by Sheila O'Malley
“And introducing Elvis Presley,” read the credits for Love Me Tender, Presley’s debut as an actor. Released in 1956, it would be the only time in his movie career that he didn’t receive top billing.
Although there are only four songs in Love Me Tender, it has its place in the history of Hollywood musicals. It wasn’t a monster hit, although it made back its money in an astonishing three days. And while it was produced by the legendary Hal Wallis (who also produced films like Casablanca, Now, Voyager, and Yankee Doodle Dandy), directed by Robert Webb, and cast full of old pros like Mildred Dunnock and Richard Egan, Love Me Tender will always go down in history as the film that launched Elvis Presley into movies.
Wallis had seen one of Elvis Presley's appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and before the performance was even over, he was making calls, trying to get Presley to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Wallis remembers his first impressions of Presley in his autobiography Starmaker:
“A test was necessary to determine if Elvis could act. I selected a scene for him to do with that very fine actor Frank Faylen. Elvis would play a young man just starting out in life and Faylen would play his father, holding him back. It was a difficult dramatic scene for an amateur. But I had to be sure. When I ran the test I felt the same thrill I experienced when I first saw Errol Flynn on the screen. Elvis, in a very different, modern way, had exactly the same power, virility, and sex drive. The camera caressed him.”
The script for Love Me Tender had been bouncing around Hollywood for some time under the title The Reno Brothers. When Wallis signed Elvis to a contract, he began searching for a film that’d be appropriate for Presley’s debut, and The Reno Brothers came up. Presley was completely green as an actor, and Wallis felt, rightly, that placing Elvis in the protection of an ensemble, where he wouldn't have to carry the weight of the film, was the safest way to go.
In Love Me Tender, three of the Reno brothers have gone off to fight in the Civil War, leaving the youngest, Clint (Presley), behind to take care of the farm. After robbing a payroll train, they return home from war. Vance, the oldest brother, is surprised to discover that his sweetheart, Cathy, believing Vance was dead, has married Clint. Family conflict ensues, including the growing threat of arrest due to the robbery.
Presley was completely green as an actor, and Wallis felt, rightly, that placing Elvis in the protection of an ensemble, where he wouldn't have to carry the weight of the film, was the safest way to go.
Love Me Tender’s original script had no musical numbers in it at all, but once Wallis had decided it was the perfect debut for Elvis, they went about adding the songs, four in total, clustering them in the early sequences of the film: two songs sung at a family reunion on the porch, and two more at a local fair.
These four numbers are moments where Elvis is allowed to shine, to do his thing, albeit in a completely anachronistic context. In a documentary aboutLove Me Tender, Rolling Stone editor Steve Pond joked, “On the list of priorities when they were making [the film], musical authenticity was at the bottom of the list or not on the list at all.” The songs have a folk-hillbilly feel to them so it's at least in the realm of plausibility that Clint would sing such things in 1865. (At least he’s not singing, say, “I Got a Woman,” or “Hound Dog.”) During the reunion on the porch, Elvis sings, “We’re Gonna Move,” as his family laughs, feet tapping. He jokingly gyrates and wiggles his leg, and it's all a bit ridiculous, but it's also fun and relaxed. Then comes "Love Me Tender," featuring just Elvis and his guitar, creating a quiet, still moment that opens up the heart of the film, Vance and Cathy sadly considering what they have lost, Mother Reno (played by the great Mildred Dunnock) going off into her own troubled reveries. The song provides an interior experience, vast and emotional.
The performance of “Love Me Tender” also shows Elvis’ ease with simplicity, his ability to be in the moment. Elvis loved ballads. His first recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis, when he was still a teenager, were ballads. During the number, he tries to make Debra Paget look up at him as he sings. He leans over, trying to catch her eye, and his movement is kind, sweet, and effortlessly charming. What he accomplishes with Paget is something he was able to do even in gigantic concerts in front of thousands of people. In fact, Elvis would play this song—originally a Civil War-era ballad entitled “Aura Lee”—at every concert until the end of his life.
At the county fair, Clint performs two songs, “Let Me,” and “Poor Boy,” on a makeshift stage. The songs are opportunities to see Elvis in “performance” mode. Girls in 1865-era dresses cluster around, squealing. Full-body shots reveal Elvis in all his glory. His pompadour flaps along with his movements, and there’s a sheer joy to his performance, a pure happiness at providing happiness to others.
The hillbilly sound, with the accordion and the stamping feet, is part of the American wellspring from which he emerged, yet he laid on top of it a frank sexuality and youthful freedom that helped turn American folk into what we now call rock ’n’ roll. “Let Me,” in particular, lets him show his humor. The sexy movements are there, and the girls squeal, but Elvis always takes the edge off of them immediately, with laughter. His energy vibrates off the screen to this day.
Elvis was a mercurial man, each persona an honest reflection of who he was. His musical influences were vast: rhythm and blues, country and western, gospel quartets, and mainstream singers like Dean Martin. He mixed it all up: you can hear the rhythm and blues in his gospel songs, you can hear the gospel in some of his rock and roll songs, where he moans and proclaims like an old-time preacher. He represented a blending of genres, something people find hard to parse, even today. In the four musical numbers in Love Me Tender, Elvis is given a chance to show us at least a couple of these personae, his different ways into songs: they introduce him and contextualize him.
In 1956, Elvis was getting slammed with criticism for his sexuality and his “vulgar” movements. In “We’re Gonna Move,” he is given the opportunity to show the silliness of those criticisms. His sexuality comes off as something innocent, fun-loving, and unthreatening. (The girls in his audiences always understood this. It was the preachers and parents who flipped out.) When Elvis gyrates his left leg, moving across the porch floor, it’s startling and funny, and he knows it’s funny, and laughs to himself at his own audaciousness. He’s in on the joke. He always was.
“Love Me Tender” is the only song among these that is remembered. Later films would provide some classic Elvis songs, like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and more. There were also some dreadful clinkers, mainly in the mid to late-60s, post-British invasion, when the songwriting world and the song-publishing world changed entirely, leaving Elvis (who didn’t write songs) out in the cold. Eventually, Elvis’s movies would become soundtrack-selling vehicles, in a loop of production and profit: The movies sold the soundtracks and the soundtracks sold the movies; everyone went home happy and a little bit richer.
Of course, Love Me Tender pre-dates all of this. It exists in the strange and interesting landscape before the “Elvis Formula Picture” settled in. The “Elvis Formula Picture” was stumbled upon, as it were, with Blue Hawaii, in 1961, an enormous success. Filled with great songs, an exotic location, and Elvis being chased by a bunch of girls, Blue Hawaii would be the model on which the Formula was based. In a decade when the studios were operating out of fear and panic, the structure crumbling around them, the Elvis Formula Picture was always a sure money-maker.
Elvis' next film after Love Me Tender was Loving You, a story tailored to him specifically: a rags-to-riches tale about a young guy in a small town who becomes a successful singer. After that, in Jailhouse Rock, he’d play a wild bad-boy who learns to sing and play the guitar while incarcerated. King Creole would follow, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, telling the story of a New Orleans kid who makes it big singing in a club on Bourbon Street. All three films were stories about show business and can be seen, in retrospect, as a frank attempt to deal with Elvis Presley's persona and the mayhem he had unleashed. Love Me Tender stands apart. Elvis doesn't even show up until 20 minutes into it, and when he does, he is a small figure in the background, struggling with a plow in a field – hardly a superstar.
Playing Clint was a great role for Elvis: he got to be sweet and kind, but also scary and dangerous. As Clint transforms from sweet younger brother to murderous villain bent on revenge, Elvis moves from heartthrob to bad boy, from amateur to experienced actor. He was a sponge, soaking up what he learned on the movie set. He came prepared, knowing his lines, as well as everyone else's.
Mildred Dunnock told a famous story about a crucial moment when Clint goes to grab a gun and charge outside. Playing his mother, she cries out, "Put that gun down!" Clint ignores her and races outside. But the first time they filmed the scene, when she commanded him to put the gun down, Elvis, a polite Southern boy who always did what his mother told him to do, obeyed. While that moment is normally used as evidence of Elvis' inexperience as an actor, Dunnock had another take: "For the first time in the whole thing he had heard me, and he believed me. Before, he'd just been thinking what he was doing and how he was going to do it. I think it's a funny story. I also think it's a story about a beginner who had one of the essentials of acting, which is to believe."
Elvis betrays some stiffness in the dramatic scenes, mainly in his hands, and has a tendency to hesitate before speaking (an amateurish sign). These “tells” would vanish by Loving You. Elvis was a fast learner. In Love Me Tender, under enormous pressure from all sides, with many people hoping he would fail, he was able to be honest and open onscreen. He does not push too hard, he does not try to "act." He focuses on the other actors, not on himself. He is a part of the family: a charming beginning for a guy who only three years before had been an usher at a movie theater in Memphis, dreaming of one day being in the movies like his idol James Dean.
Watching Love Me Tender now, it’s funny to imagine the teenage girls sitting in the theatre, breathlessly, waiting for Elvis to appear. Many people who saw Love Me Tender during its first run talk about the high-pitched screams that filled the theatre at the sight of Elvis's name. Of course, Elvis isn’t the lead, so the girls would sink into a restless silence during the scenes where he wasn't involved, then erupt into screams when he re-entered the action. Withholding Elvis was a deliberate choice, heightening the anticipation. Where is he? Has he appeared yet?
Elvis’ film debut, hugely publicized, was part of allowing the phenomenon to spread even further. In one year alone, the 21-year-old kid had conquered the various billboard charts, as well as conquering radio and television. Movies were the next logical step.
1956 was Elvis' big crossover year. He’d been causing riots throughout the South during concerts as well as his explosive appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, broadcast out of Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1956, his new manager, the carnival-barker-genius Colonel Tom Parker, started pushing Elvis into the national limelight and Elvis made a series of television appearances, on The Dorsey Brothers' variety show, Milton Berle's show, Steve Allen's show, and, finally, momentously, throughout the fall of 1956 and into the winter of 1957, three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the mark of mainstream approval. America finally got a good look at him, and the results were cataclysmic. Girls screamed and cried and went bananas, and preachers teamed up with outraged op-ed columnists to descry his sexual menace from pulpits and newspapers across the land.
Elvis’ film debut, hugely publicized, was part of allowing the phenomenon to spread even further. In one year alone, the 21-year-old kid had conquered the various billboard charts, as well as conquering radio and television (in terms of number of appearances, and how much he was paid for said appearances). Movies were the next logical step. Would, somehow, the Elvis phenomenon be stopped in its tracks, or at least contained? By scandal, failure, or a lessening of interest? Many thought (hoped) Elvis was a fad, a phase, a flash-in-the-pan. What 1956 represented, start to finish, and Love Me Tender helped solidify, was that Elvis would not be going anywhere anytime soon, that the explosion of his popularity was not just a lone firecracker in the sky, but a cataclysmic event more in line with the Big Bang, energy and movement and light roaring into the vast vacuum out there in the culture, an endless push that could not be stopped. Not even a 2-year stint in the Army (starting in 1958), where he disappeared from view entirely, could stop that Big Bang.
Even without Elvis, Love Me Tender is a wonderful film, featuring strong performances from Mildred Dunnock, and especially Richard Egan, with his gloriously low and mellifluous voice. Ironically, Egan is the romantic lead of the film, something no actor playing opposite Elvis Presley would ever get to claim again. Elvis doesn't even kiss Cathy in the film! His first onscreen kiss would come in the following film, Loving You.
The critical establishment has never truly acknowledged Elvis's gifts as an actor, although his fans know the truth about how wonderful he was onscreen. He starred in 31 pictures in a little over 10 years, most of them box office hits, tied in to wildly popular soundtracks, and many of them featuring his wonderfully comedic and charming performances. He was a sui generis figure, difficult to classify, and impossible to replace. Kurt Russell, who played Elvis Presley so memorably in John Carpenter's 1981 film (and also kicked Elvis's shin in a scene in the 1963 film It Happened at the World's Fair), has said that he loves Elvis movies because Elvis is in them. That may seem like a simplistic statement, but you can count on one hand the names of actors who have the same kind of appeal.
Clint dies at the end of Love Me Tender. In initial test previews, the audiences rejected this creative decision, and the only solution the director came up with was to bring Elvis back from the dead, visually, superimposing a ghostly image of him singing "Love Me Tender" over the final moments of the film, just before the screen goes black, Elvis smiles, a big, reassuring smile, as if to say (or sing): “It's okay, folks, I'm still here.”
Sheila O'Malley writes film reviews and essays for RogerEbert.com, Capital New York, Fandor, Press Play, Noir of the Week, and The House Next Door. She has performed her one-woman show “74 Facts and One Lie” all over Manhattan, and her first play—July and Half of August—recently had public readings at Theatre Wit in Chicago, and The Vineyard Theatre in New York. She is currently working on her second play, as well as a book about Elvis Presley in Hollywood