I grew up watching my fair share of Elvis movies as a child. I remember loving the hip swinging vibe of his fun (but perhaps a bit formulaic) mid-1960s fair. Love them or hate them, they’re still iconic. However, in all that time, I’d never watched Presley’s much heralded first film, Love Me Tender. In celebration of the King’s birthday, here’s everything you need to know about the period drama.
Love Me Tender follows a southern family in the years following the Civil War. When the Reno brothers (Richard Egan, James Drury and William Campbell) return home, they struggle to not only put the war behind them, but also emerge from never-ending economic struggles and personal dramas. So much has changed on the home front, especially their little brother Clint (Presley). The once gangly teenager now looks like Elvis and is to married older brother Vance’s (Egan) girl, Cathy (Debra Paget). Will the family be able to pull themselves out of the turmoil? Robert D. Webb directs from a script by Robert Buckner.
Love Me Tender holds a special plays in cinema history thanks to it being Elvis Presley’s feature film debut. While Presley had been working his way up in the industry since the early 1950s, 1956 saw him release his first album, before making his debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, and finally releasing Love Me Tender in November. It was a heck of a year for the twenty-one year old.
As mentioned, this was a first time watch for yours truly, and it was particularly interesting venturing backwards to this film after having watched a number of Elvis’ later works. When viewed within this scope, Love Me Tender really isn’t an ‘Elvis movie’. I actually found myself feeling quite bad for the always comforting and reassuring Richard Egan. In any other world, this should have been his movie. However, this was Elvis’ world in 1956, and everyone else was just living in it.
In fact, Presley’s mere presence morphs Love Me Tender from a fairly standard period drama, to a study of 1950s popular culture. Elvis is shoehorned into the movie in a way only which is almost distracting at times. While this isn’t Elvis’ movie, the creative team is well aware that the young singer is going places and, despite a relatively small part, is definitely the draw. At times, it’s almost difficult to shift focus away from him.
Elvis sings at various points throughout the narrative, and while some numbers (like the titular Love Me Tender) don’t require stretching the imagination to place them in the post-Civil War south; others, like “Let Me” are quite literally Elvis concert numbers transplanted into the film. This isn’t an exaggeration either! The song comes complete with swinging hips and giggling teenagers. The moments certainly distract from the narrative, but are equally important to establishing, and understanding the world around the film. A number of sources recount that even teenage girls sitting in screenings were overcome with emotion when Presley was on-screen. In fact, their screams often drowned out the dialogue. So, while a moment sticks out like a sore thumb when viewed like a period piece, it’s easy to understand how the number would be added to capitalize on Presley’s meteoric popularity at this point in time.
With all this said though, it’s an interesting– and I would argue brave– choice to have Clint align with Mike Gavin (Brand) in the second and third act of the movie. Even at this relatively early point in Neville Brand’s career, the actor found himself largely pigeonholed in antagonist roles, and this remains true in Love Me Tender.
Truthfully, I was shocked to see Clint actually fall into this unlikable role with Mike and stay there. My surprise was upped exponentially during a surprisingly rough (and physical) scene between Clint and Cathy. Perhaps I underestimated Elvis’ ability (or I really struggle to trust the star-making institutions of Hollywood), but I was admittedly impressed that the suits behind-the-scenes let this arc happen, and it is the right call. This is where Presley is at his best. He’s legitimately good throughout the end of the second, and into the third act of the film.
At the same time, Presley plays his death scene well and manages to tap into the emotionality of the moment effectively. While I knew it was coming, I was amazed at how well it worked on screen (and that producer’s were brave enough to kill off the character). Granted, it does lead to the film’s final music number where a ghostly Elvis once again sings “Love Me Tender” while super-imposed over the family’s concluding scene.
The moment feels like a direct reaction to the previous violence (“Don’t worry girls! He’s okay!”), and if it wasn’t clear that this was Presley’s movie, it is now. Despite his relatively small part earlier in the picture, the audience leaves on his face rather than bringing the Vance or Cathy’s story to a close. Is it the best ending for the picture? No, but it’s shrewdly calculated, and it makes sense.
In hindsight, it’s surprising that Love Me Tender shouldn’t be an Elvis movie, but rather a Richard Egan vehicle. As I mentioned above, it is really hard to ignore Elvis’ magnetism, despite his inexperience at this point in his career. And furthermore, when watching the film through a contemporary perspective, it’s impossible to look passed what the Presley would go onto do.
As a result, Richard Egan almost fades into the background in this leading part. My biggest experience with his work is in A Summer Place and Pollyanna, where he’s at his very best as paternal figures. These were a few years after Love Me Tender, so he would have easily aged into those parts. However, this makes it difficult to evaluate how this movie would have been viewed by a 1956 audience unfamiliar with Elvis Presley.
As we enter January, Elvis Presley would have turned 86 years old. There are so, so many Elvis movies to watch. Why not start with Love Me Tender? The period drama clearly shows just why everyone was so taken with Elvis Presley. For a performer who quickly became a well-oiled (and formulaic) machine, it’s refreshing to see him so raw. Love Me Tender was a new experience for me as a classic film fan, and as a writer. While it wasn’t a perfect movie, it is a truly important one. Love Me Tender captures the beginning of a legacy, a career and really an era. This film, and really Elvis’ performance in it, changed Hollywood history as we know it.
Love Me Tender is available to watch on YouTube.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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