The Elvis Files: Wild in the Country (1961)

I have decided that watching every Elvis movie is a good idea. There are 31 movies in total. This project will likely drive me insane.

#7 – Wild in the Country (1961)

Wild in the Country is Elvis Presley’s seventh feature film. (Don’t let the tag line fool you. Singing of love has never been so dull.) This film is yet another example of what Presley’s filmography could have resembled had he not been limited to musicals. Glenn Tyler would be the last dramatic character Presley would portray until the 1969 western Charro! (In case you’re wondering, that’s 22 movies from now.)

Directed by Philip Dunne and adapted from J.R. Salamanca’s novel The Lost Country by Clifford Odets, Wild in the Country can be best described as Peyton Place-lite. Everything from adultery, single motherhood, and abusive parents to suicide and alcoholism conflict the characters. At center of the drama is Glenn Tyler, a troubled young man who comes from an astoundingly dysfunctional family. Unlike Presley’s previous characters, Glenn is not introduced with a guitar in hand. Instead, he is first seen fighting and injuring his drunk brother, who is played by Red West. (Red West!) When Glenn is placed on parole, his father wants nothing to do with him. (The kid reads books after all!) So Glenn is taken in by his mother’s cousin. He begins working at the family’s distillery and seeing Irene Sperry, a court-appointed counselor.

There is more on Mrs. Sperry later in the post.

There are plenty of (boring) subplots in Wild in the Country, including Glenn’s feud with Cliff Macy (Gary Lockwood) that disrupt Glenn’s path towards redemption. (Spoiler: Involuntary manslaughter will do that.) In many ways, Glenn is the typical Elvis character. After watching seven Elvis movies, these characteristics are overwhelmingly obvious to me.

  1. The typical Elvis character is young and handsome. (Duh.)
  2. He has a questionable education. Most likely, he didn’t graduate from high school. Wild in the Country is the only time attending college is mentioned.
  3. Typically, his mother is dead or absent; his father is incapacitated by alcohol or mental illness. No Elvis character has two functioning parents. (Well, he did in Flaming Star, until everyone remembered that his mother was Kiowa.)
  4. He is self-destructive, and careless. He frequently ends up in jail.
  5. He is guided towards having a better life by someone who assumes the role of a parental figure. Sometimes the Elvis character has a relationship with this person.
  6. If his musical abilities are a major plot point, then his talent is always a wonderful discovery. Somehow no one ever noticed this very talented person in their midst.
The typical Elvis character does not always wear bandanas but I find this picture to be endlessly amusing.

These characteristics superficially mark Glenn as a typical Elvis character. What makes Glenn a unique character are his relationships with three women. Each woman and relationship has the potential to affect Glenn’s future in profound ways.

First there is Betty Lee, played by Millie Perkins. Betty Lee is a naive but very caring girl Glenn casually dates. I forget how they meet or why they date but I’m assuming it is because Glenn is trying to change his ways. As we all know the easiest way to change your bad habits is to date a kind-hearted girl. Someone like Betty Lee can lead someone like Glenn down a good path.

Betty Lee’s father strongly dislikes Glenn and believes Glenn will bring shame onto his family.

Second, there is Noreen (Tuesday Weld), a single mother and Glenn’s cousin. Noreen has an array of issues, many stemming from her relationship with her father. (Natch.) She is constantly throwing herself at Glenn and the two develop a quasi-romantic relationship. If Glenn chooses her, their relationship would lead to many of the same problems that already plague Glenn.

Their scenes ooze chemistry.

Lastly, there is Irene Sperry. Played by Hope Lange, Irene is the proverbial older woman who is found in a number of Elvis films. (So far we’ve seen this character in Loving You and King Creole.) This character often replaces the absent maternal figure. Sometimes she becomes a romantic interest. Like Glenn’s mother, Irene encourages Glenn to attend college and to pursue a writing career. While helping Glenn sort out his life, they develop an intense romantic relationship. Unlike his other two relationships, his romance with Irene pushes Glenn to achieve something.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glby4qeiAnw]

But Glenn’s relationship with Irene shocks the town.  (I suppose everyone expected Glenn to run off with his cousin.) This relationship can potentially ruin both of their lives. For Irene, her reputation as a therapist and a respectable woman is destroyed. For Glenn, his future and chance to attend college is in jeopardy.

You’ll have to watch Wild in the Country to find out what happens.

The one aspect of any Elvis movie that must be discussed is the music. Typically, Presley’s dramatic films have the best use of music because these films depend less on the songs to sell the film. The limited song selections give the musical numbers more meaning. In Flaming Star, for instance, Presley’s only performance signifies the calm before a violent war. But this is not true with Wild in the Country. In addition to the film’s title song, “Wild in the Country,” the other songs of note are “I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell” and “In My Way”. These songs feel out-of-place and they contribute little to the film. (Though I do like “In My Way” as a song.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKA9BcVMQPs]

Although it is refreshing to see Elvis’ music not being used to sell a film (there was no corresponding soundtrack), Wild in the Country has the least memorable music selections of any Elvis Presley film I have seen so far. As a whole, this film was incapable of holding my attention. Maybe I get more out of the cheesy musical numbers than I thought? Only watching Blue Hawaii sometime this week will answer that question.

One Final Thing About Wild In The Country

In the film’s opening scene, Red West appears in an uncredited role as Glenn’s drunken brother Hank. West was Presley’s childhood friend and was a member of the Memphis Mafia. Nowadays, West is an accomplished actor. Most likely, you recognize him from films such as Road House and Goodbye Solo. Guys, I love Red West. So much. I could write an entire blog post about him.

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3 thoughts on “The Elvis Files: Wild in the Country (1961)”

  1. Good point above about the perennial presence of a destructive parent. Nods to Rebel Without A Cause. Interesting that Elvis was always more tempted by Dean as an alter ego. Brando did not appear to interest him. We will forgive you if you skip Harum Scarum.

    1. I’m starting to read up on the James Dean-Elvis connection now. Btw, the more you talk down Harum Scarum, the more excited I am to see it.

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