The Beast Inside Presley

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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Elvis Presley, as portrayed in his third film Jailhouse Rock (1957), is a real tough nut compared to James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). 

Rebel Without A Cause is not meant to be a realistic, social documentary even though it was based on detailed research into juvenile delinquency. Instead, it uses a melodramatic story, compressed within a short period of time, to convey the mythic intensity of teenage loneliness, love and general anguish about growing up. As one character says, "it is an age when nothing fits." These factors are exaggerated by the problems of becoming a man and by the representatives of manhood and fatherhood. The message of the film seems to be that both sides should exercise tolerance and understanding. Fathers should act more like Ray, the police officer, who allows teenagers to relieve their frustrations and talk about their feelings without being interrupted or contradicted. The 'rebellion' of Jim 'is without a cause' because he wants to establish a family of his own and reaffirm its established codes and conventions. The obstacle to his goal is that his father does not adequately live-up to what is expected of his role. There is a sense here that the family is a 'natural force' and that if anyone veers from its rules they - like any stray celestial body - will become a lost-soul or bad influence on others. 

Jailhouse Rock was specially written as a star vehicle for Presley. The way it treats him is unusual, the premise of the film seems to be that 'he wants locking up' and he is shown in as bad a light as possible. Within the first few minutes of the film Vince Everett (Presley) kills a man in a bar brawl. He is a naive youngster from the backwoods who has the body of a man but the brains of a boy. The murder occurs because a woman flirts with Vince, a man in the bar doesn't like this and starts a fight with him. Vince doesn't realise the sexual attractiveness of his body nor does he know how to control the power of his body. 

The film shows that Vince has to learn about life and how to treat and interact with other people. In jail for the murder he has to learn about the system. It is a tough regime, where his cell-mate, Hank, tells him that, "Without money you can't survive". For breaking the system’s rules Vince is literally flogged. But he also realises he has a talent for singing, and playing the guitar, which impresses his fellow inmates and teenagers when they see him on a TV prison show. 

In the outside world, on his own, he doesn't find life easy. When he tries singing in a bar he is ignored and he takes his frustration out in a violent outburst against a customer. Peggy is, however, impressed by Vince's raw talent. She is a sophisticated businesswoman who explains to him that rock music is a business. 

Vince takes to heart Hank and Peggy's statements about money and business. He wants cars, clothes, success, money, but he is unable to deal with people. When he meets the slightest obstacle he resorts to violence. One scene highlights this when he confronts the record executive who has plagiarised his record. His philistine, animal nature, is also emphasised in the scene where he meets Peggy's parents. Her father is a professor who tries to engage Vince in an intellectual discussion about jazz. Vince storms out of the house because he can't deal with such a social situation. 

What Vince wants are the trappings of wealth and status. He admires the cufflinks of the record executive, who cheats him later on. Peggy has a fancy car. They both prove they are 'somebody' in this material world. The film itself regards Vince as a thing to be looked at. He is the main focus of attention, and particularly in the scenes in the prison, opportunities are taken to show his half-naked body. There is an emphasis on appearances, as echoed in the letter from a fan which he reads after leaving prison. 
Vince is sold as a product. This is underlined by the fact that Peggy promotes his record by having it used as a background to a radio dog food commercial! Rock music is a business, that with careful exploitation, brings vast wealth. When he gets his hands on this wealth Vince buys a fancy car like Peggy's and has parties. 

The film shows how adolescents are a major new consumer group with very particular tastes. American television found Presley's pelvis too shocking for its family audience. Even then, what exposure he did get, had an exceptional impact. Quincy Jones noted that: 

Hip-shaking Elvis started the equivalent of what England went through in the early 1960s; an emotional revolution. It was the first time a white performer was singing black music on nationwide television in America. 
(Making Music edited by George Martin, Pan Books, 1983, p. 288.) 
Jailhouse Rock is grudgingly aimed at this new affluent youth audience, here on film you get the full unexpurgated gyrating Presley pelvis. 

Through Vince the viewer can have the vicarious pleasure of reaching a consumer heaven where you have what you want, when you want. Yet, as we have noted the path to fame is strewn with many material and psychological obstacles. What helps Vince is his youth and his awareness of what the record buying kids want. Hank tries to get on a TV programme but his Hill Billy song is out-of-date. As Vince says “music changes every six months". Even with this awareness Vince tells Hank that he was lucky to become successful. Hank disagrees, he says it is Vince's talent. 

What is Vince's talent? Sure he can sing, and Peggy admires the way he swings his guitar. But he is different because he can dredge from the depths of his being his feelings and project them in his songs. This is shown in the scene in the recording studio when he sings a 'straight' version of a song that isn't very impressive. Peggy encourages him to sing the song the way he feels about it, this time he lets rip with a full emotional salvo accompanied by bass guitar and his shaking pelvis. 

Songs bring out the true beast in him and make him stand out from the crowd. The music is only the packaging of his emotions, when he kisses a woman she gets the full undiluted impact of the beast throbbing inside him. After storming out of Peggy's family home, she says she is going to hate him but he kisses her proving that he is no arid, academic musicologist. Later, when he goes to the aptly named Climax Studios, to make a film, his co-star is unimpressed by his unrestrained delight at seeing the sights of Hollywood. Only when he kisses her is she bowled over by him. 

Throughout the film Vince has to suffer a painful rite-of- passage from childhood to manhood. He is locked away, whipped, exploited. Finally his mentor, Hank, hits him for his lack of understanding and sensitivity to others. His singing voice is threatened by the blow, but as a 'reward' for his new awareness his voice does return and he can find happiness with Peggy. 

The hero of Rebel Without A Cause and his fellow teenagers are all well-off materially, the problem for them are their weak, absent or confused parents. In Jailhouse Rock there are no families, although Peggy and Hank do act as surrogate parents for Vince. 

Vince is portrayed as a violent delinquent whose assets are his youth, pelvis and music. Inspired by Hank he wants wealth, success and women; to acquire them he becomes a depersonalised robot. He grabs what he can when he can, the beast inside him that can express love or hate with equal intensity is likely to destroy him if he cannot bring it under control. 

The characters in Rebel Without A Cause are morally deprived, their essential problem is existential. The scene in the planetarium emphasises that they are mere specks in a vast universe living-out lonely meaningless lives. The adult world is uncaring and authoritarian - they make the rules regardless of individual needs and desires. 

Vince is materially and morally deprived. Indeed, his salvation - rock and roll music - can also be regarded as noisy, tasteless, unsophisticated and downright culturally deprived. Vince's basic problem is that he is a working class hoodlum who is prone to violent, indeed murderous, outbursts. The film shows that social and individual violence can put him on the right track. In the former case the jail acts as a brutal and painful classroom for his musical talents, in the latter case Hank has to beat some sense into Vince. 

Both films explore/exploit the new problems faced by adolescents in the 1950s. They both answer the problem by suggesting that a good middle-class girlfriend and the prospect of marriage and family life will make the male teenager become a fully fledged adult and ready for pipe, slippers and TV set. 

For more about 1950s icons see Andrew Lydon's Twisted Fifties.
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson