In Praise of Wild In The Country

By: Paul Simpson
July 10, 2021

When Elvis stops singing, the cash registers stop ringing – and there ain't another thing to discuss. That is how W. A. Harbinson, in his underrated illustrated biography of the King, summed up the 'thinking' behind Elvis' movie career in the 1960s. But before starring as a trapeze artist, race car driver, speedboat driver, riverboat gambler, helicopter pilot, and diver, Elvis was given, with no great support from the machine that sold him to the masses, licence to experiment and make Flaming Star and Wild in The Country, two of his most enduringly watchable movies. In summary, 'Wild In The Country' sounds absurd. Elvis plays Glenn, a young delinquent torn between fiancée Millie Perkins, bad girl Tuesday Weld and older woman/psychiatrist Hope Lange. His nascent literary ambitions are endangered when he is accused of murdering bad rich boy Gary Lockwood.

The story, from a novel by J.R. Salamanca, is loosely based on the early life of the legendary American author Thomas Wolfe, whose most famous work of fiction is the autobiographical Look Homeward Angel which is as long as the Mississippi but not always, alas, quite as compelling. Millie Perkins found the whole ambience on the 'Wild In The Country' set phoney, pretentious and self-congratulatory, as she explained to Elvis' best biographer Peter Guralnick. As she later starred in Monte Hellman's brilliant, incomprehensible existential Western 'The Shooting' (alongside Elvis' Clambake co-star Will Hutchins), she presumably learned to live with pretension. (For all her criticism of the movie, she seemed to like Elvis, calling him 'a person of taste, not just an icon'. She later played Gladys in the TV series Elvis.) But you can't judge a movie on how it was made – if you did Chinatown wouldn't be a modern classic – the real test is what you see on screen.

Elvis Presley - From the booklet, FTDs, Wild In The Country Soundtrack CD.
Elvis Presley - From the booklet, FTDs,
Wild In The Country Soundtrack CD.

'Wild In The Country' sure has flaws. The script by Clifford Odets, a once great playwright in artistic and physical decline (this was his last movie), occasionally reads like a drunken parody of Tennessee Williams. Odets was fired just before shooting started. The script was twice the length required – and had scenes missing – so director Philip Dunne had to cut, write and direct as he went along. As good as Lange is, it's a shame Simone Signoret was deemed too expensive to play the femme fatale. The love Glenn/Elvis has for Lange's psychiatrist shakes him out of his alligator sleep and inspires him to go to college.

What I don't see are many flaws in Presley's performance. Guralnick believes Elvis' acting sinks the picture and even blames the star's rapid-fire delivery of some dialogue on his amphetamine use. Some of Elvis' big speeches are daunting and over-written and his performance has its uneven moments. But watching it again, it was a pleasure to see Elvis come alive on screen and not – as he did in later, lesser pictures – hiding behind a defensive smirk that implied he just wanted the whole thing to be over as soon as possible.

The story obviously resonated with Elvis. The scene where he reminisces about his mother ('Oh Glenn, where's my mind gone these days?') with Lange is genuinely moving – it almost feels autobiographical. The diatribe about his character's shiftless dad even allows Elvis to explore resentments against his father (who was, family friend Aaron Kennedy said, 'vaccinated against work') that he might have found hard to acknowledge.

Although Lange was only just over a year older than Presley – and hardly a Signoret-style temptress – she has more chemistry on screen with the King than Joan Blackman (Kid Galahad, Blue Hawaii), Joan Freeman (Roustabout) or Annette Day (Double Trouble). Lange and Elvis bonded on set though, as she was embroiled in a painful divorce from Don Murray, there was no offscreen romance.

Their motel stopover in a storm is one of the few scenes in Elvis' entire movie career where he transcends his own persona to become utterly, believably, in character while, paradoxically, giving us some kind of insight into the man behind the legend. There are other such transcendent moments – the scene in the car where Elvis and Lange sing Husky Dusky Day; Weld, Lange and Elvis arguing on the stairs ('She means like Jesus, Glenn' ); his threat to send Gary Lockwood home in a box – more, probably, than in half a dozen of the musicals that followed. It's a pleasant change, too, not to have the conventional happy ending.

Elvis Presley - From the booklet, FTDs, Wild In The Country Soundtrack CD.
Elvis Presley - From the booklet, FTDs, Wild In The Country Soundtrack CD.

It's a pity Dunne couldn't pack more substantial dramatic conflict into a story that, at times, feels as if 'Peyton Place' and Tennessee Williams have crossbred. And the movie is, possibly through worries about censorship, blander than it should be. At times, more mild than wild.

But 'Wild In The Country' is well acted. Perkins, Lange, John Ireland (as Lange's old flame whose prevarication almost has Elvis convicted) and Lockwood all convince. Weld, who had a brief fling with Elvis, is superb as the wilful blonde bombshell while William Mims, as her uncle, somehow manages to make lines like 'That is an eventuality which will not eventuate' sound natural.

'Wild In The Country' doesn't often insult the intelligence, conveys the angst that lay barely beneath the prosperous surface of Eisenhower-Kennedy America, has some very good lines, a beautiful theme song and a milieu – small town Americana with the Napa valley standing in for the Shenandoah valley – that just seems to suit Elvis. The role of the small town outsider fits him better than many of the characters that would follow.

Yet in Guralnick's analysis of this movie in Careless Love you can almost hear the Colonel speaking through the author. The underlying message is: what is the point of this high-falutin' nonsense when we could squeeze in another six songs about sports cars, papayas, and clams?

Tuesday Weld and Elvis Presley
Tuesday Weld and Elvis Presley

Although the title of Hal B. Wallis's autobiography is Starmaker, he didn't make many stars as an independent producer. His best pictures – 'Little Caesar', 'Casablanca', 'Becket' and 'True Grit' – were either made as head of production at Warners or are profoundly untypical. As an independent producer, he was best known for bringing Martin and Lewis and Elvis to the big screen. His management of Martin and Lewis was profitable but restrictive: Dino had to escape Wallis to win critical acclaim in 'The Young Lions', while Lewis's funniest comedies – 'The Bellboy', 'Cinderfella' and 'The Nutty Professor' – were not produced by Walls. (To be fair to the 'starmaker', Wallis wasn't responsible for Jerry's worst either.) Wallis's misjudgement of Elvis, which suited Colonel Parker, was to condemn the King to a celluloid career largely confined by musical comedy. Despite the evidence of King Creole, Wallis seemed to conclude that Elvis was no actor and that the shrewdest strategy was to ensure he was never out of his depth or too far away from a song, a cute kid or a girl in a bikini.

Don't get me wrong. I like many of the musical comedies, especially Viva Las Vegas. (I have a strange, enduring affection for Tickle Me, Harum Scarum and Speedway.) But Wallis and Parker were wrong, artistically and commercially. Their star grew bored, alienated and distrustful of the Colonel.

And by selling Elvis like a monkey in a zoo, they saddled the most charismatic star of the 20th century, a man Mojo magazine hailed as 'rock's one true great star', with a celluloid straightjacket almost as constricting as Johnny Weissmuller's 'Tarzan'. Though there were great times after the singing racing driver movies, Elvis would never quite recapture the credibility that had shaken the world in the 1950s. Parker had conquered the world with Elvis – and then alienated much of it with a strategy that would have finished lesser stars. The all-round family musical comedies – especially after Sam Katzman proved they could be made for a million bucks – were never of the kind that would attract millions of casual cinemagoers. (After a while, the primary consideration with co-stars, even the female lead, seemed to be cost.) Besides, as the Beatles showed with 'A Hard Day's Night' (which grossed more than any Elvis movie) you didn't have to betray rock to conquer the box office. Although John Lennon didn't really believe that Elvis 'died' when he joined the army, millions did. And their alienation from the idol grew as the singing racing driver straightjacket tightened. They stopped buying Elvis' records and watching his movies, hitting Parker in his most sensitive organ: his wallet.

For all its imperfections, 'Wild In The Country' is a very watchable reminder of a road not taken and of a promise Elvis was never allowed to fulfil.

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