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Stars Elvis Presley, Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, Millie Perkins.
Underseen even by curiosity seekers who might be tempted to take a look purely on a what-the-hell? level, 1961’s Wild in the Country was a major crossroad in Elvis Presley’s movie career — maybe even the major crossroad — for giving him his one bonafide screen romance with genuine grown-up complications. So OK, King Creole (a better movie) did this as well, but only in melodramatic, underworld-subplot terms.
And there are times when this too slickly mounted Jerry Wald production for 20th Century-Fox threatens to go melodramatic as well, but arguably more often or not, does keep its eye on the ball. And the ball — get ready for this one — is to present The King as an aspiring young writer who early on is seen (like Frank Sinatra’s character in the movie of Some Came Running) setting up a small pile of serious fiction he keeps in his modest room for inspiration. (From its long-shot spine design and alphabet configuration, I think he has the same trade paperback edition of Look Homeward Angel I had in my youth). To stave off any waggish viewers who just can’t buy him as the next Proust, the story does present Elvis as a “raw” and natural talent, which is exactly how his acting style comes off here. He’s genuinely good and occasionally even forceful whenever the film itself isn’t getting in his way.
Even the credits here make one blink a little, as when Christina Crawford’s (Mommie Dearest) name pops up — marking, one instantly speculates, the only time that these two performers with dramatically contrasting real-life mamas were ever part of the same screen project. And just about the time you’re fully wrapping your mind around this juxtaposition, Clifford Odets’ name appears as the credited screenwriter, adapting a J.R. Salamanca novel. The latter was a University of Maryland creative writing prof whose subsequent novel led to the big-screen flop d’estime Lilith, all of this serving as proof that we’re not about to be in a Hound Dog universe anymore.
So as my dad used to say all the time, here’s the shot: Shenandoah Valley youth Elvis has just been paroled after punching out a mouthy brother … and into the live-in custody of a shady tonic-manufacturer uncle who’d like a husband for his wayward daughter (Tuesday Weld), who’s been abandoned with a young baby. (I’m not sure where this would rate on the incest-o-meter.) This fake-smiling lout basically throws the girl at Elvis, and there’s plenty of evidence she’d like to be caught, even when she’s sober and not stealing snorts from the store inventory. But the lad also had a kind of emotionally unconsummated lifetime thing with one of the town’s “nice girls” played by Millie Perkins. Her role is either impossibly written or a case of helpful footage that never left the editing room — but in either event, Perkins is still plagued by that squeaky speaking voice and inability to project that had previously done everything it could to undermine George Stevens’ otherwise frequently admirable black-and-white epic of The Diary of Anne Frank. This, then, is the dilemma: Does Elvis go with noble Anne or gamble on a frolic with the screen’s future Pretty Poison.
Turns out there’s a third choice, and here the movie gets more interesting (though let it be said that you always count on Weld to be among this screen era’s most potent forces of nature). A widowed, court-assigned psychiatric consultant played by Hope Lange sees potential in this literary hot-head and finds that encouraging his talent is more rewarding than waiting for one of the town’s respectful types (John Ireland) to divorce his wife, not that Lange is exactly rhapsodic over tying the knot. Eventually — though the wheezy but still sturdy enough 1961 censorship still keeps it mostly clean — she has to decide who arouses more: The King or … John Ireland? Lange is excellent in her Elvis scenes and also makes him better. I don’t quite have a grasp on how her career got so derailed aside from the TV success that partially saved her, but taking casting advice from her then boyfriend Glenn Ford probably wasn’t the way to go about it.
The picture is kind of a mishmash that works (when it does) from a combination of Elvis earnestness and certain entertaining conventions we expect from an Elvis movie. Of the latter, I don’t mean the obligatory song cues; it’s all too apparent that the studio forced the shoehorning of three or four tunes on good-writer-turned-mediocre-director Philip Dunne amid a drama with genuine aspirations. (And what’s more, the songs aren’t all that hot.) But there’s a certain pleasure to be gleaned seeing an actor like the young Gary Lockwood playing a mouthy transparent punk and putting him in a roadhouse bar because you just know there’s going to be an altercation between him and Elvis that either will or won’t turn the picture into Donovan’s Reef.
Trouble is, the two halves of the mishmash don’t splice very well, which is why Country is a so-so movie that is also a pretty decent Elvis movie (there’s a distinction, which is why he was a star). Producer Wald, who always spent the money, again had the great cinematographer William Mellor, and this pretty Blu-ray boasts a few chamber of commerce shots of the town (which seems otherwise heavy on hicks) that are reminiscent of their glorious work on the blockbuster movie of Peyton Place, which was also Lange’s star-maker. You get the sense that, as in the previous Christmas’s Flaming Star, that the newly post-army Elvis was trying to go in new directions on the screen and show some class, or at least chops. He didn’t want to become the Memphis version of Bobby Van.
Unfortunately, the public rejected both pictures (eventually, Star became a first-rung cult item), just as the same period was giving Presley a pair of fluffy box office hits: G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii (the latter a huge Thanksgiving ’61 attraction where he kicked a lot of beach sand on Technicolor starlets). Colonel Parker counted the beans, and that was that, just as he did when it came to Elvis’s recording choices. This is why some of the rockin’ bluesy stuff we hear on the 1960 Elvis Is Back LP quickly zapped in favor of (within a couple years) the likes of “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car.” The point of this last road safety tip is, to be sure, is final word in sage advice; no one has ever denied this. But until late ’68, we were no longer looking at a growth industry when it comes to a career that may have tickled the IRS and at least one infamously Dutch grifter but didn’t tickle me.