I’m really excited about an upcoming piece I’ll have in the next issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room about Love Me Tender, Elvis’ film debut in 1956. I won’t go on and on here about it until the piece launches in March, but for now, here are the four musical numbers in the film, a Civil War-era ensemble drama. Elvis hadn’t wanted to sing at all in the movies. He was hoping to do more serious work. Naturally, though, Hal Wallis (his producer) had other ideas. The Elvis Formula Pic of the 1960s, that started with Blue Hawaii, was far in the future, and Elvis’ first four films – Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole exist in a landscape before the formula was nailed down. Fine films, all of them, the final three being frank attempts to deal with the reality of Elvis’ presence on the national cultural scene. Love Me Tender, though, is different. He is not the star, although his character, Clint, goes through a radical transformation, from tender gentle soul to raging villain bent on revenge. He is planted in the middle of an ensemble. He was a completely green actor. Wallis thought it would be best to sort of sneak him into the movies for his first try, put him in something where he didn’t need to carry it. Wallis had been hugely impressed with Elvis’ screen test, and compared his effect on the camera to that of Errol Flynn. In Love Me Tender, Elvis doesn’t even show up until twenty minutes in. Twenty. Long. Minutes, according to the screaming girls who flocked to the movie and waited, restlessly, for him to show up. The first time Elvis appears onscreen, he is a small figure far in the background, struggling behind a plow. In dirty pants, suspenders, and a floppy hat. Elvis? Is that you? People who went to the theatre to see Love Me Tender talk about the screams in the audience, the constant screams, so that nobody there could hear the dialogue at all. Mayhem!
The four musical numbers are clustered up in the opening half of the film. There are two songs sung on the front porch during a happy (and yet bittersweet) family reunion, and two songs sung at a county fair. The songs have a somewhat (somewhat) hillbilly feel (although, hilariously, Elvis’ actual band members – Bill Black and Scotty Moore, were rejected for the film because they didn’t sound “hillbilly” enough). The title song, “Love Me Tender”, was a Civil War-era ballad called “Aura Lee”, with lyrics changed. So there was some attempt to make the songs sound somewhat period-appropriate. He wasn’t singing rock ‘n’ roll, in other words. But come on, it’s an Elvis movie. If you’re a stickler for period-appropriate details in an Elvis movie, you’re, frankly, a bore. The point here is to revel in Elvis, in those full-body shots so we can watch him move, in the year 1956, when his fame exploded to national and international heights. There he is. Set free, revealed, unleashed. Two years later, he would disappear into the Army for two years, and, except for a fund raiser concert in 1961, Elvis disappeared from live touring until the late 1960s. If you wanted to see Elvis from 1960 until 1969, you had to go to the movies.
Despite the fact that Elvis did not want to sing in the movies, and had other goals and ambitions, none of that is apparent in his performance (indicative of his impeccable old-school professionalism, completely unacknowledged by a critical establishment that doesn’t really understand acting and performance. Elvis makes it look so easy that he is dismissed.). You never get the feeling that Elvis is “slumming.” He is never embarrassed. (And often, in reality, he WAS embarrassed by some of the movies, especially in the mid-60s, and only in two – Clambake and Paradise, Hawaiian Style does he betray his boredom. That’s a hell of a track record, people.)
He has a gift, and he is happy to share it. That is what I am present to every time I watch an Elvis movie, and it is a gift that should only generate the highest of praise.
More to come on Love Me Tender next month, and thanks to the editors at Bright Wall Dark Room.
In the meantime, watch those clips.
And be happy. Because that’s why he’s there.