BR: Wild in the Country (1961)

September 21, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Tme

Region: All

Released:  August 20, 2019

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: A troubled young man on probation experiences strong feelings for his court-appointed psychiatrist in small town America.

Special Features:  Isolated Stereo Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Mike Finnegan / Theatrical Trailer / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from and




Warning: this review contains spoilers galore!


Perhaps due to the success of King Creole (1958) and G.I. Blues (1960), Elvis may have had some leverage and was able to star in two dramas to prove his acting chops, but the resulting films didn’t gel with audiences and critics, causing a return to a long series of light n’ fluffy comedies packed with more than enough songs to fill ongoing soundtrack albums.

Flaming Star (1960) showed Elvis had far more depth than critics may have suspected, and although a traditional western, it didn’t propel him to the kind of straight dramatic roles he sought, as intended in Wild in the Country (1961), an adaptation of J.R. Salamanca’s novel The Lost Country. The core story follows (presumably) late teen / early twenties Glenn Tyler (Presley) as he’s sentenced to community service under his uncle’s wing after a nasty fight, and although Glenn keeps his goals simple and economically humble, working a straight gig and taking one day at a time, his creative writing catches the attention of Irene Sperry (Hope Lang), the psychiatrist whom the court appointed for weekly mental health sessions.

In a plot grabbed from the premise of Elvis’ hit musical Jailhouse Rock (1957), a subsequent accidental death has him re-arrested, tried, and potentially charged for manslaughter, but a twist saves the troubled lad from jail and enables him to begin a new life as a student of literature, thanks to the kind shrink who acted as coach, mentor, and miracle worker.

Part of the production’s trivia includes an aborted ending in which the rumours of an illicit affair among judgmental townsfolk forces Irene to commit suicide, but the filmed twist was scrapped in favour of a happier finale that didn’t bring the two autumn & spring characters together, but had them reset on new life paths.

As a provocative melodrama flowing through an insular community, Wild is packed with the similarly lurid behaviour of Peyton Place (1957), one of producer Jerry Wald’s big hits for studio Fox: the lad whom Glenn is accused of killing, Cliff Macy (Gary Lockwood), is the son of Irene’s former lover Phil (John Ireland), who’s more than willing to divorce his rich wife if Irene would agree to the marriage he’s wanted for decades.

Glenn’s uncle Rolfe Braxton (delightfully vile William Mims) is a sleazeball who agreed to help his nephew only because he wants hot & bothered daughter and single mother Noreen (Tuesday Weld) to marry her cousin, and stop posing as a pregnant war bride. Although Noreen has had the hots for Glenn since childhood, Glenn’s heart is for Betty Lee Parsons (Fox starlet Millie Perkins, fresh from The Diary of Anne Frank), the polite, refined daughter of wealthy townsfolk who want a better grade of man for future grandkids, like rich boy Cliff.

Even with the reshot ending, there’s enough material to give Elvis room to breathe life into sort-of, late-term teenager Glenn, but Wild had a long pre-production history with different casting choices – Bradford Dillman and Margaret Leighton were originally sought for Glenn and Irene – and when Wald snagged Philip Dunne, who’d directed the teen pregnancy drama Blue Denim (1959), the latter’s choice was to cast Presley and Simone Signoret, the French actress who’d played the sexy older woman in the British drama Room at the Top (1959). Signoret was a decent choice, but a change in production executives and salary demands led to Hope Lang being cast as Irene, a peculiar decision given the actress was barely 2 years older that Presley.

Perhaps because of what feels like careful if not fortuitous grooming by Wald and studio Fox, Lang had evolved from the young woman in Peyton Place to the tear-pulling mother in The Young Lions (1958), and tackled the important character maturation in the classic The Best of Everything (1959) with special aplomb, playing a university grad who eventually becomes a top publishing exec in a sexist world.

Lang pulled off that arc because her character was the friend, consul, and saviour to her two roommates, and with the hairdo and business suit of her former mentor, her character closes the film walking away from the camera a tough but fair executive – which is pretty close to Wild’s Irene. With a modest hairdo and chic but never flashy clothes & colours, Lang is convincingly transformed into an older woman from her first scene.

Clifford Odets’ script isn’t especially good – the veteran playwright was reportedly canned prior to filming, leaving Dunne to finish the screenplay and perhaps tighten material. Wild is dramatically sound and moves at a brisk pace, but the early sessions in which Irene chisels away at Glenn’s iron wall and slowly earns his trust are flat. Scenes that crucial to extracting truths, emotions, and backstories have a dullness, arguably causing viewers to dilute their attention and focus on set details, such as the modern art, mid-century furniture, and modern stereo neatly arranged in Irene’s otherwise rustic house. (Her cultured, forward-thinking home / office is contrasted by the Braxton’s grimy loft which rests above the smelly booze factory below, and the specious yet sterile home of wealthy Phil Macy.)

Where the film finally clicks is in the delicately handled seduction scene which is exceptionally long and beautifully choreographed by Dunne. A sudden (what else?) rainfall mandates a hotel stopover; separate rooms prove agonizing for the gravitating couple; and their physical connection is handled with unusual care.

I’m sure Presley was especially proud of the sequence, and it’s a tragedy the film’s oomph happens so late in the drama, and after several horribly contrived bits in which Presley has to sing to sell the soundtrack album: a tune in the pickup truck with a frowning Betty pulls us into a clichéd studio musical, and a quiet staircase strum with Noreen feels forced; the short sing-song between Glenn and Irene before rainfall is cute, and may be the only moment when Glenn’s singing feels spontaneous.

Fox and Presley’s manipulative manager Col. Tom Parker undoubtedly wanted some music to come from this steamy tale, perhaps as insurance in case the star’s yearning for drama hampered the film; the trailer is strategically cut, telling audiences ‘Elvis Sings!’ and showcases just the songs to infer Wild is a musical with little dramatic bites – hardly the production that Dunne and Presley had worked hard to create.

One may expect Wild to be a dud or a mess, but in actuality it’s an interesting misfire due to a variety of factors that make it a compelling, attractive work. Fans almost get the actor Presley wanted to be, but Wild leaves us saddened, because unlike Frank Sinatra, Presley was too micro-managed and controlled by greedy manipulators. Sinatra earned an Oscar Award for his straight role in From Here to Eternity (1953), giving the former song & dance man and recording star hard credit and power to determine his career.

With Presley’s next film being Blue Hawaii (1961), it’s unsurprising he was plopped into formulaic musicalized stories; Follow That Dream (1962) seems to offer rare chunks of dramatic meat in what’s ostensibly a comedy-drama.

Hope Lang should’ve progressed to bigger, edgier roles, but after two co-starring vehicles with Glenn Ford – Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Love is a Ball (1963) – Lang moved to TV, enjoyed the safety of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1968-1970) – and between 1965-1980, made just three feature films: Jigsaw (1968), I Love You… Good-bye (1974), and Death Wish (1974).

Tuesday Weld appeared in myriad TV productions before co-starring in several classics and cult films, including The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Pretty Poison (1968), Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), and Thief (1981).

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a sharp transfer of a slightly worn but clean print, and as a special bonus an isolated stereo track of Kenyon Hopkins’ previously unreleased score. Hopkins, who also scored Fox’s Wild River (1960 and The Hustler (1961), was a very underrated composer, and Wild is one of his best works, often pulling audiences back from the faux musical injections to the real drama.

His handling of the hotel seduction is especially discrete. It’s a careful flow between thematic components, and the music never becomes lurid or teasing, but underscores the serious implications of the pair’s attraction and their genuine affection which (originally) led to tragic circumstances. It’s a great score of restraint, colour, and precision, and a real treat the music can be enjoyed uncompressed on Blu.

The mixed film soundtrack is in true if not subtle stereo, whereas the isolated stereo track has some nice bonuses beyond complete source and jukebox cues: because of licensing, we get the instrumental backing of Presley’s title track (featuring a hasty and not quite pleasant clarinet solo), the truck tune, and a longer version of Hopkins’ closing cue that starts at the train station and continues with full orchestra over the cast recap. (In the film mix, the recap features a sombre version of Presley’s title track.)

The trailer reinforces the creative fight and career leap which Presley lost in trying to make a straight drama and convince fans of his expansive talent; the poster art gracing the booklet’s rear features a smiling Presley and infers a swell country romp instead of a sordid, painful love affair.

Mike Finnegan’s essay shores up the film’s position as a ‘What if’ project that might have yielded more diverse films for Presley had the meddling, mishaps, and rigid preference of his fans not aided in curtailing what should’ve been a stronger career in movies. There’s also deserved praise for then-newcomer Gary Lockwood who graduated from uncredited parts (Warlock) to bigger roles, including another Presley vehicle, It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), and his best-known parts in Star Trek: Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

J.R. Salamanca’s novel Lilith (1964) was made into a film by Robert Rossen. Clifford Odets’ screenplays include The General Died at Dawn (1936), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Humoresque (1946), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Wild in the Country (1961). He also wrote & directed None But the Lonely Heart (1944), and The Story on Page One (1959) for producer Jerry Wald.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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