Wild in the Country 1961 – Elvis’ 7th Movie
This is the 60th Anniversary for Wild in the Country, Elvis’ first movie of 1961, and I think it’s his best movie. It is my second favorite Elvis movie, and it’s only second because my favorite movie (Girl Happy) has a sentimental / nostalgia factor. (For the same reason Grease will never be topped as my favorite movie.) This is definitely one of the 11 Elvis movies I watch all the time. In fact after Girl Happy it’s the one I watch the most, several times a year. I can’t stress this enough – if you haven’t seen or don’t remember Wild in the Country, go see it now! You can buy it on dvd or stream in on Amazon. This movie never gets talked about or shown. I am flabbergasted why Wild in the Country is never considered in ‘The Best Elvis Movie’ discussion! Wild in the Country is the most dramatic a role that Elvis ever played with an even more dramatic story line. It is the quintessential late 1950s early 1960s soap opera movie – up there with my favorites Imitation of Life, Mildred Pierce, Splendor in the Grass, A Place in the Sun and East of Eden. James Dean would have been proud – this was totally a James Dean type of role. In fact, this was the last troubled James Dean-type character Elvis would play. Being that Glen was young and at odds with his father and on the wrong side of the law makes it Elvis’ last true teen movie. Elvis plays a writer, not a singer, but does sing a few songs that were added in to please the fans per the Colonel’s suggestion. Like with Flaming Star, Wild in the Country is advertised incorrectly as a musical, rather than the drama that it is. The movie poster shows Elvis holding a guitar and says “Elvis sings of love to Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, Millie Perkins.”
Wild in the Country was based on the book The Lost Country. Elvis plays 20 year old Glenn Tyler who almost kills his brother (played by Red West) in a fight. He is paroled and sent to live with and work for his less than scrupulous uncle and amorous cousin (played by Tuesday Weld) and must see a psychiatrist (played by Hope Lange). Even though Glenn has a girlfriend (played by Millie Perkins), he manages to have a fling with his cousin (Tuesday Weld) who is an unwed mother and in love with him while at the same time Glenn is falling in love with his 30-something year old psychiatrist (Hope Lange) who used to be in a relationship with the father of Glenn’s nemesis (played by Gary Lockwood) and who is on the parole board responsible for Glenn’s punishment. *SPOILER ALERT* Glenn’s psychiatrist brings out the writer in him and tries to get him into college, the town finds out about the forbidden affair between Glenn and his older psychiatrist and Glenn finds himself on trial for murdering his nemesis – the son of the man who used to date the woman he loves. Oh and Joan Crawford’s daughter, Christina, author of Mommie Dearest, has a small part.
Wild in the Country was a movie Elvis actually liked as it was a far more literary script than most, although he was not too thrilled with the added songs. It was a movie with quite a different formula from the rest with three love interests and just four songs. Elvis’ character Glen has three different paths to choose from as a young man of 20 year old. His three love interests all represent a different path. Glen can play it safe with his childhood sweetheart Betty Lee or take a risk with Nory (his temptress cousin who has a baby) or go a completely different way with the 30-something Irene who opened the door to a life beyond the crappy jobs in a small town full of narrow minded people. This is a rare time when Elvis’ character chooses the older love interest. (In Loving You and King Creole, he went with the younger.)
I like everything about this movie, especially the literary theme. All the books! I love that Glen carries books in his suitcase, much like Elvis did later on. And I love the college library scene when Glen is so excited to be surrounded by all the books. There is nothing about Wild in the Country I would change, not even the songs. They do not bother me at all. There are two scenes I especially like. The hotel scene with Glen and Irene is SO hot! As is the scene with Glen and Nory slow dancing at the fair on her birthday. There are two lines I especially like. I love the line by Nory to Glen on the stairs, “It needs a man to go to hell with, because that’s what I want – hours and hours of heaven that slides right down to hell, and we don’t care when it is.” Another great line is by Glen talking to Irene, “It’s like I’m always walking around with a cupful of anger, trying not to spill it.” It was a still from Wild in the Country that was used for my Elvis READ poster that I adore.
Wild in the Country was directed by Philip Dunne, who was better known as an award winning screenplay writer. Later on he became a speechwriter for JFK. The movie was adapted from J.R. Salamanca’s 1958 novel The Lost Country, which received rave reviews. In 1961, an abridged version came out with the title Wild in the Country after the movie was released. The title Wild in the Country was taken from a Walt Witman poem “Leaves of Grass” that 20th Century Fox producer Jerry Wald had always wanted to use for a movie. Wald had also produced Peyton Place with Hope Lange and Return to Peyton Place with Tuesday Weld. as well as Mildred Pierce and The Long Hot Summer. Clifford Odets, who was one of the greatest playwrights of the 1930s specializing in socially conscious dramas, wrote the screenplay for Wild in the Country. The character of Glen Tyler was loosely based on Thomas Wolfe. Odets had written over 300 pages and was fired two weeks before filming began, so Director Philip Dunne had to finish the screenplay while filming and directing the movie. Hope Lange also wrote some of the screenplay, rewriting her own dialogue. Dunne gave her his writer’s guild card. Dunne completely rewrote the ending, where in Odet’s version Elvis’ character Glen was supposed to commit suicide. The original title was Lonely Man, which was one of the songs that was cut after the title was changed to Wild in the Country.
The movie Wild in the Country is quite different from the book The Lost Country. In the book, Glen’s character is called Jim and he is an only child. The book starts when Jim is an infant. It takes place in Charlottesville, VA. Betty Lee is still Jim’s childhood sweetheart, but her parents are friends with Jim’s parents and she is a blonde (she’s a brunette in the movie). Nory is still Jim’s cousin, but she is a brunette (she’s a blonde in the movie). In the book, Jim is an artist not a writer and Irene is a teacher, not a psychiatrist. The book has no trial scenes. (I update more as I finish the book.)
Wild in the Country has a great cast especially the female leads. Millie Perkins, whom I love, played Elvis’ character Glen’s childhood sweetheart Betty Lee. During filming, she broke her wrist slapping Elvis (well Glen actually) in a scene. Millie also played Elvis’ mother Gladys in the 1990 tv series Elvis. I was fortunate to meet Millie during Elvis Week 2018. At a meet and greet, she signed my copy of the original abridged 1961 book Wild in the Country. Then later that evening I saw her at dinner and asked for a photo with her, and she couldn’t have been sweeter. Another favorite of mine is Hope Lange who played Elvis’ Glen’s older psychiatrist love interest Irene Sperry. Hope was only 13 months older than Elvis, but was playing a 30-something year old to Glen’s 20 year old. The part of Irene Sperry was supposed to be played by Simone Signoret, who was actually middle aged, but she wanted too much money. Lange also starred in Peyton Place, one of my favorites, and in television’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which I used to watch when I was little. Elvis liked Hope so much that he actually stocked his bar with vodka for her, where he usually never had alcohol in the house. Tuesday Weld, whom Elvis had previously dated, played Elvis’ Glen’s cousin Nory who was in love with him. Tuesday was only 17 at the time of filming and besides having already dated the 25 year old Elvis, she also had already dated 45 year old John Ireland, who played Phil Macy (Irene’s love other love interest and Cliff’s father). Tuesday was also filming Return to Peyton Place at the same time she was filming Wild in the Country. She brought her white German Shepherd dog with her on set, which was against studio regulations. In 1988 in Heartbreak Hotel set in 1972, Tuesday played an Elvis fan whose son kidnaps Elvis.
Gary Lockwood who played Elvis’ Glen’s nemesis Cliff Macy and also would play Elvis’ sidekick in It Happened at the World’s Fair. Lockwood also had a role in Splendor in the Grass, another one of my favorites. Christina Crawford played Cliff’s date Monica George. Christina is the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford and the author of Mommie Dearest. During filming, Elvis threw her out of the house pulling by her hair when she shot of her mouth or slapped a cigar out of Elvis’ mouth after her boyfriend lit it for Elvis. Rafer Johnson played Phil Macy’s assistant. He was a gold medal Olympic decathlon in the 1960 games in Rome. He was drafted in 1959 by the NFL to Los Angeles Rams. In 1968 Johnson, along with Rosy Grier, apprehended Sirhan Sirhan after he shot Bobby Kennedy, as they were a part of his campaign detail. Elvis’ friend Red West had bit parts in many of Elvis’ movies, but had his first speaking part in Wild in the Country as Glen’s brother Hank. He was in the opening scene fighting with Glen and then at the end of the movie he propositions Irene outside of the court house. Ironically, his hair is dark in this movie, not red. Rosy, a 4 year old Irish Setter, played Irene Sperry’s dog Rosy. It was her film debut. She was owned and trained by Rudd Weatherwax, who was also the dog trainer in Lassie Come Home and Old Yeller, these are not some of my favorites as they made me cry hysterically when I was little and haven’t watched them since.
On November 6, 1960, Elvis along with his friends Alan Fortas, Red West, Charlie Hodge and Joe Esposito flew to LA for preproduction on Wild in the Country. While on location, they all stayed at the Casa Bellvue-al Hotel. Exterior scenes were filmed in and around Napa Valley, California including Calistoga and at the University of California at Los Angeles where 75 students were hired as extras. Filming began on November 11th at the Victorian Ink House in St. Helena, California. While in Napa, side trips were made to San Francisco on Saturday nights staying at the Mark Hopkins Hotel and watching football on Sundays then driving back Sunday nights. Interior shots were done on the 20th Century Fox lot in Santa Monica, California. Elvis and guys stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel during this time.
During filming, Elvis dated Nancy Sharp, a wardrobe girl he met on Flaming Star. He was also still involved with Anita Wood back in Memphis and Priscilla in Germany. Elvis also socialized a lot with Tuesday Weld and Hope Lange, which was rare for him as he did not usually socialize with Hollywood folks. On November 26th, Elvis and the guys took a weekend trip to Las Vegas. During filming, Elvis had a huge boil on his butt. Even after it was lanced, it was still very painful for Elvis to sit. Elvis received a platinum watch from RCA to commemorate his having sold 75 million records. It was during filming of Wild in the Country that Colonel saw an article about the failed attempts to raise money for the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. He and Elvis decided to do a benefit concert in Hawaii in March, while they were there making his next movie Blue Hawaii. During filming, the studio threw Elvis a 26th birthday party on set giving him a plaque that read “Happy Birthday King Karate.” Attendees included the Colonel, Pat Boone, Juliet Prowse and Hope Lange. After, Elvis sat a table for hours in the motel and signed autographs and took photos for all the local kids who hounded him during filming. Filming ended in mid January 1961, but Elvis was called back in February to reshoot the ending.
The first ending that was shot (*SPOILER ALERT*) had Irene Sperry commit suicide, but the test audience did not like this. The second ending that was shot (and kept) has Irene survive her suicide attempt. She wakes in Glen’s arms and then escorts him to the train station to leave for college as Nory watches through the window. In many books I have read, it says the movie ended with Glen on the train opening a letter Irene gave him saying his first story had been published. I have never seen this ending. In my version of Wild in the Country, Irene sees Glen to the train station, he gets on the train then we see him walking up the steps at the college.
Wild in the Country premiered in Memphis June 15, 1961 and opened nationally on June 22, 1961. Elvis did not attend the premiere. This is the only Elvis movie that did not make money. It was budgeted at $2,975,000. and grossed $2.5 million. This was really Elvis’ last opportunity to be a dramatic actor and tackle a credible script. Director Philip Dunne said, “audiences who might have liked Clifford Odet’s drama wouldn’t buy Elvis and his songs, and Elvis fans were disappointed in a Presley picture which departed so radically from his usual song-and-sex comedy formula.” This was Elvis’ second straight dramatic role, after Flaming Star, but that wasn’t released until Christmas, so no one knew how audiences would respond. Wild in the Country did get one great review from Britain’s New Musical Express, David Cardwell writes “Wild in the Country is Elvis’ best so far! There is only one way to describe Presley’s performance – superb! Yet this was obviously Elvis’ best film and he will be known from now on in my books as Elvis Presley, singer and film star.” And Strasberg who taught James Dean and Marlon Brando told friends after watching Wild in the Country that Elvis was a great talent going to waste and that he was a method actor (using his grief of his own mother’s death in the scene Glen is talking to Irene about his dead mother). It was released to DVD by Fox Home Video with a running time of 114 minutes.
The Colonel wanted six songs in the movie, but only four made it in. 20th Century Fox bigwig Spyrous Skouras saw the movie had no songs and insisted four songs be written for the movie. Elvis recorded the songs for Wild in the Country at Radio Recorders in Hollywood on November 7 and 8, 1960. None of the four songs in the movie was released as a single. The title song “Wild in the Country,” written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George Weiss, plays over the credits in the beginning of the movie and at the end. The single was on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart for five weeks peaking at #26, but it reached #4 in the UK. It was the B side to “I Feel So Bad.” I have both the original 45 and the anniversary red vinyl 45. “In My Way,” written by Ben Weisman and Fred Wise, was sung to Nory by Glen on the stairs – and Elvis accompanies himself on guitar. “I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell,” written by Ben Weisman, was sung to Betty Lee in the car by Glen who uses the radio as accompaniment. Elvis recorded two versions, a high key and a low key. “Huskey Dusky Day” is a duet by Glen and Irene in the car on the way back from the college. It was unreleased for years in the 1990s. “Lonely Man” and “Forget Me Never,” also written by Ben Weisman and Fred Wise, were recorded, but not included in the movie. A snippet of Elvis performing “Lonely Man” can be seen in the film’s original coming attractions trailer, and it is on the flip side of “Surrender.” That single went to #32 on the charts. Ben Weisman wrote more than 50 songs for Elvis.
**I consulted Elvis: The Elvis Files Vol 3, Elvis The Movies, The Films of Elvis Presley, Reel Elvis, Elvis Presley in the Movies, Elvis Films Faq, Elvis Elvis Elvis The King and His Movies, Elvis Presley The Hollywood Years, Elvis in Hollywood, Elvis Presley from Memphis to Hollywood, The Elvis Film Encyclopedia, The Elvis Movies, Elvis Presley in Hollywood Celluloid Sell-Out for more information**
To read my take on all of Elvis’ movies, please click HERE.
Wow I really like this review. So much information new to me. Its superb dare i say definitive.
Great job. I have a quetion, can you help? On the soundstage there are photos of Elvis playing a piano. Philip Dunne and Hope Lange are with him. But also two men. One wears glasses and the other looks like a rockabilly singer. Have you any information on them? Perhaps they were rehearsing the song “Husky Dusty Day”.