Love Me Tender (1956)
by John J. Puccio
[IMGl]http://www.tcb-world.com/images/reviews/lovemetender_01.jpg[/IMGl]To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Elvis's death, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment released several of the King's early films on DVD, including "Flaming Star" (1960), "Wild in the Country" (1961), and the subject of our discussion today, "Love Me Tender" (1956).
Reviewing and rating "Love Me Tender" is a bit awkward because there are really two films to consider. On the one hand it's an ordinary movie-type film telling a rather ordinary story, and then on the other hand it's the first starring vehicle for one of the most popular entertainers in the history of the world. My entertainment rating below is for the film purely as a film, regardless of who's in it or what its historical value may be, in which case, as I say, it's fairly unexceptional stuff. Judged as Elvis's first motion picture, of course, it's priceless.
Appropriate to rock-and-roll's roots in country music, folk, blues, and gospel, and given Elvis's pivotal position in this emerging musical scene as well as his Southern background, "Love Me Tender" is set in Texas just after the close of the American Civil War. It's basically a Western that gives Elvis room to be himself, exude plenty of laid-back, youthful charm, and sing a few staple tunes.
Having missed the film when it initially appeared in theaters, I first saw it in college about a dozen years later. I thought at the time it was juvenile and corny, and I hadn't seen it since. I was a little surprised to find that I liked it better now than I did back then. This is not to say that it's a very good picture--it remains corny and trite--but Elvis's portrayal of a young grieved husband strikes me as less forced and less artificial than it seemed to me earlier.
Richard Egan and Debra Paget get top billing in the film. Egan was a strong, handsome, heroic type who had been in things like "Demetrius and the Gladiators" and "Khyber Patrol," while Paget was just coming off "The Ten Commandments." Elvis was almost an afterthought, getting third billing in the credits as "Introducing Elvis Presley." Ask people today about "Love Me Tender" and ten-to-one they'll tell you it's an Elvis picture. Egan and Paget are lucky even to have their names remembered now, let alone be thought of for this film. Such is the fickleness of time and fortune.
The setting for the story is April, 1865, the end of the Civil War, and two weeks thereafter. Vance Reno (Egan) and his two brothers return home from the War to the old family homestead in Texas, Vance eager to marry his sweetheart, Cathy (Paget), whom he hasn't seen in years. Trouble is, the family got word that Vance had been killed in action, and Vance's younger brother, Clint (Presley), too young to have gone off to fight, stayed on the farm and married Vance's girl. When Vance returns and discovers the situation, he takes it like a gentleman; but it isn't long before friction develops in this triangle, especially when it becomes clear that Cathy still loves Vance. Further complications arise from the theft of a federal payroll by Vance's company on the last day of the War and the government wanting it back.
There's a nice gritty look to the scenery in the film.
The black-and-white photography is particularly striking, and the dusty outdoor shots and the homey indoor touches effectively recreate the time and the place. The movie also has the distinction of being sincere, if not very good. What's more, the last half hour generates a suitable amount of typically old-fashioned Western suspense as jealousy, greed, anger, and pent-up frustrations combine to raise the tension level. I specifically liked Neville Brand, a staple fifties villain, as Mike, a member of Vance's old company, for his increasingly grasping attitude.
But this is really an Elvis film, and the other characters and the plot should be considered merely peripheral. Here, I have to admit that Elvis's songs, like the person he plays, appear tagged on to take advantage of the young singer's rising popularity. In addition to the title song, Elvis gets to sing "Let Me," "We're Going to Move," and "Poor Boy." All these tunes seem to come out of nowhere, and Elvis's famous gyrations are conspicuously out of place in a mid nineteenth-century setting. Indeed, one of his songs is even sung at a town celebration attended by a bevy of teenage girls who "ooh" and "ahh" and carry on at Elvis's performance like a pack of groupies at a Dick Clark Dance Party.
Otherwise, as the poor bewildered, well-meaning Clint, Elvis for the first half of the movie doesn't get much to say but "What's wrong?" and "What's the matter?" It's only in the second half of the film that he comes into his own. Still, he plays his part with conviction, and his celebrated partial-pout, partial-smile, partial sneer is always well on display.
All in all, Elvis made an auspicious debut in "Love Me Tender." He proved he could act if given a chance and that he could entertain movie viewers with a song as well he could ignite a live audience. His young fans in 1956 were suitably impressed, despite his not having much to do in a mediocre film. Let's just say that in the long run of things, his performance transcends the material.
? 2002 John J. Puccio