***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley, Robert Middleton
screenplay by Robert Buckner
directed by Robert D. Webb
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. As far as drugs go, Love Me Tender is more pot than heroin. It won't curl your toes, but you'll get a smooth, mellow buzz. It's sort of the perfect film to watch on a Sunday morning on TCM while you're eating a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. Love Me Tender doesn't have a lot of urgency and it moves pretty slowly, yet there's never a moment in which it's not compulsively watchable--and at just a shade under ninety minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome. Director Robert D. Webb keeps the camera pretty still and shoots the outdoor scenes in long shot, the better to encapsulate the sheer enormity of the under-settled frontier. All this space lends the film a distinctly melancholy feel; there's something lonely and isolated about the picture. But bittersweet is a flavour, too (a good one), and melancholy is the right attitude for this story and the right attitude for a film titled after Elvis Presley's tragically romantic hit single "Love Me Tender." This was the only film that ever killed off Elvis--and it earns the right to do so.
There is a temptation, frankly, to overpraise Love Me Tender for simply surpassing extremely low expectations. I had never seen an Elvis movie before now; I was curious, but not so curious that I couldn't wait for one of his flicks to show up on the FFC screener queue. The reputation of the Elvis genre is one step above (maybe one step below--certainly one standard deviation away from) Frankie and Annette, of course, but the Elvis movies I was thinking of didn't come about until later in Presley's career. It took a while for the moneymen to realize that these pictures didn't have to be any good to turn a profit, or for Presley's manager, the malevolent Colonel Tom Parker, to realize he had to squeeze every last dime out of this country boy while the gettin' was good.
What distinguishes Love Me Tender from Elvis's later work is that it wasn't designed to be an Elvis vehicle. The screenplay--written by Robert Buckner, the dude responsible for the line "Win one for the Gipper" in Knute Rockne All American--was originally called "The Reno Brothers" and had kicked around Hollywood for some time before Elvis signed on. Presley doesn't play the lead role and, in fact, doesn't materialize until twenty minutes into the feature. Since they didn't know they'd have Elvis at the scripting stage, the film had to stand on its own two feet. We can't say for sure unless it were made without Elvis, but I think Love Me Tender would have survived without him. This is pretty sturdy stuff.
It's 1865, and a group of Confederate soldiers led by Vance Reno (Richard Egan) have stolen a Union Army payroll. When it becomes clear to them that the Civil War is already over, they justify their theft as "spoils of war" and split the bounty. Vance returns home to discover that Cathy (Debra Paget), the girlfriend he pined for on the battlefield, received word that Vance had died and so up and married his brother Clint (Presley). Although the two are still deeply in love, Vance graciously decides to let Cathy go. Meanwhile, with the Union hot on Vance's trail, the other members of his posse prey upon Clint's jealousy, hoping to keep their share of the money safe by turning brother against brother.
Whew! That's quite a yarn, isn't it? Starting with 1947's Pursued, you can see noir themes beginning to creep into the western (eg., High Noon, The Searchers), effectively beefing up and rejuvenating a tired old standard. Specifically in Love Me Tender, we have this guy coming home from the war only to learn that the world he left behind has changed and moved on without him. He's the prototypical noir hero, in a sense: displaced, cuckolded, and emasculated. All three of the principal characters have a moral ambiguity to them. They're each sinners, in a way, though they're not defined by their sins. Vance is guilty of greed: he robbed the Union bankroll but it was, he thought, during a time of war. Betraying Vance by marrying Clint, regardless of whether she thought Vance was dead, Cathy is guilty of lust. Clint, meanwhile, is guilty of wrath, for he turns on Vance, but only after the other gang members drive him to it. These are good people who find themselves doing bad things.
So this is good stuff without the Elvis hokum, but the funny thing is that the Elvis hokum doesn't work at cross purposes with the rest of the film. Instead, it accentuates and occasionally elevates what's there into some kind of high art. The great thing about casting Presley in the role of Clint is that he's such a smooth-faced adolescent boy. While Richard Egan was a seasoned professional and looks the part (he wears the Old West on his face), Presley is a 21-year old rock 'n' roll idol. It twists the knife in: his wife left him, a man, for a boy. I love how when Clint is singing "Love Me Tender" with the lyrics "I'll be yours through all the years/'til the end of time," we cut to Vance leaving the performance--we realize that he knows what a year feels like and he knows what forever feels like. Clint, who has his girl, does not. During his performance of "Love Me Tender," Presley turns to sing it to his screen mother, who extends her arm to him and looks into his eyes lovingly. This is a powerful moment, and if you know of Elvis's legend and his raging Oedipal conflict, about how he was mainly sexually interested in pubescent girls and wouldn't touch women if he knew they had given birth, it gains a nicely creepy significance that further establishes the character's boyishness.
I sort of love, beyond all reason, Presley's acting in this movie. When's he's bad, it's good bad acting, and when he's good, it's genuinely good acting. He's smooth as Country Crock in a scene where he sees the Union rolling in, picks up a gun, and casually tells his mother to stay in the house, while his "rage face" at finding out that his wife has run off with his brother is genuinely hilarious: he pouts extravagantly, like a two-year old being told "no" at the toy store. The Elvis persona is distinct because it's both artificial and naturalistic; the buzz on him that he was the next James Dean doesn't seem that crazy. Sometimes you can see this in a rather uncomplicated and direct way, but sometimes he's James Dean filtered through several layers of filmic distance. I've always thought there was something a little Nouvelle Vague about Elvis, that he was more about the idea of Dean. Every so often you get the naturalism and the artifice at the same time, particularly in his musical performances: his signature swinging hips are clearly born of intuition but far too bizarre to be taken on a literal level.
Love Me Tender ends with a strange coda. Test audiences rejected the original ending, which involved Elvis dying and his mother and wife making sad eyes at each other. The filmmakers decided to superimpose him singing the title song as his loved ones leave his grave. "Love Me Tender" is, without irony, a powerfully romantic song and works on its own terms, but this "ghost of Elvis" stuff is just really goofy. Watching it, you realize that director Robert D. Webb--perhaps only through the prism of the modern viewer--has accomplished the very same thing that David Lynch did with his animatronic robin at the end of Blue Velvet: he's used the old Elvis artifice in a way that transcends reality without unduly alienating the audience. (Remembering also that Lynch's Wild at Heart concludes with Nicolas Cage serenading Laura Dern with "Love Me Tender" in the middle of a traffic jam.) You can't condescend to it because the "Love Me Tender" stuff works so well, thus you end up meeting it on its own terms. The "ghost of Elvis" ending is more effective than the original could ever hope to be because it's forcing you to operate on a higher, more profound, spiritual level.
Fox celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Love Me Tender by reissuing it on a sterling platter under their "Cinema Classics Collection" imprimatur. The black-and-white film looks crystalline, nay, flawless in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen rendering. Since Love Me Tender is not a particularly aural film (indeed, it's sort of a quiet, unassuming one), the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo remix is clean but not terribly impressive. Dialogue is punchy while ambience is weak, though I think I would attribute this to limited source material. Not sure I could ask for more, although I would observe that special attention seems to have been paid to the film's musical numbers, which come close to sounding non-diegetic.
Extras include three featurettes plus an audio commentary by "noted Elvis historian" Jerry Schilling, who offers little analysis of the film and betrays barely a crumb of dirt on his icon. Schilling pauses only for the musical numbers and often double-dips into factoids disclosed in the featurettes. Though he seems to be rattling off a monologue he's already told several times before without ever checking to see if his audience is still awake, it's fun though to hear him call Elvis the Marilyn Manson of his time and suggest that making too many bad movies drove Elvis to his death.
"Elvis Hits Hollywood" (13 mins.) describes the making of Love Me Tender and discusses Presley's love of the movies at length. Chris Isaak relates a strange anecdote in which Elvis climbs up on a billboard: when asked what he's doing up there, he responds, "I'm Valentino, call me Valentino." I was intrigued that Presley idolized Marlon Brando and James Dean and especially Tony Curtis (?). He dyed his hair black so he could be more like Curtis, because he knew that Tony Curtis always got the girl. And at the end of every filming day he would call his Mama; at one point in the middle of a take, he unconsciously obeyed the actress playing his mother when she asked him to put down his gun.
"The Colonel & The King" (11 mins.) is good muckraking fun, complete with tacky green, red, and purple colour filters and silhouette re-enactments. Colonel Tom Parker is revealed to be an illegal alien from the Netherlands who left the country upon allegedly murdering a woman. He joined the U.S. Army but was later, in the words of Parker biographer Allana Nash, discharged for "being a psychopath." The Colonel took fifty percent of everything Elvis earned, with Presley allowing it in part because he apparently didn't know any better but also because the Colonel had him tightly controlled with seemingly unbreakable contracts. You would think this would have made Parker a very rich man, but he pissed it all away on a gambling addiction. I particularly liked the cruel disclosure that when Elvis began abusing drugs and showing signs of failing health, Parker struck a deal with Presley's father Vernon that would give Parker 80% of anything Elvis earned posthumously off merchandising rights.
"Love Me Tender: The Birth and Boom of The Elvis Hit" (8 mins.) is about the the song "Love Me Tender" itself. They don't hide the fact that it's basically the hymn "Aura Lee" with revised lyrics--Tom Brown, VP of Production at Turner Classic Movies, even convincingly argues that it was a very famous song during the Civil War and would therefore be an organic choice for this film. Political correctness has apparently dictated that Elvis impersonators are now called "Elvis tribute artists," but yeah, they've interviewed one among the talking heads, and despite his fancy title, he helps deflate the hyper-relevance of the proceedings. A Spanish trailer for Love Me Tender (pretty cool), plain old English-language ones for Love Me Tender, Wild in the Country, and Flaming Star, a juicy photo gallery, and a set of four lobby cards round out the impressive disc. Originally published: May 9, 2006.