Hunka, hunka manly love
Elvis struts his white-trash stuff in Jailhouse Rock
There is no greater venue than a drive-in theater and no greater context than an all-night marathon of trashy low-budget movies to pay tribute to the most celebrated son of the Southland, Elvis Presley.
Presley's third feature film, Jailhouse Rock, screens Sept. 1 during the Starlight Six Drive-In's three-day Drive Invasion Labor Day weekend.
The 1957 film was made at Hollywood glamour studio MGM with a plentiful budget. But the theme and tone of the film are strictly and unapologetically trailer park: Country boy makes good and refuses to be "civilized" by the high-hats that surround his rise to fame. Few cinematic moments rival the lowbrow sublimity of the swank cocktail party scene at which ex-con Vince Everett (Presley) finds himself embarrassed by his ignorance of the topic of conversation: experimental jazz.
"I think atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music," says one fancy-pants elitist. "What do you think, Mr. Everett?"
"Lady," Vince responds, as the Presley sneer cracks through, "I don't know what the hell you talkin' about."
Only Elvis could make combative ignorance look so dang cool. To some degree, art was imitating life in Jailhouse Rock. At this point in his career, Presley was never anything more than a tourist in Hollywood, refusing to take acting lessons and keeping himself surrounded by his down-home entourage.
Vince may have been dumb and proud of it, but he didn't suffer bullies. After fatally punching a wife-beater, Vince is sent to the Big House where he becomes the "bitch" of cellmate Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), a performer and promoter of hillbilly music. Hunk teaches him a few guitar chords, a few basic survival skills and sends him out to start a musical career. Vince quickly wins the confidence of Peggy Van Alden, a record promoter (Judy Tyler), and together they withstand some industry hard knocks before climbing the musical charts.
Elvis' early films — Jailhouse Rock in particular — were not aimed at making him a cuddly idol for teenage girls and housewives, but were engineered to exploit his rebel image, to shore up his backwoods street cred by making him a brawling, tough-talking, beer-drinking hoodlum. The film didn't just dramatize rural working-class values, it valorized them.
This is the way E liked to envision himself, the way we like to remember him: lean, clean, anti-social and belting out some edgy Lieber and Stoller tunes, backed by the Jordanaires.
The rags-to-riches plot of Jailhouse Rock allows E to shovel coal shirtless, be whipped shirtless, smash a guitar, kill a man with his bare fists and — hold onto your smelling salts ladies — drive a bulldozer.
Jailhouse Rock presents an Elvis with a bubbling (though never boiling) sexual energy, forcing his kisses on the streetwise but tender Peggy until her resistance crumbles shortly before the closing credits, as if there were any question that she would yield to the silky come-ons that fall from his lusciously curled lips. Throughout the film, we know Elvis is King ... not only by the predictable path of the narrative but by the genuine charisma that this Tupelo boy radiates, even from the confines of a second-rate script.
So at ease was E with his sexuality that he could sing — in prison stripes, surrounded by an odd assortment of balding, middle-aged dancers — the immortal lines of mid-century homoerotica:
Number 47 said to number 3
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.
Of course, E eventually gave into the pressure and allowed his image as a bus-and-truck rockabilly star to be reformulated. Elvis was molded into a commodity more easily marketed by MGM, RCA or NBC, and made to appeal to the suburban whitebread market at which most films, records and broadcasts were — then as now — aimed. But for a few months, he was allowed to be white trash ... and lo, white trash was good.
Also screening at the Drive Invasion are The Blob with ultra-he-man Steve McQueen, Queen of Outer Space with Zsa Zsa Gabor, Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Jack Hill's black comedy Spider Baby, the self-explanatory Psychedelic Sexualis, Pam Grier's blaxploitation classic Coffy, The Swinging Cheerleaders and the grade Z thriller I Drink Your Blood!
Drive-Invasion will be held Sept. 1-3 at Starlight Six Drive-In, 2000 Moreland Ave. Each day will feature local band performances from 3-9 p.m., followed by a triple feature film series. Admission is $15 a day, $30 for a three-day pass. On Sept. 2, The Atlanta Road Kings will host a Dixie Fried Car Show. No entry fee. 404-627-5786. www.starlightdrivein.com.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 1
3 p.m.?The Holy Smokes
4 p.m.?Amy Pike & The Last Cold Beer
5 p.m.?The Johnny Knox Trio
6 p.m.?Caroline & The Ramblers
7 p.m.?The Blacktop Rockets
8 p.m.?The Belmont Playboys
9 p.m.?The Blob
Queen Of Outer Space
SUNDAY, SEPT. 2
3 p.m.?The Moto-Litas
4 p.m.?The Penetrators
6 p.m.?The Forty Fives
7 p.m.?The Woggles
8 p.m.?The Hate Bombs
9 p.m.?Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
MONDAY, SEPT. 3
6 p.m.?The Young Antiques
7 p.m.?The Hot August Knights
8 p.m.?Johnny Legend (also emcee for the weekend)
The Swingin' Cheerleaders
I Drink Your Blood