WILD IN THE COUNTRY was Elvis Presley’s 7th movie, yet despite his hopes for the project, one that ostensibly offered his most challenging go at straight drama, penned by Clifford Odets, directed by Hollywood veteran Philip Dunne, the serving managed to be simultaneously over-cooked and under-baked. It soured with critics and went lukewarm with the public.
Stuck with a lousy family and a jail record, sullen Virginia country boy ‘Glenn Tyler’ (Elvis) seems bound for nowhere until social worker ‘Irene Sperry’ (Hope Lange) notices his talent for writing and sees the good hidden beneath his rough edges. Meantime, though smitten with the educated, attractive (and tentatively intrigued) counselor, he’s dragged to the homegrown mire fire by wild kitten cousin ‘Noreen Braxton’ (Tuesday Weld, 17 and rarin’ to romp), who declares she “needs a man to go to Hell with, because that’s what I want. Hours and hours of Heaven that just slides on down to Hell and we don’t care how or when it ends. You’re wild, Glenn, just like me. Unhappy wild!”
The studio fired Odets two weeks before the shoot, which was done in California’s Napa Valley as a substitute for Virginia’s Shenandoah. What producer Jerry Wald and Presley whip-hand Colonel Parker thought of him as a cooperative artiste is hard to separate from his florid screenplay, which is hard to swallow for believability, getting more so as the 114 minutes slog on. Perhaps its base source, J.R. Salamanca’s 1958 novel ” The Lost Country” gave room for all the plot machinations and ruminating about needs in its 599 pages, but the turgid script’s incidents and resolutions are pipe puffings. As Tuesday’s slutsy Noreen storms “Daddy, you can’t peddle me like you do your no-good bellywash!” Forgetting the over-packed writing, the movie is too brightly shot, poorly edited and has lame work from co-stars John Ireland and Millie Perkins (Glenn’s/Elvis’ third romantic interest).
Others in the cast vary. Fine character man William Mims is very good as Glenn’s slippery uncle ‘Rolfe Braxton’, the best realized character in the film. Gary Lockwood’s a surly nemesis, Rafer Johnson (the 25-year-old Olympic decathlon champion is on hand for no reason beyond fame) has next to nothing to do and is about as animate as a box. With Alan Napier, Raymond Greenleaf, Pat Buttram (playing a good ‘ol jerk this time, the flip side to his ‘Mr. Haney’ on Green Acres), Jason Robards, Sr. (his last role, as judge in the ridiculous trial segment) and, in a nondescript bit, Christina Crawford, Joan’s 21-year old daughter who would later get famous from her scandalous book about life with dearest Mommy. *
Weld is always worth watching, and she tigers up her vixen thang. There’s room in that there bathtub for two, since Daddy ain’t home. Lange’s very good, and the gentle, hesitant romantic scene she has with Elvis in the motel is the best one in the film. As for Presley, half the time he’s fine, especially with throwaway asides and some passages of effortless polite charm, but the direction lets him down in the heavier moments, leaving him with delivery either too flat or too hasty. I blame the handling and material for a merely adequate performance. Even if he was excellent, he’d still need better dialogue, direction and cutting.
Director Dunne’s two bits was that it “fell between two stools. Audiences who might have liked a Clifford Odets drama wouldn’t buy Elvis and his songs; Elvis’s fans were disappointed in a Presley picture which departed so radically from his usual song-and-sex comedy formula. On both factions his fine performance was tragically wasted.” Yeah, or it could be that between steaming stools would be Odets silly script, Dunne’s passive direction and the salvage-our-ass insistence of both the studio and Elvis manager Col.Parker to include four songs.
Millie Perkins recollection: “I saw Elvis looking around that set and summing up people faster than anyone else could have, and I felt that after a short period of time he was disappointed in Philip Dunne…He tried very hard to make this film better than his other movies and you saw him trying and asking questions…I remember doing this one scene; we were sitting in the truck, and we were supposed to be driving home from a dance or going to a dance, and in the script he was supposed to break into song, turn on the radio and start singing. And to me it was like, “Yuck,”….finally the director walked away, and Elvis looks at me and says, “God, this is so embarrassing. Nobody would ever do this in real life. Why are they making me do this?” So there we were, both of us having to do something and we just wanted to vomit.”
As to the songs, at least they’re not done up in a showy manner, and the title tune is quietly pleasant.
Tuesday Weld, who had a fling wid-da King, was on point: “He walked into a room and everything stopped. Elvis was just so physically beautiful that even if he didn’t have any talent…just his face, just his presence. And he was funny, charming, and complicated, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve. You didn’t see that he was complicated. You saw great needs.” You gotta see the “drunk Elvis” scene, where he and Tuesday get plowed on Uncle Ralph’s moonjuice, and taunt Hope by turning the garden hose on her porch (symbolism spray in southern Somewhereville).
Whatever the ingredients, the $2,975,000 shot only hit spot #40 for the year, grossing $6,100,000. The previous Flaming Star had likewise targeted #40, so when Kid Galahad underperformed next year at #44, the fix was in, and Parker’s contracts and bull shoved Presley into a downhill run of 18 paperweight fluffs. A few of them fun (Viva Las Vegas), many dismal (paging Harum Scarum), until he tried drama again in 1969 with the unfortunate choice of Charro! (Presley regarded 1958s King Creole as his best go at Acting-acting; this fan picks Flaming Star.)
* It’s all in the names: You can kinda tell who’s the smart gal (Lange’s ‘Irene Sperry’), who’s girl-next-door (Perkins’ ‘Betty Lee Parsons’ ) and who wants to locate some moonshine and a haystack (Weld’s ‘Noreen Braxton’). Choice in this instance is clear: Bachelorette #3. Also, “Uncle Rolfe Braxton” has the sure sound of someone who will dick with your paycheck and fib to the parole board.