There really are two great misfortunes in life: getting what you want and not getting what you want – and arguably both Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker found what they were looking for in Robert D. Webb’s Love Me Tender (1956); the property that catapulted a young rocker into the stratosphere of an enduring and very lucrative movie career. In retrospect however, there is a point in Love Me Tender when one suddenly realizes it will never be a great movie. For better or worse, what Love Me Tender remains is an Elvis movie, despite the fact that Presley receives third billing under co-stars Richard Egan and Debra Paget.
On the whole, Love Me Tender isn’t as bad as all that, perhaps because its predigested travelogue with music formula that would come to dominate Elvis’ movie career is still in its infancy herein; the project originally written by Robert Buckner as ‘The Reno Brothers’ – a straight-forward stock B-grade western suddenly elevated to A-list stature by the prospect of having the biggest name in rock n’ roll sweep in with his guitar to tower over the material.
Presley’s wanderlust to be a movie star had led his agent, Colonel Parker into finagling a lucrative contract with producer Hal B. Wallis over at Paramount. The only problem was that Wallis didn’t really know what to do with his new acquisition; and make no mistake – Elvis was a commodity, to be exploited, pre-sold and merchandised with his name and likeness on everything from cloth pendants and T-shirts, to coffee mugs and women’s panties; and no, I’m not kidding. Parker’s initial licensing agreement included all the aforementioned plus seventy-five other products flooding the marketplace. In 1956 alone, the dollar amount from this sell-thru venture tipped the scales at a whopping $22 million; an obscene and unheard of sum back then and still undeniably impressive today.
Elvis’ launch into movie-land Babylon with Love Me Tender came at a considerable expense for Presley, who had once desired to rise like cream to the top of that profession as his heroes Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando and James Dean had. Ultimately, he was to see his own reputation as a movie star built upon disposable travelogue pop-u-tainment. There’s no getting around it. Elvis’ movie career, though lucrative for both Elvis and the Colonel, was in retrospect a forgettable claptrap that predates today’s music videos; the most threadbare of plots sandwiched in between a cacophony of chart-topping singles. The package had its popularity and its appeal. Yet in retrospect it also has dated Presley’s work on the screen – badly – ever since.
Elvis, who had once worked as an usher in a movie house with daydreams of transcending to the other side of that silver screen (he even dyed his hair jet black to emulate Tony Curtis’ naturally dark mane) was to find himself on the back lot at 20th Century-Fox on loan out from Paramount – traded like a prize bull for his big screen debut. In choosing ‘The Reno Brothers’ as the project for Elvis to emerge from under his bad boy image as the country’s premiere rock n’ roller, the powers that be at Fox made a very smart financial decision. Westerns always made money. Regrettably, both their surefootedness and their resolve was on shakier ground when reworking Buckner’s story into a minor musical. Elvis, who had signed the deal in good faith believing he would have the opportunity to show off his acting chops, was instead informed by the Colonel that four songs had been added to the project.
Tom Parker is a fascinating and fabled character in the music industry, one bordering on self-parody and caricature. For starters, he wasn’t a colonel at all; but appointed one through a spurious connection to Louisiana governor Jimmy Davis. There is little to deny that without the colonel’s influence Elvis Presley would not have achieved such an intoxicating level of market saturation so early on in his career – if, at all. Under Parker’s direction Elvis was everywhere; a teen heart throb force fed to the public in such a way as to thoroughly hook the audience without making them feel so obviously taken for a ride. Parker was also not from the south, but an illegal alien from the Netherlands, born Andreas Van Kuijk. With little schooling, he entered America in 1929 under a cloud of suspicion that he had been involved - either directly or indirectly - in the murder of a young woman in his native land. During his stint in the U.S. army Parker suffered a complete nervous breakdown and although he was honorably discharged, military records basically labeled him a psychopath before releasing him into the general population.
On his own, Parker effortlessly migrated from carnie hustler to music agent, managing acts that would become big headliners under his wheeling and dealing. Undeniably, Elvis Presley was his biggest and most lucrative client. And yet Parker did not particularly care for either Elvis or rock n’ roll at the time he approached Vernon Presley with an offer to manage his son. What attracted Parker to Elvis was the magnetic way the young singer commanded his audience. Bottling that magnetism and selling it for pure profit was Parker’s only genuine interest in Elvis, and as the years wore on it became an insidious game of cat and mouse to keep Presley under his thumb.
Whenever Elvis threatened to dump the colonel, Parker would simply fall back on a pair of casual threats: first, that he could demolish Presley’s career as easily as flicking cinder off his own trademark cigar, and second, that he would present Elvis with a bill for monies owed him under their current ironclad – and slave-wage contract. It might not have stuck in a court of law, but it was enough to convince Elvis to leave well enough alone rather than make any genuine attempts to move on.
In retrospect, Love Me Tender is really the end for Elvis Presley as an individual and the beginning of Elvis, the trademark, swiveling hips and all. This iconography clashed with Elvis’ simple country boy at heart; a reputation he would increasingly find it difficult to live up to. It is unlikely that Elvis had been on a sound stage before Love Me Tender; unlikelier still that he had ever had an acting lesson. The experience of driving through those hallowed gates at 20th Century-Fox where so many great stars had passed before him must have been daunting. Although he desperately wanted fame as a movie star, Elvis could not help but recognize that he lacked the experience of his contemporaries. Yet, herein Colonel Parker’s intuitiveness arguably saved the say. For Elvis does not star in, nor does he carry the weight of Love Me Tender’s plot, thus easing the newcomer into the workman-like atmosphere of the studio system.
The five a.m. roll call was at odds with Presley’s usual schedule of late night honkytonks and evening concert venues. But it didn’t matter. Elvis was in the movies. He lapped up the atmosphere and became dumbstruck with an acute case of puppy love for co-star Debra Paget who found Elvis sweet but repeatedly turned him down. Paget, whose career had been built upon playing B-grade love interests, was then being squired by billionaire Howard Hughes. Given the choice between Hughes and Elvis, Paget arguably made a wiser choice.
Elvis spirit was somewhat dampened when he learned that his first dramatic role had been altered to contain four musical numbers. Although he made a vain attempt to debate the point, Elvis quietly fell in line. Many today have forgotten that the song Love Me Tender is an absolute cheat on Aura Lee; an old civil war ballad with rewritten lyrics by Ken Darby – then a rising musical arranger on the Fox back lot. The colonel’s contract with Fox stipulated that Elvis also received publishing credit for his music. Thus, Love Me Tender is credited as ‘lyrics by Elvis Presley and Vera Matson’ (Ken Darby’s wife); despite the fact that neither had anything to do with the song’s creation.
As for the plot of the film, Elvis is cast as Clint Reno, the youngest of four brothers who has stayed behind to take care of the farm and his mother, Martha (Mildred Dunnock) while his three siblings, Vance (Richard Egan), Brett (William Campbell) and Ray (James Drury) are off fighting as Confederates in the Civil War. On the farm is Cathy (Debra Paget) who, prior to the war, was engaged to Vance but has since married Clint after the family has been mistakenly informed of Vance’s death.
The year is 1865 and Vance and his brothers are unaware of General Lee’s surrender when they abscond with a U.S. treasury of nearly $12,000 that they believe is going to aid the Union soldiers in their fight against the Confederates. In the film’s rather lengthy prologue the brothers escape with this loot after holding up a railway station. Of course, this in peace time makes them no better than fugitives from justice. But Vance and his entourage do not yet know that the war is over and even when they do find out, elect to keep the money they’ve stolen for themselves. After learning the truth however, Vance’s conscience gnaws away at him and he makes a failed attempt to return the money despite strenuous objections from his fellow Confederates.
So far so good – except that nearly twenty minutes into the story we still haven’t seen Elvis’ Clint Reno – the character whose giant-sized likeness is hovering over the marquee of New York’s Paramount Theater and being used to market the hit single and movie posters art all over town. Our first glimpse of Clint is inauspicious to say the least. He is seen pushing a plow on the farm, his reunion with Vance and the rest of his brothers rather heartfelt and heart-warming. It takes another eight minutes before we hear Elvis break into the title song; performed rather statically in a stage-like proscenium. Given that the song is meant as a love ballad, and more directly aimed at Debra Paget’s Cathy, it is curious to observe that much of it is performed in long shot, Elvis dead center on a front porch and viewed full body, staring off into some distant horizon as the rest of his family stand around spellbound.
By this point in the narrative Vance has learned that Clint and Cathy are husband and wife. Since the marriage was conceived out of misguided information Vance bears no grudge against his brother or ill will towards Cathy, telling Clint “We always wanted Cathy in the family.” However, Clint begins to suspect a renewal of Cathy’s affections for Vance. In point of fact, she never really stopped loving his brother, although she harbors genuine affections for Clint as well. But this growing animosity, coupled with Clint’s realization that his brothers have stolen the treasury – but kept it a secret and even lied to him about it – sets up a powerful conflict; one that is tragically resolved when Clint is killed by his own brother during a gunfight. Forgiving one another before Clint dies in Cathy’s arms, Love Me Tender was to have ended on a decidedly dower note; a shot of teary-eyed Martha ringing the dinner bell and Cathy beginning to set the table.
However, at a sneak preview the audience absolutely detested this finale. Hurriedly, Fox reassembled cast and crew for a new ending; the Reno family seen walking away from Clint’s tombstone back to their farm with a ghost-like Elvis reappearing to reprise the title song; Elvis’ confirmation for the audience that when it came to movies he would most definitely be back. Viewed today, Love Me Tender has its moments. Knowing what we know about Elvis the film plays very much like a sad epitaph to what eventually became of his movie career. The remaining songs featured within are interpolated at the most inopportune moments; jarring inclusions with a decidedly 1950s slant. Neither the beat, nor the lyrics, nor even Elvis’ penchant for swiveling those iconic hips is subdued by the actual period of the piece.
There’s a real disconnect between these musical sequences, so arbitrarily assigned to take advantage of Elvis – the performer – and the rest of the movie that it becomes rather impossible to simply embrace the movie in totem and at face value. Clearly, marketability rather than authenticity was the primary goal. To have the biggest name in music appear in a film where he did not sing would have arguably submarined both the movie and Elvis career in movies. Or would it?
Elvis is rather impressive in the dramatic bits; his segue from fresh-faced bridegroom to embittered and avenging desperado never anything less than convincing. Without the songs, Love Me Tender actually plays like a very solid B-grade western with good parts for Richard Egan and Debra Paget besides. Buckner’s screenplay won’t win any awards for originality, but it is fairly solid, well plotted and evenly paced. Ditto for Robert Webb’s direction. The pity of it all is that with the songs factored in Love Me Tender becomes a fractured and foppish tale; its artistic disconnect too great a chasm for even Elvis to straddle. Evidently, Elvis fans really didn’t cared because Love Me Tender ranked #23 in the year’s overall top grossing films of 1956 – more than respectable business.
In fact, the film earned back its $1 million outlay in the first three days of its general release, and this at a time when movie tickets went for a mere fifty cents! The film also gave Elvis cache with the older generation; those who had first shunned him as a rebel contributing to the delinquencies of their impressionable youth who had succumbed to Elvis fever. Indeed, after Love Me Tender’s triumph the floodgates of fame were to burst wide open for Elvis Presley. He made the rounds on TV, appearing on popular anthology shows and was wholeheartedly embraced by Ed Sullivan – then considered the cultural mandarin of popular tastes. If Ed said it was good, it was gold.
As far as Colonel Parker was concerned the die had been cast. In the years to follow Parker would finagle some of the biggest movie and music contracts in history for Elvis Presley; all the while pulling the strings like a wily puppet master and pocketing 50% of the proceeds for his involvement in shaping and exploiting Elvis’ popularity. Today we readily think of such exploitation as merely part of the business. But in its day Parker not only inaugurated the concept but remained its trendsetter for years to come.
Perhaps the army doctors who had identified Parker’s psychopathic state were not so very far off. In later years, when it became quite obvious that Elvis’ addiction to prescription medications and alcohol was leading to the inevitable conclusion, Tom Parker penned an insidious contract in which he reaped 80% of all profits derived from all things Elvis upon the icon’s death. Viewed today, Love Me Tender is more of a cultural artifact from that bygone era than it is a certified movie classic. It very much panders to the pop zeitgeist that was Elvis Presley in the same way that The Beatles later movie career did; making film stars out of musicians and irreversibly blurring the line between thespian art and travelogue music video tripe. Is Love Me Tender a good movie? I think we’ve covered that. Is it a fun movie? Undeniably, yes.
Fox Home Video has done an exemplary job remastering Elvis’ debut for Blu-ray. The anamorphic B&W Cinemascope elements are pristine, with rich velvety blacks, crisp whites, and gorgeous tonality in the gray scale. Film grain is very natural. Contrast is superb. Age related artifacts are a nonissue. Wow! It doesn’t get any better than this. Kudos to Schawn Belston and his team for another winner in a year when Fox has been utterly proactive at releasing a goodly number of their fine catalogue titles to hi-def.
The audio has been remixed to DTS 5.1, replicating the opening night splendor of vintage four track directionalized Cinemascope stereo. Extras are capped off but four featurettes produced between 2006 and 2008, an audio commentary that is very informative and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: if you love Elvis and/or this movie or both, then Love Me Tender on Blu-ray belongs on your wish list immediately. It is the perfect hi-def movie-going experience.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)