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Love Me Tender
Cinema Classics Collection

Love Me Tender
1956 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 89 min. / Street Date February 28, 2006 / 19.98
Starring Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley, Robert Middleton, William Campbell, Neville Brand, Mildred Dunnock, Bruce Bennett, James Drury
Cinematography Leo Tover
Technical Advisor Colonel Tom Parker
Vocal supervisor Ken Darby
Art Direction Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Hugh S. Fowler
Original Music Ken Darby, Lionel Newman
Written by Maurice Geraghty, Robert Buckner
Produced by David Weisbart
Directed by Robert D. Webb

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Elvis Presley made a lightning-quick conversion from pop phenomenon to Hollywood star in this rather depressing post- Civil War western. The 'colorful' personal manager Colonel Tom Parker was a two-sided coin for the singing superstar, making timely and immensely lucrative deals for Elvis but also insulating him so thoroughly from reality that the possibility of a real film career was next to impossible. It took four or five features for Elvis to really establish a comfortable presence on screen. Far too 'bigger than life' to play ordinary parts without disappointing his fans, Elvis eventually found himself in a succession of grotesquely distorted musicals built around a tame version of his star personality.

Love Me Tender is almost thrown together as an afterthought, starting with an off-the-shelf script. Elvis plays a secondary lead role and by any objective standard his acting is terrible. As he's on screen much less than the film's top star Richard Egan, Parker and the Fox packagers compensated by stuffing the 1865-set story with incongruous rock ballads, which Elvis croons in his standard 1955 swivel-hipped style. The movie goes straight out the window, but Presley's legions of fans got what they paid for.


The Reno Brothers Vance, Brett and Ray (Richard Egan, William Campbell and James Drury) ambush a Union payroll unaware that the war is over. They split the cash with other members of their unit, including the rough Mike Gavin (Neville Brand) and head for home. Unfortunately, Vance finds that his sweetheart Cathy (Debra Paget), thinking him dead, has married his 'baby' brother Clint (Elvis Presley). Vance tries to adjust but decides to leave to keep his unhindered love for Cathy from Clint. But before he can vamoose, Union officials come to recover the money. The Reno Family unravels when Mike Gavin shows up and tells Clint that Vance wants to take all the cash and Cathy and run away.

Elvis Presley doesn't show up for almost 30 minutes in this drawn-out bummer of a post-war tale. The Reno boys barely survive the war and end up being hounded as thieves and traitors by the victorious Yankees. We're told that the locale is someplace in the South but the landscape uses standard Fox western locations. It is easy to spot the Malibu Canyon hills that became so familiar from the movie and TV shows of M*A*S*H. North/South antagonisms never surface and the Renos don't threaten to become rebel outlaws like the Jesse James Gang; the conflict sticks strictly to the Union loot and Clint's alienated affections.

Producer David Weisbart became the pop star's friend for ten years or so after his big success with Rebel Without a Cause. He did his best to elevate Pat Boone's fortunes in the Fox film April Love. Weisbart ended up producing several of Elvis' more adventurous vehicles, including what might be his best acting showcase Flaming Star. As for Love Me Tender copycats, there's always The Legend of Tom Dooley, a strikingly similar doomed romance in the Civil War setting that also had a pop song that was a radio hit. It did little for the career of Michael Landon, a TV actor who had stepped up to features as a misunderstood monster in I Was a Teenage Werewolf.

We never got to see what Elvis would be like as a werewolf (history's loss) but Love Me Tender lets him overact terribly. He's introduced as a gee-shucks barnyard boy with a vacant look across the eyes. He morphs into a proto-Presley for his song renditions, including one at a county fair that's the hit of a mob of swooning girls at the foot of the stage -- girls wearing pioneer bonnets. Once that display is over it comes time for Elvis to be jealously angry at his faultless brother Vance, so he screws up his face into a rigid sneer, like an irate marmot. About four too many confused messages and horse rides later, Presley bites the dust as a good ole boy begging forgiveness. He's resurrected Obi-Wan style, crooning four additional ghostly bars of the title tune over the "The End" fade-out.

That title tune Love Me Tender was a reworking of the old Aura Lee song, which was at least twice as affecting when sung by Frances Farmer in Come and Get It. We're told that it's Elvis' first non-rock ballad, and if that's true Colonel Tom Parker and Fox are responsible for Elvis' first major step on the road to mediocrity. As a Rock 'n Roll "threat" Elvis had cultural significance and meaning, but he was soon tamed into a family-safe money machine. Elvis may have had no specific aim or ambition beyond fame itself, so being cookie-cuttered into an easily sold commodity did not in itself become a personal tragedy. But his example inspired at least some of the next generation of music superstars to 'just say no' to the marketers.

Elvis may be no Laurence Olivier but he's got a lot going for him as a movie star. His accent is distinct and attractive, and he looks great. He moves rather mechanically in this feature, a habit that never left him (except in his dancing scenes, which were often excellent). It's the other actors who seem cheated by being in a presence of a star who eclipses them just by existing. Richard Egan continued in so-so supporting roles but the talented Debra Paget seemed to suffer from the curse of playing opposite Presley -- her career went strictly downhill from here. Director Robert Webb doesn't seem to have been told to favor the singer, for although Presley and Paget are supposed to be married they hardly ever touch one another. She's fated to be Egan's girl and that's that. This is definitely Presley's only movie in which he isn't the original 100% foolproof babe magnet.

Good character actors are squandered around the periphery. Mildred Dunnock's Ma is on hand to constantly smile at her boy, as if Colonel Parker had decided that doing so might increase Presley's acceptability among old folk ("He's a good boy!"). William Campbell and James Drury have thankless parts as the other brothers, while Robert Middleton gets to be a basic good-guy Yankee, perhaps due to his conversion from baddie parts in the same year's Friendly Persuasion. Bruce Bennett (Sahara, The Cosmic Man) is barely glimpsed in the picture but Sam Peckinpah fans will be sure to catch the voice of lanky L.Q. Jones (The Wild Bunch).

Fox's Cinema Classics disc of Love Me Tender is a fine enhanced transfer of this dubious but historically notable picture. Childhood Elvis friend and bona fide Presley authority Jerry Schilling provides a pleasingly intelligent commentary. A stills gallery is provided as well.

A set of three interview docus are divided between celebrating Elvis and informing us more thoroughly about his career change from pop superstar, to pop superstar who made mostly forgettable movies. Musicians, superfans and pundits weigh in with testimonials to his personality and his enormous impact. A less impressive piece tries to convince us that Elvis' version of the title tune is a musical landmark. But a show on the promoter "Colonel" Parker is fascinating -- that guy is such a charlatan, his true story sounds like a bad movie plot.

The keep case for Love Me Tender also contains a little fold-out insert with a short essay by familiar commentary personality Sylvia Stoddard. It covers everything worth knowing about the film more efficiently than the other extras. An envelope for Fox's other branded-line "20th Century Fox Marquee Musicals" contains several postcard-sized stills, which it calls Lobby Cards.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Love Me Tender rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), English (Dolby Digital 1.0), Spanish (Dolby Digital 1.0)
Supplements: Commentary by Elvis Historian Jerry Schilling; Featurettes: Elvis Hits Hollywood, The King and the Colonel, Love Me Tender: The Birth and Boom of the Elvis Hit. Lobby Cards, Still Gallery
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: February 28, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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