08/16/2007 09:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Elvis Meets Odets: Wild In The Country

Hot damn I love Elvis Presley.

Yes, yes, I know. Everyone loves Elvis--and
especially today, the 30th anniversary of Presley's
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!"). Well,
that's great. But one can like both the Beatles and
Elvis--it's entirely possible. After all, the Beatles
loved Elvis. So did Bob Dylan. Ditto for the late
"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

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dead or stupid or just a contrary pain in the

With my never-ending Elvis worship, it's no
surprise I've watched all of the King's movies. 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. But one
Elvis picture that's not discussed enough is his
highly underrated Wild in the Country.

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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)
-- the film may look to some snobbier cineastes as
something of a sell-out for Odets. And perhaps it
was--but the picture remains intriguing nonetheless.

Soapy, dramatic entertainment with a capital D a la
Peyton Place or a slicked up Tennessee
Williams wanna-be effort, Wild in the Country
is also convoluted, strange, and deliciously racy with
themes that seem adult even for 1961. Especially 1961
Elvis. 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).

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Directed by Philip Dunne, Presley plays Glen Tyler,
a troubled country boy who's sent to live with his
shady uncle. Because of his hell-raisin' ways, he's
assigned 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 (of course) falling for him, to the
ire of her suitor and the gossip-mongers of the town.
Irene wants Glen to go to college, but Glen other
problems to contend with. Chiefly, two other Elvis
craving gals: his sexy cousin Noreen (Weld) who wants
him to stick to his hard living ways, and the
oh-so-boring Betty Lee (Millie Perkins), his square
childhood sweetheart.

Four songs are sung, along with a lot of fighting,
scandal, attempted suicide, and even murder, leading
to a rather ridiculous though weirdly engaging
courtroom scene. 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
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.

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 (as Baby
Carroll Baker would say) the most "fuzzy
and buzzy."

That's a hard decision. But one thing I do know--a
little "Polk Salad Annie" gets me every time.

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