Here's an easy proclamation: Hot damn I love Elvis Presley.
I know. Everyone loves Elvis -- and especially today, on the anniversary of his death. But in an age when hype often supersedes talent or charisma, loving the astoundingly magnetic Elvis makes sense.
Truly, if someone claims to not like Elvis, not even one song, one performance, one moment of Elvis-ness, I can only think they're big, fat liars who yammer on and on about how they’d rather listen to The Beatles (“they wrote their own music!”). That tired argument, one that's receded with time (I hope). As someone who likes The Beatles, I'll just state the obvious: one can revere both Beatle and Elvis -- it’s entirely possible. After all, The Beatles loved Elvis. So does Bob Dylan. Ditto for the late, great, gritty “Rumble” rocker Link Wray who I watched perform a heart wrenching version of Elvis’s “I’m Free” years ago in some Portland shit-hole. Witnessing one of my idols bring down the house with another idol’s song rates as one of the biggest highlights of my life.
So again, in terms of Elvis, if you don't love this:
.... you're probably dead or stupid or just a contrary pain in the ass.
With my never-ending Elvis worship, it's no surprise I've watched nearly all of the King’s movies -- George Sidney's Viva Las Vegas being the most viewed. They vary in quality, of course, and his performances range in effectiveness (King Creole directed by Michael Curtiz, Flaming Star directed by Don Siegel, Blue Hawaii directed by Norman Taurog are some terrific stand-outs), but whether it be Spinout or Change of Habit or It Happened at the World’s Fair, I always find enjoyment and substance and artistry in them -- even while feeling cheated by Colonel Parker's insistence on keeping Elvis firmly planted in squaresville. But one Elvis picture that’s not discussed enough (and one I've written about here before but am returning to) is his highly underrated Wild in the Country.
Still considered another of the King's so-so efforts, Wild in the Country is much more complex an achievement than given credit for. Notable for its screenplay (from J.R. Salamanca's novel, who also penned the novel Lilith) written by the serious and sometimes brilliant theater and film writer Clifford Odets (The Big Knife, and my favorite, the genius Sweet Smell of Success -- I know very little about how Odets regarded this movie) -- the picture may look to some snobbier cineastes as something of a sell-out for Odets. And perhaps it was -- but the picture remains intriguing nonetheless.
A dramatic and soapy (with a captial S) entertainment a la Peyton Place or a slicked up Tennessee Williams wanna-be effort, Wild in the Country is also convoluted, strange (Christina Crawford appears in it), and deliciously racy, pulsating with adult themes that feel naughty for a 1961 Elvis vehicle. Another "serious" turn for Presley (which he could always handle and I wish he'd done more of), Wild in the Country nicely casts the singer in a role we like seeing him in -- as a juvenile delinquent. It also features the beautiful and beguiling talent of Tuesday Weld as a lush who's a little too young for her world-weary ways. Weld wasn't even out of her teens when she made this film -- she also had on off-screen affair with Elvis which the Colonel quickly ended. Young Weld was apparently too rebellious for Elvis's image -- yet another missed opportunity for Presley. Elvis needed to shake things up in 1961, and talented hellcat Tuesday was just the girl for the job. Alas, not to be. The Colonel's control continually frustrates.
But the movie remains a wild affair. Directed by Philip Dunne, Wild in the Country finds Presley playing Glen (Glen?), a troubled country boy who's sent to live with his shady uncle. Of course. His hell-raisin' ways land him a psychiatrist -- the very pretty Irene Sperry (Hope Lange, who co-starred in Peyton Place) -- and she’s not like any shrink you'd be likely to meet. She sees a strong literary talent in this hunk of dysfunction and finds herself falling for him, to the ire of her suitor and the gossip-mongers of the town. The ensuing melodramatic battle is interesting for an Elvis vehicle: Irene wants Glen to go to college. But Glen's got other problems to contend with. Chiefly, and naturally, two other Elvis craving gals: his sexy cousin Noreen (Weld) who wants him to stay bad (Viva La Tuesday!), and the oh-so-boring Betty Lee (Millie Perkins), his square childhood sweetheart.
Fights, scandals, attempted suicide, murder and of course singing (four songs!) crash-land to a rather ridiculous though weirdly engaging courtroom scene that manages to feel entirely plausible within the Elvis universe. Elvis, extraordinarily sexy here and often poignant in his moments with Lange, does right by Dunne's colorful, campy and juicy direction and he spews Odets dialogue with surprising ease. It’s actually a bit frustrating because you see how much more Elvis could achieve as an actor while still being well ... hot as sin. And for me, next to Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, this is one of Elvis's hottest movies. Like saucy Ann-Margret shaking it in Viva, Tuesday Weld certainly helps.
Well, wait a second. Wild in the Country was one of Elvis’s hottest narrative movies. If we count his ’68 Comback Special as a movie (it was televised but it really should be released on the big screen) and his 1970 concert picture, Elvis: That's the Way It Is, then I’ll have to re-think which of the King’s performances makes me feel (as Baby Doll’s Carroll Baker would say to Eli Wallach's Mr. Vacarro) “kind of hysterical.”
That’s a hard decision. But one thing I do know -- a little “Polk Salad Annie” contains potent magical powers.