Last year, to celebrate my birthday, I posted a review of a film featuring an actor who also shares my birthday. The actor was the beautiful and very talented Nanda; the film was one of the best Hindi suspense films I’ve ever seen: Ittefaq.
Well, it’s my birthday again, and since I’m such a fan of tradition, I decided to stick with the precedent. So here’s another film featuring someone who had their birthday on January 8: Elvis Presley.
To begin with, I must confess I didn’t have great expectations from this film. Though I love Elvis as a singer—what a voice!—whatever clips I’ve seen of films he acted in have struck me as mindless fluff. And that too the sort of mindless fluff I wouldn’t want to see. To cut a long story short, I approached Wild in the Country with trepidation.
It begins, too, not very promisingly. Glenn Tyler (Elvis) is being bullied by his elder brother Hank (Red West) while their father looks on. Hank’s merciless taunting finally drives Glenn to hit him really hard, after which Glenn runs off.
My heart sinks at this point. So now the poor downtrodden country boy will go off to Las Vegas or somewhere equally big and become a pop star. Yeah.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon whether you look at it as a dispassionate viewer or from Glenn’s point of view), this doesn’t happen. Instead, Glenn gets hauled up before a parole board and a hearing is held to sort out Glenn’s future.
From the questions, the answers and the remarks that follow, it emerges that Glenn is regarded—by Hank and their father, and by a number of other townspeople—as a wild kid, irresponsible and violent and the type nobody would want to have anything to do with.
Not that Glenn is without friends. A priest remembers how Glenn, as a child, used to come every Sunday to church with his mother. Glenn’s mother died when he was nine, but Glenn can still quote verbatim from the Bible. [I’m not sure that is a sign of being good. Robert Mitchum’s character could quote like wow! in The Night of the Stranger, but was pure evil.]
Glenn has also made an impression on the psychologist Mrs Irene Sperry (Hope Lange), who’s part of the council and finds herself intrigued by this young man who seems to have hidden depths.
The long and the short of it is that the council decides to hand over Glenn, on parole, to Mr Rolfe Braxton (William Mims), a cousin of Glenn’s mother’s. Rolfe Braxton brews his own quack ‘tonics’ (consisting in part of alcohol and/or tobacco juice), and he employs Glenn—at a weekly wage of $12.50—to do all the donkey work.
Uncle Rolfe gives Glenn a grubby little room to stay in next to the one-room ‘factory’. Glenn will have his meals upstairs with Uncle Rolfe and his daughter Noreen (Tuesday Weld), an unwed mother whom Rolfe has unsuccessfully tried to pass off as ‘waiting for her husband to return from a long trip’.
Noreen is a complex character, sad and terribly lonely. But she is, all said and done, still a teenager—and with the desires and dreams (not to mention cynicism) of an adolescent. She realises that Mr Braxton’s invitation to Glenn to use the shower in their home is a clumsy attempt to throw her and Glenn together. She throws it in her father’s teeth, too, and he’s equally matter of fact about it. Yes, if Noreen did get married to Glenn, all decent and proper, it would be fine by him.
And Noreen wouldn’t mind at all. One evening, when Mr Braxton’s late coming home, Noreen tells Glenn the truth: she wants him, and badly. Has wanted him, in fact, since she was twelve years old. And she knows they have a lot in common. Like Glenn, she too is lonely; like him, she too is wild; and like him, all that she wants is a good time.
As a last-ditch effort to attract Glenn, Noreen throws out the ultimate lure: filthy lucre. She knows where her father’s stashed away all his ill-gotten gains. They can grab it and run, and no-one will ever know.
But Glenn isn’t really in love with Noreen, or likely to be, though he sympathises with her and even shares in an evening of lust and drunkenness. No, Glenn’s ‘true love’ is the pretty, brought-up-right Betty Lee (Millie Perkins), a sensible, practical girl who tries to calm Glenn down and make him see sense when he’s on his high horse and eager to get back at the world for all the injustices it’s heaped on him. Her job isn’t made any easier by the fact that her father is one of the Glenn-hating lot.
All this while, there’s another lady who’s been making demands on Glenn’s time. Mrs Irene Sperry, the charming and poised widow who had been part of Glenn’s parole board, has been asked to examine Glenn further. Her initial questioning of Glenn puts his back up and he turns belligerent, but Irene gradually succeeds in winning his trust. The underlying reasons for Glenn’s supposed anti-establishmentarianism begin to emerge: his hatred for his father and brother, stemming from their ill-treatment of Glenn’s mother, a woman who wore herself to the bone for her husband and elder son, both of whom couldn’t be bothered.
Another, this time unexpected, truth emerges: that Glenn, despite barely having gone to school, has a flair for writing. When he mentions that he keeps a diary, Irene urges him to write down his memories of his childhood, and especially of his mother. The resultant story is so well written that Irene tries to persuade Glenn to clean it up so she can present it to a professor she knows of. Glenn may be able to get a scholarship to go to college, just the way his mother wanted.
Glenn turns down the idea immediately; he thinks it just can’t happen.
But, a few days later at a charity bazaar and dance, Glenn’s life takes another turn. While he’s dancing with Noreen, Uncle Rolfe—in a voice loud enough to be heard by all and sundry—tells Glenn he knows what’s been going on between Glenn and Noreen. Now Noreen’s ‘husband’ has ‘died’ (what a vivid imagination Uncle Rolfe has!), and Glenn has to do the right thing by Noreen. In other words, marry her. A little pushing and shoving happens, and Glenn throws Uncle Rolfe to the ground, leaving him spluttering and swearing revenge.
Glenn goes to Betty Lee to ask for help, and though she does give him some money, she sadly admits that he’s too wild and unsettled for her—“like a porcupine that won’t be held.” And Noreen, though she tries to leave with him, soon realises that she won’t go far with Glenn. He finally drops her and her baby off along the way so that they can go back home.
Glenn himself has realised that Irene Sperry probably had a good idea—so he goes back to her with the reworked story, and she drives him over to the college to meet the professor. The man is very impressed with Glenn’s writing and promises to work out a scholarship for him.
On their way back from the college, Glenn and Irene are very upbeat, singing happily (him) and off-key (her) until the rain comes pouring down. Irene’s car’s tyres are worn so badly they begin skidding on the wet road, and Glenn and Irene agree to halt at a motel until the rain’s stopped.
They hire two rooms. Later that night, Irene comes to Glenn’s room to borrow a book (which he’s borrowed from the motel owner). With the rain beating against the windows, Glenn finally admits to Irene what she’s feared for a while now: he’s fallen in love with her. Irene tries, albeit weakly, to tell him that this is a common feeling in situations such as this; it’s simply a case of transference.
What Glenn doesn’t know is that there’s another man in Irene’s life. The successful and unhappily married lawyer Phillip Macy (John Ireland) has long been in love with Irene and has been promising her that he’ll divorce his wife as soon as Irene promises to marry him. And Macy’s son Cliff (Gary Lockwood) is Glenn’s nemesis, a nasty young man who’d once wrongly accused Glenn of having stolen a car, and who has, ever since, been trying to pick on Glenn.
Even though it has a couple of songs—mostly the off-the-cuff type that don’t look or sound contrived—Wild in the Country is emphatically not an Elvis musical. It’s a melodrama, of wildness, aspirations, dysfunctional families, self-realisation, and more. Not the most memorable film I’ve ever seen (not by a long shot!), but entertaining enough. Especially if you’re a fan of the King.
What I liked about this film:
Elvis. I know his acting doesn’t come even close to that of some of the greats, but he’s not bad here. The withdrawn sullenness and the belligerence; the sudden gleam of hope as he sees a new career opening up from a heartfelt passion; the sweetness of a young man in love: all are well enacted. I wish Elvis had done more roles like this.
The music. How could one not like the music from an Elvis film? My favourite is the title song, by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George Weiss. Elvis sounds gorgeous.
Lastly: one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen. No words, but loads of emotion. Fabulous!
What I didn’t like:
The screenplay. The story in itself is interesting—wild young man from a dysfunctional family finds himself faced with different choices, in careers and women. It could’ve been profound, insightful and memorable (like the Robert Mitchum-Eleanor Parker-George Peppard starrer Home from the Hill). Unfortunately, Wild in the Country fails even to live up to its title. We keep hearing—from one character after another—that Glenn Tyler is wild, but really, how wild? A night out of drinking and carousing with Noreen? A fight with a brother who’s always haranguing him? A false accusation of car theft? The rest of the time, Glenn is a hard-working and conscientious young man (I’m not saying this; a man he works for says it). He’s sensitive, sweet, romantic. Wild? On what basis?