On October 17, 1957, Elvis Presley’s third film, “Jailhouse Rock”, debuted in Memphis, Tennessee. Produced by MGM and directed by Richard Thorpe, “Jailhouse Rock” was the musical story of convict Vince Everett and his rise to riches and fame in a post-incarceration singing career. The film challenged American movie-goers with its positive depiction of Presley as a convict hero who swore and spent on-screen time in bed with his female agent, Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler). Vince and Peggy’s sometimes racy dialogue included a scene in which Peggy protests, “How dare you think such cheap tactics would work with me!”, to which Vince replies, “That ain’t tactics, honey. It’s just the beast in me.”
The movie opens with Vince serving a one-year manslaughter sentence following his involvement in a bar fight started by someone else. Vince’s cellmate is Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), a country singer past his prime but happy to pass along to Vince his singing and guitar-playing skills. Vince is eventually released from prison, starts working in nightclubs, meets Van Alden, a record company talent scout, and records a demo which he and Peggy pitch to a record label. When his song is given to one of the label’s already established stars, disillusioned Vince and Peggy start their own label. The American dream comes true for Vince, as he becomes an overnight singing and movie-starring sensation.
The dance sequence to the song “Jailhouse Rock” has been cited as one of Elvis’ greatest moments on screen. The series of steps, choreographed by Alex Romero and incorporating a number of classic Elvis “moves,” combined with the setting in a men’s-only cellblock, gave an erotically (if not homo-erotically) charged energy to the film. One of film’s greatest male dancers of all time, Gene Kelly, applauded a run-through of the dance sequence on a visit to the set during production.
Filming had just begun on May 13th when Elvis inhaled a loosened dental cap and was rushed to the hospital. Surgery to remove the cap, followed by several days of recovery, hardly slowed the speedy film shoot. “Jailhouse Rock” wrapped on July 17th and just three short months later, men, women, boys and (especially) girls were lapping up popcorn and Elvis in the plush seats of a local movie palace.