Why Elvis Presley’s most underrated film, Wild in the Country, is his best
Wild in the Country may be one of the least known films of Elvis Presley, but at a closer look, it could be hailed as his best acting role. It was released in June 1961 just a few months before Blue Hawaii and was one of Presley’s few dramatic roles.
While many regard King Creole as Elvis Presley’s best acting performance in a film, there seems to be more of a range of emotions that Presley portrays in Wild in the Country. In addition, Elvis plays a country boy who is grieving for his late mother. This aspect of the role of Glenn Tyler hits close to home for Presley who had only lost his beloved mother, Gladys, three years earlier.
In one scene, Elvis’ character reveals: “I could’ve bought my mom her freedom with money and fame” – a sentiment that motivated Elvis to succeed in his real life.
Elvis has not one, not two, but three women that he is involved with in the film. The film was based on the novel, The Lost Country, by J.R. Salamanca, with the screenplay written by playwright Clifford Odets. In the film, Elvis sings a song to each one of the three women, for a total of four songs including the title track.
After getting in trouble with the law for fighting with his brother, Presley’s character, Glenn, is requested to see a case worker specializing in psychology to try to help him resolve anger issues.
Hope Lange plays the older psychologist, Irene Sperry, who helps Glenn to see that he has more potential than he believes to succeed in the world. The scenes of Elvis in private sessions with Hope Lange are arguably the most intimate and emotional scenes that Presley has ever done onscreen.
During these sessions, Presley recites long stretches of dialogue talking about his innermost feelings. Frequently throughout the film, Presley also quotes scripture from the bible, another behavior that came close to Elvis Presley in real life.
When arriving at his uncle’s house, Glenn pulls out four books in addition to the bible from his suitcase. In real life, Elvis was known to be an avid reader and would travel with his favorite books while on tour.
With the help of his case worker, Glenn uncovers his talent for writing and his deep intellect, often underestimated by the outside world — yet another misconception similar to Presley’s real life where most did not realize there was a lot of substance behind the glamorous showman.
Wild in the Country allowed Presley to display a vast range of emotions as an actor. One scene shows Elvis’ character acting drunk as he shows up at Mrs. Sperry’s house yelling outside her window. Tuesday Weld, who plays Noreen, is his cohort in the scene.
Probably the most intimate love scene that Elvis ever did onscreen was in Wild in the Country. Glenn reveals to Mrs. Sperry, a widow, that he has fallen in love with her. However, because of their age difference and their doctor/patient connection, the relationship is too scandalous for Irene to handle.
Wild in the Country even ranks higher in box office earnings when compared to Elvis’ most regarded dramatic role in King Creole. Wild in the Country ranks 19 while King Creole surprisingly ranks 27 out of his 31 feature films according to extensive research done in the recent book, Elvis: Behind The Legend.
Wild in the Country counteracts the perception among Elvis fans that if only Elvis was given the right movie role, he could have been taken seriously as an actor. However, the truth is that Presley did have the chance to show his serious acting chops not only in Wild in the Country, but also Flaming Star (1960) and King Creole (1958).
Unfortunately, when compared to box-office hits like Blue Hawaii and G.I. Blues, the more serious films did not stand a chance. The three early films in which Elvis portrayed dramatic roles, while still making a respectable profit, did poorly at the box office in comparison to his successful smash hits. This was enough justification for the movie studios to keep Elvis starring in the happy-go-lucky musicals that the public wanted.
Yet another indication that his fans wanted to see him sing more, was when Elvis and Tuesday Weld were voted the Damp Raincoat Awards as the most disappointing performers of 1961 by Teen Magazine. As a result, Elvis did not accept another serious role until Charro in 1969.
Director Philip Dunne later wrote that the film “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.”
Filmed in Napa Valley, the story is set in the Shenandoah Valley and gives ample proof that Elvis had talent as a dramatic actor. Over 55 years after its release, Wild in the Country should be regarded as one of The King of Rock and Roll’s finest moments on film.