Just over a week after recording the His Hand in Mine gospel LP, Elvis was back in the studio to record the soundtrack for his next movie, Wild in the Country. The film featured Elvis as a troubled youth who discovers that he has a talent for writing. In many respects, this is Elvis’s biggest disappointment when it comes to his film career. The film was based on a decent source novel by J R Salamanca, and the screenplay was written by the fine playwright Clifford Odets, most famous for having written the boxing drama Golden Boy. What’s more, Elvis was to star alongside Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld and John Ireland, all respected actors and actresses. But somewhere it all went wrong.
In many respects the fault lies with screenplay. What should have turned out to be a James Dean-like role for Elvis ended up as a hackneyed, over-ripe and over-long melodrama which is one of the worst things Odets ever wrote. The dialogue is at times so riddled with clichés that one could be forgiven for assuming it was intended as a parody. The director, Philip Dunne, had been nominated for two Academy Awards, but both were for writing and not for directing. He had, in fact, only directed seven films prior to Wild in the Country, and none of them particularly remarkable. He therefore didn’t have the skills to turn the film around or to get a good performance out of Elvis himself – who looks nearly as uncomfortable on screen here as he did in his debut movie four years earlier.
In other words, Wild in the Country was a mess, and was poorly received by critics. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it it a “seamy, sentimental lot of nonsense,” and even questioned whether Odets had been involved in the scriptwriting at all. Less than a week later, Crowther wrote a second column in which he highlighted Wild in the Country as an example of everything that was wrong with Hollywood films of 1961. Here, he writes that “here is a costly picture that was written by Clifford Odets and directed by the experienced and literate Philip Dunne. By all the theatrical criteria, and even with Mr Presley in the cast, it should have been, at least, an honest drama, if not a particularly brilliant one.” Instead, he refers to it as a “hackneyed fabrication.” It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment. It appears that Crowther was also correct in questioning the contribution of Clifford Odets. Peter Guralnick states the writer was fired just before filming began, leaving Dunne to finish/edit the script and direct the movie.
Luckily, the songs recorded for the soundtrack were considerably better than the film they appeared in (or were cut from). All but one of the five songs were ballads. I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell was the sole rocker which, rather bizarrely, found its way on to Elvis’s next studio album of non-soundtrack songs, Something for Everybody. To be fair, it’s no better or worse than the rocking side of that album, but it does seem slightly under-cooked. While there are elements of novelty within the lyrical content as it continually plays on the title, it did deserve a somewhat edgier performance from Elvis than it actually gets. Perhaps it was just difficult for the singer to switch styles after spending six hours the previous evening taping some of the most understated singing of his career.
Lonely Man is a lovely ballad with a slight western feel that was created in part by the addition of Jimmie Haskell on accordion. As was becoming more and more common, Elvis utilised his higher register for much of the song, singing softly throughout. Although this “full” version of the song is pleasant enough, many believe that the so-called “solo” version, released three decades later, is better. Here Elvis is accompanied just by acoustic guitar, thus giving a more intimate feel, and allowing Elvis to tell the story of the lyrics more convincingly.
Similar in style to the solo version of Lonely Man were two other ballads, In My Way and Forget Me Never. The latter may well have been based on the folk song Lorena, which had been recorded by Johnny Cash just a year before. The similarities may, of course, have been coincidental, but this seems unlikely. No matter what the origin, the melody, together with the sparse accompaniment of just a single guitar, somehow is reminiscent of the sound created by an eighteen year old Elvis at Sun Studios recording his first demos in the summer of 1953. In My Way is even more restrained, and almost has a stark quality – not least due to the lyrics which can be read as either being about the likely end of an affair or, more pessimistically, the impending death of the singer. There are just two short verses, sung simply by Elvis (there are no signs of mannerisms or theatrics here), and it’s all over within eighty seconds.
These two songs might seem unimportant when it comes to the Elvis legacy, but in many ways they reflect what Elvis sounded like on the private tapes that have emerged since his death. The difference here is that they are obviously recorded in studio quality. It’s refreshing to hear Elvis sing a quiet, reflective ballad without any paraphernalia, other instruments or backing vocals – and even without a desire to create something even remotely commercial. Other than the private recordings, the only time we get to hear Elvis in this setting is with these recordings and those made over a decade later in what have become known as the “piano songs” recorded in May 1971.
The title song of the film gets the same treatment as the original full band version of Lonely Man. It’s a pity in many ways, as it would probably have worked better in a solo arrangement. For once, The Jordanaires seem intrusive and get in the way of Elvis’s delicate vocal. The song was released as a B-side in the USA, but as a double A-side in the UK, getting more exposure than the flip, I Feel So Bad.
These sessions were the last in what had been a busy year for Elvis. He had returned from the army, recorded the Elvis is Back and His Hand in Mine LPs (both of which were artistic triumphs), and starred in three films, all of which were quite different to each other in nature. The following year would be the start of the long artistic decline that Elvis would eventually only dig himself out of with the taping of the 1968 TV special.