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  Wild in the Country Elvis's Choice
Year: 1961
Director: Philip Dunne
Stars: Elvis Presley, Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, Millie Perkins, Rafer Johnson, John Ireland, Gary Lockwood, William Mims, Raymond Greenleaf, Christina Crawford, Robin Raymond, Pat Buttram, Alan Napier, Jason Robards Sr, Red West
Genre: Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Glenn Tyler (Elvis Presley) has knocked down his brother in a fight in the barn, looked on by their approving father - or at least he's approving until the wrong son loses. As a punishment for knocking his sibling unconscious, Glenn is placed on parole, and after a meeting where his father complains that the boy would rather read books than toil in the cotton fields his social worker, Irene Sperry (Hope Lange), arranges to see him regularly. In the meantime, he goes to live with his uncle (William Mims) who stays with his teen single mother daughter Noreen (Tuesday Weld)...

The author of this oddity was Clifford Odets, who had been proclaimed as one of the finest playwrights of his generation back in the thirties, so you may have thought that scripting a Elvis vehicle would be seen as a step down, or quite a few steps down. Certainly the public made it clear they didn't wish to see the King of Rock 'n' Roll in this kind of serious drama when they could watch him in fluffy-headed musicals, so Wild in the Country ended up as pretty much the last try he took at proper acting save for the occasional movie, and singing to dogs or Elsa Lanchester was soon to follow for the rest of his big screen career.

But let's not forget Odets had only four years earlier scripted the classic Sweet Smell of Success, so he wasn't exactly a spent force even if he did die two short years later, but the main reason for taking this job was not because he was a big fan of the star, but because he needed the cash. So what you end up with is the most peculiarly literary Elvis flick, which strained towards grand themes and torrid emotions, but was sabotaged by its lethargic approach and an inconsistency of style. Was this supposed to be a Rebel Without a Cause type melodrama, finding poetry in the struggle for identity and freedom in the young, or was it a romance between the boy and the older woman?

Or something else? A musical, maybe? Though to be fair, when Presley does sing it's as if the filmmakers were a bit embarrassed about it and only allow him to croon the decidedly non-wild theme song and about thirty seconds of a small handful of other tunes; something for the soundtrack album that must have been in his contract, and in effect, standing out like a sore thumb. Never mind that, here the King was juggling three affairs with three stars of the day, first with childhood sweetheart Betty Lee (Millie Perkins, fresh from portraying Anne Frank), slinky bad girl Noreen (Weld put in the best performance in the movie)... and Irene too.

Yes, Glenn falls for his psychiatrist and although she resists her feelings at first, she ends up falling for him as well, but it brings up all sorts of issues as you can imagine. There is, however, one of the best love scenes Presley ever had to play, very sensitively handled as this character who tends to fly off the handle is tamed and, er, taken in hand by his new, and possibly first, lover. It's frustrating that while there were very decent individual scenes, they were stranded in a lot of mushy angst, and the plot point that we have to believe that Glenn is in fact a soon to be discovered giant of literature (was Odets trying to stay engaged with the material?), although from what we hear of his efforts he sounds as if he aimed to be a children's author. What this needed was a more convincing performance from its lead, but here he seems hesitant, far from the more confident work he had been putting in during his other serious movies. Interesting, then, but not a success. Music by Kenyon Hopkins.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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