Elvis Presley IS “Wild in the Country

Wild in the Country 7

Another post in honor of the King’s birthday (see previous post here).

Thought I would take a moment to nod my Stetson in the direction of this most unusual hybrid of a movie. Wild in the Country (1961) stars Elvis in a rather serious script by the socialist New York playwright Clifford Odets, who seems to be channeling Tennessee Williams, who was just then starting to slip from a 15 year ascendancy.

In this film, Elvis plays a young hell-raiser of a country boy who has latent talents as a writer. Appropriately,  he has three love interests, the lady psychiatrist (Hope Lange) who tries to draw him out (which is the central element of the plot, as well as its most preposterous one), Millie Perkins (a.k.a Anne Frank) as the nice girl, and Tuesday Weld as his first cousin, and the only one of the females he does indeed shtup, after getting all likkered up on his uncle’s patent medicine hooch.

The attempt to make a serious picture is genuine—Lange’s character even attempts to commit suicide. But it is kind of undermined by the presence of four rather bad, cheesy songs — this ain’t Jailhouse Rock. Odets does a pretty fair job of the scripting, and it’s funny to see him turn his hand to the rural idiom. His knack for metaphor and for folk-speech suits farmer talk surprisingly well. The odd phrase he cooks up is distinctively Odetsian, even though one is more accustomed to hearing snappy city speech come out of his pen: “This routine of yours would stagger a billy goat.” “I’m walking around with a full cup of anger.”

For Elvis, it is a far cry from motor races and pineapple plantations, although he had played dramatic roles several times before.  It would have been a better picture if Colonel Parker had let him take those classes at the Actor’s Studio. The King projects none of the book smarts of a writer—he seems uncomfortable using words. He is much better at communicating with his hips, and hey, that’s valid — I would not trade in a single frame of Viva Las Vegas, and you can take that to the bank. 

To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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