Friday, December 10, 2010

1961 - Wild in The Country

"...What really surprised me was the extraordinary talent  of Elvis Presley. He took to this part as if he had been a dramatic actor all his life, with particular feel for Odets' colorful and poetic dialogue". Philip Dunne 

When Elvis Presley stated that he wanted to be an actor, he didn't had in mind the musical teen exploitation comedies he became known for during the mid 60's, he had James Dean and Marlon Brando in mind, his personal idols. His first four movies during the 50's: Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole, where musical dramas, the studios needed him to do some musical numbers as that was what they where selling if they put Elvis Presley as the star of their product, yes their where teen oriented exploitation material, but as Elvis image was that of the rocker, the rebel, somehow they became enough of dramatic vehicles to start Elvis in the acting direction he wished, and the music he performed was as good as his studio material anyhow. Jaihouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) where meant to be cult classics of the 50's rock era, and Elvis will be forever remember in the big screen that way.

Yet, as he returned from the army, producer Hall Wallis, had plants way different, he saw an Elvis his new Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle, this time pushed to a new and highly exploitable market: teenagers. The hard edged, sex charged, rock rebel image had to be tamed (this was a Hall Wallis production value), and no, there where no plan to direct Elvis into a career in serious acting roles. G.I. Blues (1960) was the first in that area, the teen oriented musical comedy Presley formula had been inagurated, and Elvis disliked it since he readed the script for the first time, but a 7 year contract had been signed, and he hoped that the mainstream popularity that these new kind of pictures will give him, latter will paid him with the roles he did wanted. That never happened for the sake of Elvis most bitter regrets.

But between G.I. Blues and the rest of the teen exploitation movies that followed for seven years, there were two movies, unique in Elvis filmography, that neither belong to the string of movies he did in the 50's, neither to the string of formula movies he did for the rest of the 60's. Still under contract with Fox, the company that first signed him to do his very first movie, came Flaming Star in 1960, a western with a screenplay originally written for Marlon Brando directed by Don Siegel. Elvis did it good for a young actor with not much experience, but he seemed for sure at odds in certain scenes, although he really shined in a few others. The movie was well recieved and reached #12 in Variety's weekly list of top grossing films, but was no match for the succes GI Blues had months before.

But a second movie came out of the Twentieth Century Fox lots next year, Wild in The Country, based in J.R. Salamanca's novel, was the prefect vehicle for both: to fulfill Elvis own wishes about the kind of picture in which he wanted to be, as well as the kind of role that perfectly fitted Elvis acting abilities at the time.

Wild in the Country (1961) was the kind of film drama in which Elvis Presley wanted to be, that's the closest he reached and the closest thing we got to his ideal of the acting career he pursued in 1956 when he asked his manager, Col. Tom Parker, to take him to Hollywood, as he wanted more than any other thing, to be an actor. Totally underrated, this is Elvis Presley's best movie along with King Creole, if there's still any doubt of Elvis acting potential, those two movies had to dispel that doubt or sense of mockery when Elvis the movie star topic is on the table. 

In Wild in The Country he portrays a troubled young man from a dysfunctional family who pursues a literary career. The movie starts off with Glenn Tyler (Elvis Presley) getting into a fight with, and badly injuring, his drunken brother. A court releases him on probation into the care of his uncle in a small town, appointing Irene Sperry (Hope Lange) to give him psychological counselling. Marked as a trouble-maker, he is falsely suspected of various misdemeanors including an affair with Irene and his cousin (Tuesday Weld). By the way Presley began an off-screen romance with Hollywood "bad girl" Tuesday Weld but the relationship was short-lived after Colonel Tom Parker warned Presley against his involvement, fearful it would harm his image, (Weld was still underage, 17 at the time, Elvis was 25).

Wild in The Country was well recieved by the critics, but this time, it was the audiences who failed him, director Philip Dunne would later say: "Audiences who would have liked Clifford Odet's drama wouldn't buy Elvis and his songs, and Presley fans were disappointed in a picture which departed so radically from the usual: teen explotation musical formula". In fact many Elvis fans were pleased with this new direction, and the movie was a success financially speaking, but a modest one compared to G.I. Blues or his 50's movies. Then for his next movie, Hall Wallis was in charge of production, the first big budget musical in Presley filmography was in the way, this time a teenagers beach movie: Blue Hawaii (1961), all records at the box office where broken. Success was Elvis own enemy this time, all his subsequent movies were largely formula musicals which were quite lucrative but never gave him the chance to develop his potential as a serious actor that was very apparent in "Wild in the Country".

But looking back in time, and still a good movie that is worth to watch Elvis fan or not, as the movie and Elvis acting stands on its own, here it is, in modest Avi format for everybodys preview, (go and buy it if you like it): Wild in The Country: "Lonely Man... Loving Man... Singing Man..." as slogan advertising for the film readed.

Elvis not only could have been an actor at the level of Brando or Dean if he had given the chance to continue in this direction, but for a little while, in those 120 min. or so of King Creole and Wild in The Country, he was that actor he wanted to be.

Wild in The Country
Directed By Philip Dune
Screenplay by Clifford Odet
Starring: Elvis Presley, Tuesday Weld, Hope Lang 
and Millie Perkins

 More on this film, click this: 

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