King Movies: Love Me Tender

Love Me Tender (1956)

Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley, Mildred Dunnock, William Campbell, James Drury, Neville Brand, L.Q. Jones, Robert Middleton, Bruce Bennett, Barry Coe and Dick Sargent.

Director Robert D. Webb

20th Century-Fox (89 mins)

All images © 20th Century-Fox

Vance Reno (Egan) and his brothers, Ray (Drury) and Brett (Campbell) are Confederate soldiers from Texas. The Renos and their fellow soldiers rob a Union paymaster, oblivious to the fact that the Civil War ended the day before. When they find out hostilities are over, the Renos divide up the “spoils of war” with the rest of their unit; after all, there is no longer a Confederate government to take the money to. The three brothers eagerly head home. Vance in particular is excited to return to his intended bride, Cathy (Paget).

Three Reno brothers return home. L-R: Brett (Campbell), Vance (Egan) and Ray (Drury).

Before the Reno boys get back to the family homestead, they find out that everyone assumes Vance has been killed in action. When they arrive home, Mrs. Reno (Dunnock) is speechless. The youngest Reno boy, Clint (Presley) – too young to have gone to war – is really speechless as he has married Cathy. After learning of Vance’s supposed death, Clint and Cathy were wed despite Cathy telling him that she had been in love with Vance and that they had planned to marry. Vance and Cathy are still very much in love and the situation is unbearable for all. Vance decides to go away.

The delicate moment when Vance is told that Cathy (Paget) and Clint are married is handled well.

Before he can leave, the authorities arrive and demand that the Renos and their confederates return the stolen money. The Renos want to return it and make a clean breast and so they give themselves up and willingly board the train that will take them to straighten things out. Thinking they are doing them a favour, the remnants of the Reno’s unit from the war hold up the train and bust the brothers out. Vance wants to put things straight and forces all his buddies to forfeit their loot and return it to the Union Army. The gang is none too pleased with this and use the fact that Vance has always loved Cathy to get Clint on their side. As Vance and Cathy strive to make things right, hot-headed Clint becomes enraged and puts himself between his brother and reconciliation. The results will change the lives of everyone in the Reno family.

In Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley made his entrance into Hollywood films and it is the only time he was not billed first. He is in a dominant supporting role and while his over-eager naïveté shows, it is a strong performance, filled with promise. It is perhaps unfortunate that he made his debut in a western as the 19th century setting does not lend itself well to rock & roll; subsequently, the musical numbers that were added to this script when King signed on are quaint, hillbilly-type songs. His professionalism was apparent at the outset and there is nothing here to indicate that he couldn’t have taken on any type of role going forward.

Elvis hams it up on the set with Colonel.

This film’s producer, David Weisbart, deserves props here in Elvis World. The opposite of Hal Wallis, Weisbart seemed determined to feature Presley in serious dramas and comedies of quality. Elvis – who greatly admired James Dean – must have liked working with the man who produced Rebel Without a Cause and – after his return from the Army – Weisbart and Presley would team for the excellent western Flaming Star (1960), one of his best comedies, Follow That Dream (1962) and the visually pleasing drama Kid Galahad (1962). Weisbart was making Valley of the Dolls (1967) when he collapsed and died of heart failure while playing golf with that film’s Canadian director, Mark Robson.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t really detract from Love Me Tender, here we see the first example of a trend in King Movies; the movie’s director did not have a prolific career as a director of feature films. Robert D. Webb was a lifelong 2nd Unit Director, having started his career in this capacity and later returning to it. In fact, Webb won the last Oscar ever given for Best Assistant Director in 1937. Then in 1953, he directed a favourite of mine, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. After our film, having not made his mark as a director, he returned to Assistant duties, helming the 3rd Unit on Cleopatra (1963) and the 2nd on Frank‘s Assault on a Queen (1966).

Egan and Presley discuss a scene with director Webb. © Apache Elvis.

I must mention that the original script for this film – to have been called the much more sensible The Reno Brothers – was based on a story by writer-producer Maurice Geraghty. I owe a certain debt to Maurice for producing most of Tom Conway’s turns as The Falcon, films that are near and dear to my heart. Love Me Tender is the last film on which Geraghty’s name appears.

Big, strapping Richard Egan was a fine specimen of a man. Possessed of a brick outhouse physique and cornfed good looks, Egan was born in San Francisco and had a brother who was a priest. After serving in the U.S. Army as a judo and knife fighting instructor, he went to Hollywood and began a career in film. For years he lent a virile presence to various action and adventure films while managing to stay under the radar and real stardom eluded him. He was 35 years old when he was top-billed in Love Me Tender. He would go on to appear notably in 1959’s A Summer Place before turning to television. Egan was a well-respected member of the Hollywood community, known for helping young actors break into the business. On February 23, 1972, Egan began the standing ovation at the close of Elvis’ performance at the Las Vegas Hilton. He and his wife of almost thirty years had five children. Egan died of prostate cancer in 1987, aged 65. A class act.

Elvis co-starred with many attractive actresses throughout his 31 dramatic films but none was more beautiful than Debra Paget was in this film. Born Debralee Griffin in Denver, Deb had turned 23 years old four days before filming on Love Me Tender began; Elvis was 21-and-a-half. Paget had debuted in the excellent film noir Cry of the City, starring Victor Mature and Richard Conte. Though she had been just fourteen years old, Debra played Conte’s girlfriend, Teena. Then in 1950, she would portray an Indian girl in Broken Arrow, a film that featured her as the love interest of another geezer, Jimmy Stewart; Deb was not yet 16 and Jimmy had just turned 42. That same year she played opposite Jeffrey Hunter in another excellent noir film, Fourteen Hours. Throw in big budget period pieces Demetrius and the Gladiators (1950) and The Ten Commandments (1956) and Debra Paget was a veteran by the time she made our film.

Afterwards, Deb appeared in the West German-French-Italian adventure film The Indian Tomb (aka Journey to the Lost City and Das Indische Grabmal; 1959). I have researched this film and my mind is still reeling. Suffice it to say that it was directed by Fritz Lang and features Debra performing an extraordinarily erotic dance. For every last tidbit of information regarding this film, click here for an article. One other thing about The Indian Tomb is that it was distributed by my beloved American-International Films. Both of these things – European filmmaking and AIP – describe the final films of Debra Paget. She wrapped her Hollywood career working for Roger Corman in Tales of Terror (1962) – in which, at 29, she may never have looked better – and The Haunted Palace (1963).

Lunch on the set.

Debra had been married to singer David Street and film director Budd Boetticher – put together, these unions lasted about 100 days. During filming, Elvis spent time with Debra at her home with her mother and he would constantly ask Debra out on dates. She persistently rebuffed him, due in part to a relationship she was engaged in at the time with Howard Hughes. Many have said that Elvis wanted to marry Debra and many others couldn’t help but notice how much Priscilla – when she came on the scene much later – resembled Paget. Deb retired from Hollywood in 1965 when she married Ling C. Kung, a Chinese-American oil industry executive and a descendant of Confucius. They had one child. As of this writing, Debra Paget – a born-again Christian – lives in comfortable retirement.

Bruce Bennett and Robert Middleton. Familiar faces.

Mildred Dunnock is one of the few actresses to have ever portayed a mother to Elvis Presley. The recognizable Dunnock was twice nominated for an Oscar, her second coming for her work in Baby Doll released the same year as Love Me Tender. Previously she had appeared notably in Kiss of Death (1947) and The Trouble With Harry (1955) and later on could be seen in Peyton Place (1957) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). William Campbell had been married to Judith Exner. Campbell became yet another actor to hook up with Roger Corman and to make films abroad. It’s hard to find a notable film he was in; I know him from Dementia 13 (1963) and Black Gunn (1972). James Drury is best known for The Virginian and I mentioned him in my review of Bernardine. Highly decorated World War 2 combat soldier Neville Brand shows up in many films and episodes of television, countless films noir as well as Stalag 17 (1953) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Texan L.Q. Jones (born 1927) I talked about in my review of Flaming Star, his second of three films with King. And, yes, that is Dick Sargent as a bedraggled Confederate soldier heading home after the war’s end. I can’t believe I’ve mentioned this guy three times already at Your Home for Vintage Leisure…which is supposed to be a happy place.

The Look: Love Me Tender is a period western so Presley’s wardrobe gives us nothing to talk about. Other than his clothing, he looks just like he looked in real life at the time. That is, magnificent. Healthy and full of life, his hair is oiled and flops all over when the action gets moving. Almost as much as he does in his follow-up – Loving You – here he presents the very epitome of the feral Elvis Presley of this seminal year of 1956.

King Moment: This film has a pretty straightforward script and as it was not specifically written with Elvis in mind, he is not given any particularly cool or menacing or comical lines. I do get a kick out of watching him later in the film when he starts to suspect Vance and Cathy. He delivers one line with reckless abandon and rage that you can hear in the tone of his voice; “You fools! You think I’d send m’own wife out to risk gettin’ shot?!” I snicker at Neville Brand every time he starts to wind Elvis’ Clint up. Watching Elvis take Clint from passive, loving and trusting brother to raving, jealous maniac in nothing flat is fun.

The Music: “We’re Gonna Move”, “Love Me Tender”, “Let Me”, “Poor Boy”

Ken Darby’s is a name that pops up in many places. The Grammy and multi-Oscar-winning singer and composer sang back-up on the biggest single ever, Bing’s “White Christmas” (original 1942 version) and worked on radio before turning to films. In Hollywood, he worked on musicals ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Song of the South, from There’s No Business Like Show Business to The King and I, South Pacific, Porgy and Bess, Camelot….that’s all. Not much. Darby wrote all the songs in Love Me Tender though they are credited to his wife, Vera Matson, and Elvis Presley, in a deal by which Presley and the Colonel would earn more through publishing. The songs were hastily added as this was originally intended to be a non-singing role for EP and it shows. While they are not without their charm, they certainly are prosaic. After all, they are supposed to fit the period of time following the Civil War.

Elvis’ actual band came out and auditioned but were told they weren’t “hillbilly” enough. These clowns here certainly fit the bill.

“Love Me Tender”, of course, became one of Presley’s most identifiable songs. To me, it is perhaps his most overrated. Based on the Civil War song “Aura Lee”, the song was Elvis’ fifth and last #1 song of 1956 and the first in a six-song run of singles that reached the top of the pop charts. He would feature the song on his 1968 television special and he performed it often in Las Vegas; it was the tune during which he would kiss ladies in the crowd. Every time he sang it live in later years, it sounded better than the drab studio recording of ’56. To my ears, there is simply nothing going on in the song. It is limp and lifeless, something that cannot be said for any other of his Number One singles and indeed it’s something that cannot be said about almost any other of his hundreds of recordings. The Love Me Tender EP reached number 9 on that chart. The song “We’re Gonna Move” is perhaps the most enjoyable of the four songs.

Meanwhile in Elvis World: The success that Elvis Presley enjoyed during the calendar year of 1956 is nothing less than historic. By July, he had already scored multiple Number One songs and had appeared on television on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show and – notably – on June 5 he had performed a version of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show that remains one of the most iconic moments in rock music history. He was a star of the highest magnitude with so much more still to come. That July, he scored a three-week holiday and – in the middle of the maelstrom – was able to spend time away from the spotlight with his girlfriend, June Juanico. The two traveled with their families around the south, spending time on beaches and in hotel swimming pools, often drawing a crowd.

Legendary independent movie producer Hal Wallis (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) heard about Elvis through his partner’s sister-in-law, who had seen Elvis on TV. While Wallis saw Presley’s “originality”, he also saw dollar signs and a successor of sorts to James Dean. He called initial negotiations with Col. Tom Parker “one of the toughest bargaining sessions of my career”. But the deal was by no means a blockbuster; the first picture would pay King just $15,000 with an option for six more and the right to make films for other studios. This was something that Presley and Parker would exercise right away as Wallis said he wouldn’t have a project ready for King until the start of 1957. Colonel worked out a deal with 20th Century-Fox for $100,000 with an option for two more films.

The entrance.

The Reno Brothers was a generic but engaging western story and Elvis was nervous but determined. He had all his lines memorized – and everyone else’s lines, as well. Elvis does well in the film though it is generally accepted that he overacts; watch his first scene as he greets his returning brothers and also when he wields the sabre they have brought back from the battlefield. But – as usual – Elvis is watchable and the thing is that this is a good film despite the fact that, at a mere 89 minutes, only Viva Las Vegas is shorter.

The general consensus when Elvis arrived on set was that he “would be some kind of hillbilly freak” and “some sort of moron”, no doubt due at least in part to the way he had been depicted in the media. But – as he would through the rest of his career – he charmed everyone who worked on the film with his earnest demeanour, his dedication and his manners. It was while making Love Me Tender that he met actor Nick Adams and, through Nick, Natalie Wood and Dennis Hopper. Presley, Wood and Adams spent time together in Hollywood and King took them all down to Memphis. King took Nat on his motorcycle to his home on Audubon Drive. Afterwards, the more worldly Natalie Wood gave an interview in which she expressed much surprise at Elvis’ “conventionality”.

Clint draws a bead on brother, Vance, after much fevered coaxing from Mike (Brand).

As noted, here is one of the few times that a King Movie was not created with King in mind. Add this to the fact that he was not billed first and that he plays a character who is married the entire length of the film; except for the very end, of course. And this brings up the additional fact that here is the only time Elvis plays a character who dies. That part of the story was heavy – for fans and for his mother – but this was a time in Hollywood when actors began to feel that the meatiest roles ended in death; Sinatra had just recently won the Oscar for playing Maggio, who’s death sends Prewitt on a downward spiral in From Here to Eternity (1953).

Mother Reno mourns her baby.

Love Me Tender serves as a companion of sorts to the other western Elvis made for David Weisbart, Flaming Star. They are both serious westerns with little music who’s stories originated outside Elvis World. Also in each film, the character Elvis is playing meets his end. Both films tell a real story and both films contain drama and a desolation of sorts that you know the characters can not evade. Love Me Tender is a unique King Movie and not only for the obvious reason that it is his first. All of his films from the 1950’s have compelling stories and give a good glimpse of Elvis in his prime. Love Me Tender is a historic film; thankfully, it is also a good one.

The studio split the difference. Sure, Elvis is dead at the end of the film but his is the last face you see. And his smile serves as a blessing of sorts upon Cathy and his brother.

One comment

  1. The Hal Wallis factor is always fascinating in the direction that he took Elvis career, as we know, essentially to bankroll what he considered his ‘important’ pictures. Yet Wallis himself had been done over by Warner Brothers, having produced Casablanca only to be physically blocked into his seat at the Academy Awards so Jack Warner could accept the Best Picture Oscar and the credit. You might have thought that as a result, Hal would perhaps have been a little more sensitive over the the exploitation, or even the appearance of exploitation, of his own people. But that’s Hollywood, I suppose, in a nutshell. Another great and educational article, by the way.

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