Monday, April 11, 2011

Wild In The Country (1961, Philip Dunne)

If the dramatic pull of Elvis's role in Flaming Star was no match for the musical numbers in G.I. Blues, it's no wonder that his last dramatic role for nigh a decade in Wild In The Country paled in comparison to the success of Blue Hawaii.  If early Hollywood Elvis sought to be the next James Dean, Wild In The Country was his Rebel Without A Cause.  And also a fair bit like East of Eden, as Wild In The Country explores such similar territory as classism, loss of a mother, an incongruous generational gap, and a bit too much melodrama.

Elvis plays Glenn Tyler, a character not too dissimilar from King Creole's Danny Fisher.  Glenn comes from the wrong side of the tracks, lacks the proper schooling to get him where he'd like to be, lost his supportive mother earlier in his youth and lives under a deadbeat father who doesn't understand him.  After injuring his drunken brother in a brawl, his father wants him locked up, but the law has sympathy toward Glenn and allows him to live with his uncle, provided he begin psychological therapy with mother-figure Irene Sperry (Hope Lange).

The screenplay is brought to us by Clifford Odets, a playwright who is no stranger to heavy melodrama.  His own Clash By Night vents bile for a good length of its story (credit Fritz Lang for giving the screenplay legs), his guns-a-blazin' moral indictments The Big Knife and Sweet Smell of Success have their flair for the dramatic (broken homes and suicide, respectively) and he even wrote the screenplay for something called Humoresque, which I imagine is a misnomer.  So no surprise here when Glenn, a troubled youth, finds his true calling in-- wait for it-- creative writing!

On top of his tortured family history, a love triangle isn't enough for Glenn to deal with; it becomes something of a love rhomboid with trouble at each corner.  Millie Perkins plays Glenn's childhood sweetheart (and simply backwoods sounding) Betty Lee Parsons who, though sweet, represents something of a glass ceiling for Glenn: at best he would end up middle-America if he could survive the "Down In The Boondocks" curse Betty Lee's family won't let him forget.  Tugging the tether from the opposite side is Glenn's cousin, Noreen (Tuesday Weld), an equally troubled and world-weary teen mother.  Her father (Glenn's uncle) gives Glenn a job at his distillery.  Moonshine is a signature cliché that reminds us his prospects on this side of town would be even lower.

Tellingly, Glenn falls in love, instead with the older, most supportive motherly character, counselor Irene Sperry.  Even more Oedipal than his work in Flaming Star, there is no question that the instances in which Presley is most affecting in Wild In The Country are due to the recent loss of his mother.  The drama gets out of hand-- an attempted suicide, a slander, a death and false accusation of an affair conclude in a scene that can only be settled in an over-wrought courtroom.

My problems with the screenplay aren't with the inflated melodrama-- the experienced cast makes it, usually, effective-- but with the thesaurusness and forced local color of the writing.  In a screenplay re-worked to be about creative writing, it is grating to hear dialogue like "she says that she'll have me any way: plain, fried or scrambled" and "I thought you were supposed to help me ma'am, not rile me up like a muddy creek: take my life and twist it into something you want" in Elvis's extended diatribes, music set to swell, reminding us that this talk is weighty.

But it is a film that survives despite the drama weighing it down.  Perhaps the end is naïvely optimistic in Glenn's taking of the "third route" to college, but there is something triumphant in his ascension of the steps as he reaches university, and something even more powerful in the longing in the eyes of the women he left behind.  Wild In The Country is a film whose success is in its performances, surviving the drama they needed to wade through, like a muddy creek. -- ***/four stars

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