Elvis fans laud this high-end drama, an attempt by the superstar to lock into a mainstream acting career. Presley has fine dramatic support, especially from his three leading ladies, but the requirement that an Elvis movie be all things to all people — especially marketers — really takes its toll. It’s a soap where almost nothing is believable, except to true believers for whom Presley can do no wrong.
Wild in the Country
1961 / Color / 2:35 widescreen 1:37 academy / 114 min. / Street Date August 20, 2019 / Available from Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring: Elvis Presley, Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, Millie Perkins, Rafer Johnson, John Ireland, Gary Lockwood, William Mims, Raymond Greenleaf, Christina Crawford, Pat Buttram, Doreen Lang, Alan Napier, Jason Robards Sr..
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Editor : Dorothy Spencer
Original Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Written by Clifford Odets from a novel by J. R. Salamanca
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by Philip Dunne
I first became aware of Elvis Presley in the pages of Mad Magazine, and then Blue Hawaii arrived. We were living on Oahu at the time, and it was absolutely magical to see Elvis cavorting in scenic attractions we knew well. I had no idea that Elvis’s managers and a revolving door of studio advisors and producers had been struggling to help the star find his footing in Hollywood. Everything Elvis touched made money, but apparently not enough. He’d made two westerns, one a glossy tragedy and another a gritty tragedy directed by real talent. He’d made a couple of dippy musicals with classic performance numbers, that hadn’t advanced his on-screen character beyond the ‘troubled boy without a cause’ image. G.I. Blues made him a clean-cut U.S. Army troubadour, and his best picture to date, King Creole, actually pushed into dramatic territory beyond the expected star vehicle bubble (plus it had Carolyn Jones, who was nobody’s ‘girl on the side’).
Of course, possibly starting with Blue Hawaii, Elvis settled into the formula that would stick for most of the rest of his career — low-grade musical romances in which he serenades a selection of eager would-be mates, and knocks out a safe’n’sane rock number or two. Add light comedy and some action, but keep one eye on the soundtrack album. The one killer picture of the bunch, Viva Las Vegas, gets traction only because its sex chemistry is amped up by the presence of Ann-Margret… or perhaps director George Sidney’s obsession with Ann-Margret.
A couple of years earlier in Wild in the Country, the standard Elvis formula had not yet been set in stone. What would become the eyes-on-the-money Elvis Presley vehicle collides with producer Jerry Wald’s glossy soap suds, in an adaptation of a deep-dish novel about a rough country scalawag who has the makings of a literary great. As produced by Wald and directed by ex-writer Philip Dunne, Wild could be titled “I Was a Teenage William Faulkner.”
Wild in the Country could be twisted to fit any young male star from Tab Hunter to Pat Boone — it’s yet another ‘James Dean Lite’ scenario. The setup is such a commercially confused pretzel that Elvis hasn’t much of a chance. Spurred on by his rotten father Sam and older brother Hank (Harry Shannon & Elvis pal Red West, neither given billing) Glenn Tyler (Elvis) finds himself at the receiving end of the criminal system. His relatives lie, as does the rotten rich kid Cliff Macy (Gary Lockwood) who claimed that Glenn stole his car and gave him a police record. Social worker/psychologist Irene Sperry (Hope Lange), aided by Cliff’s attorney father Phil Macy (John Ireland) manage to give Glenn a break: he’ll work for his Uncle Rolfe Braxton (William Mims), and report to his parole officer, Irene.
Glenn knows his Uncle is just a more industrious version of his shiftless father. Uncle Rolfe manufactures health elixirs made from water and alcohol; Glenn’s job is to slap various labels on the same illegal poison and ship it to Rolfe’s charlatan vendors. Rolfe has ulterior motives for ‘helping’ Glenn: in addition to getting near zero-cost labor, Rolfe intends to marry Glenn off to his wayward daughter Noreen (Tuesday Weld), whose baby has a fictional father doing ‘secret work for the government.’ On his days off, Glenn consorts with his previous girl Betty Lee Parsons (Millie Perkins of The Diary of Anne Frank) but her father is dead-set against him. Noreen knows her dad is waiting to catch them en flagrante. She resents the situation soon finds herself motivated to seduce Glenn of her own account; she’s plenty hard to resist. And in pouring out his troubles to Irene Sperry, Glenn begins to be attracted to her too. The tangle of hearts and scandal in the tiny town begin to crowd Glenn in, once again, taking Glenn and Irene down a slippery path.
How can we tell this is a ‘serious’ drama? We’re supposed to believe that Glenn Tyler’s rough exterior hides a budding literary genius. We see this coming when Glenn unpacks some high-toned books, just as did Frank Sinatra’s Dave Hirsch in Some Came Running. Sure enough, Irene is soon curled up in an easy chair, entranced by Glenn’s ‘crude, but promising’ writing efforts. She wants him to go take the rough edges off in college and find out if he’s got what it takes to be a lion of literature. Even the stuffy college professor (Alan Napier, un-billed) rhapsodizes over Glenn’s noodling prose… if he’s that good, one would think that college would ruin whatever raw talent he had.
Everybody in this southern burg has problems, believe me. Irene lost her ‘young, immature’ husband to a car accident, and has since been avoiding matrimony with the hot-to-trot Phil Macy. Phil wants Irene, but is separated from a wife who has spoiled her son rotten — Cliff Macy is such an unmitigated creep, we don’t understand how anybody can stand to associate with him. Irene’s questions make Glenn tell the story of his beloved Mom, who slaved for his worthless Pa and Bro, and died in misery. I tell you, this boy has some scores to settle. With Betty Lee’s dad putting her off limits, Noreen urging Glenn to rob Uncle Rolfe & run away, and Cliff Macy trying to start a fight that will cancel Glenn’s parole, our handsome hero is in a terrible fix. Cue the stormy night! He and Irene, behaving like the best of friends, are marooned at a no-tell motel. The social fallout from that night could be titled ‘Town Without Pity.’
Were there justice in Elvis-land, the hand of God would come down and wipe this hamlet from the face of the Earth. But no, with a couple of exceptions, the Evil Will continue unabated. We have to watch bad stuff happen to nice people. The uplifting finale that we see is reportedly an 11th-hour fix-up — everybody concerned seems to have wanted to ix-nay the ubble-day ooicide-say that was originally filmed. Now why couldn’t 20th Fox have saved THAT alternate ending?
Okay, so is it any good? That depends whether or not you’re really committed to sparkle motion Elvis Presley. Elvis soldiers on through the stickiest of scenes, caroming between writing and direction that makes him veer between down-home sincerity, and breaking up the furniture. One moment he’s quoting Bible verses out to prove his profound faith, making us wonder what King of Kings would play with Elvis in the Jeffrey Hunter role. The next moment he’s threatening to murder his foes and begin a reign of terror. If Elvis’s acting is to be judged on whether or not he keeps scene from becoming unintentionally funny, then he’s a success.
The source novel is a now-obscure book by J.R. Salamanca called The Lost Country, which is indeed about a country boy, Jim Blackstarr, who has literary ambitions. Little additional information is available online — the little bit we found is a plea for the author to make the book more available. Not helping Elvis is some of the forced-folksy, almost bizarre dialogue he’s been given: “I got the Mark of Cain on me, ma’am.” Are the over-ornate phrases Salamanca’s doing, or are they the work of screenwriter Clifford Odets, a known purveyor of high-quality purple prose? Odets’ brand of stylizatio is a better fit for noir desperadoes (Deadline at Dawn, The Big Knife) and acid-tongued vipers (Sweet Smell of Success). In this show, when Glenn pops out with some mouthful of odd words, we want Irene to tell him to lay off the Oscar Wilde.
The formula of lining up three exciting women to fall in love with Elvis is a painful celebrity fantasy — each wants him, but in a different way, get it? But the actresses provide him with GREAT backup support. Millie Perkins has the lightest load, she just has to be honest and perky, and disappointed when he comes late to pick her up. The storyline dispenses with her sidebar rather abruptly, but she seems genuine enough.
The real acting honors go to Tuesday Weld, the empress of wasted potential — her Noreen has real spunk and dignity, even when she’s plotting to drag poor Glenn down with her into (gasp) SIN. As we’re talking about Miss Weld, who could possibly resist? Hope Lange’s motherly advisor/possible lover is far more effective than Martha Hyer was in Some Came Running, but here Irene becomes another pretzel of a character, forced into contradictory behaviors. Initially like the most stable woman on the planet, standing firm against the proposals of John Ireland, Irene falls apart when confronted with Glenn’s ANIMAL MAGNETISM. And yet the guy either fumbles his words like a pre-teen, or sputters mouthfuls of doubtful smart-speak.
And of course, the POWER of Raw Sex Elvis’s appeal causes all three women to take radical, destructive steps. Well, not Perkins’ Betty Lee, unless flying a kite out by the back fence counts as a sexual outrage. Maybe there’s some symbolism there: “Now you hold it, Betty Lee, feel how it pulls?”
Ace writer Philip Dunne’s direction is pretty good, much better than his tepid work in Hilda Crane and Ten North Frederick. Perhaps cameraman William C. Mellor gave him a good assist calling the shots. The phony interior-exteriors aren’t too distracting, even though it doesn’t look as if Elvis ever went to the beautiful Napa Valley locations seen in establishing shots and transitions. The fistfights look rough. Elvis sings three songs, four if you count the title tune heard over the main credits. His serenade to Betty Lee in the truck cab is not impressive in any way. He also sings in the car with Irene, but the tune chosen is a little ditty as innocuous as ‘Row row row your boat.’ The chemistry between Tuesday Weld and Elvis is so good that their back-stairs get-together doesn’t suffer at all when he begins to sing… it almost seems natural.
Plenty of actors have dialogue scenes but only a few receive on-screen credit. Rafer Johnson was near the end of four pictures for Fox; his legal assistant is just ‘there’ once or twice in the proceedings. John Ireland’s attorney is a fifth wheel in Irene’s romantic life. His big character turn is go none-too-convincingly mean & ugly for the scandalous inquest scene in act three. Gary Lockwood, on the other hand, is just terrific as the worthless son, the rotten inside/rotten outside persecutor-of-Elvis. The odd actor out is William Mims as Uncle Rolfe, a slimy characterization that makes us uncomfortable. When he looked incredibly familiar, I knew he must have played in some monster movie or another. Sure enough, Mims is one of the unfortunate folk steam-evaporated and duplicated in the sleeper (and secret Joe Dante favorite) The Day Mars Invaded Earth.
Hanging on to her place in the billing when six other actors have larger roles is none other than Christina Crawford, in her first feature film. The future biographer of her famous mother is only visible for a few seconds and has no memorable lines.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Wild in the Country is a perfect encoding — we see zero evidence of film damage or negative fading. The movie is simply more attractive than comparable Fox vehicles for Pat Boone and Bing Crosby. Elvis pundits call Wild an important pic from a time of transition in his career — when his film future promised possibilities greater than becoming a money maker in a bland string of low-ambition musicals.
The one extra is a trailer. Mike Finnegan’s liner notes begin doubtfully with a Sam Fuller/Jean Luc Godard quote, but make a good case for a film at war with itself. He also praises Kenyon Hopkins’ good music score, which I forgot about entirely — it appears on an Isolated Music Track. He also explains why Fox initially lobbied for actress Simone Signoret to take the Irene Sperry Role — they wanted Elvis to play opposite an Oscar winner.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Wild in the Country
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 18, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson