movie out of respect for Tyler.
Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote four songs for the film (“Jailhouse Rock”, “I Want to Be Free”, “Treat Me Nice” and “You’re So Square”) in five hours after being locked in a hotel room by their music publisher.
The film was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2004 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
What’s your favorite Elvis Presley film? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.