Elvis Dispatch #4: Love Me Tender (1956)

“and introducing Elvis Presley” reads the credits for Love Me Tender, Presley’s debut as an actor, and it would be the only time in his movie career that he didn’t get top billing.

The script had been kicking around Hollywood for some time. It was called The Reno Brothers, and it told the story of a family following the defeat of the South in the Civil War. Three of the Reno Brothers had gone off to the war, leaving the youngest behind to take care of the farm. Not realizing that General Lee had surrendered, the three Reno brothers are involved in holding up a train carrying a payroll. It is considered spoils of war. But once they realize that the robbery had occurred after the surrender, it now becomes clear that they stole federal money, which means they could possibly be in big big trouble. The three brothers return home, wads of cash in their pockets. Vance, the oldest brother, has been carrying a picture of his sweetheart Cathy with him all through the war. It is the only thing keeping him going. His mother and Cathy both believe that he is dead, due to a mistaken report, so when he arrives home it is a total surprise. Even more of a surprise (to Vance), is the fact that his youngest brother Clint has married Cathy while he was away in the war. Family conflict is the result, including the growing threat of arrest due to the robbery. A gritty family drama-slash-Western, The Reno Brothers was chosen as the vehicle for the youngster Elvis Presley who was causing such a stir at his shows across the South.

It wasn’t written as a vehicle for Presley, so there had to be some adjustments made (ie: songs added, originally it was not a musical). Robert Webb directed, and the cast was filled out with reliable B-actors (and good old Mildred Dunnock, in a very touching performance as the mother). Richard Egan, he of the almost unearthly perfect voice, played Vance, the lead, and Presley played Clint, the young brother who married Vance’s girl (who was played by Debra Paget).

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the shrieking teenage girls who flocked to Love Me Tender, and had to sit through 20 minutes of bank robberies and guys riding horses before Elvis even appears. And then, when you first see him, he is struggling behind a plow in dirty clothes. It’s a very smart choice, I think, it’s not what you expect of a young rising rock and roll star, but still: try to picture yourself in some old movie theatre, and you’ve been listening to Elvis’ first album on eternal repeat, swooning so much that your parents are actually annoyed at you, and then, OMG, he’s going to be in a movie!!! You sit in the theatre with your girlfriends, taut with anticipation. “And introducing Elvis Presley” comes on the screen and you and your friends and hundreds of other girls erupt into screams, infuriating your dates. And then…. you wait …. and wait … and wait …. for him to appear. Who CARES that General Lee surrendered? Who CARES about the Federal Government? What … this takes place in the past?? Where is Elvis???

It was a smart choice on multiple levels. Elvis Presley, while magnetic in his performances as a singer, had no acting training. He was a huge movie fan, idolized Brando and James Dean (who had just died), and had studied them like a fanatic. He had some ideas about what made people stars: male stars shouldn’t smile, they should smolder, girls like that – also, black-haired men were basically better onscreen. In Love Me Tender Elvis’ hair is still his natural dirty blonde, but he eventually would dye it black and continue to do so until the end of his life. So to a young hungry untried actor, it was smart to have him be the second lead. He didn’t have to carry the picture. And good thing, too, because he’s not ready yet. He’s sweet, and committed, and doesn’t embarrass himself, but you can feel his tentativeness at times. He takes a breath before his moments. Gearing up. The clear sign of an amateur. But somehow it works for the role, because Clint is supposed to be a young sweet open-hearted man who idolizes his older brother. Presley doesn’t push, and that is what is extraordinary about the performance. He seems to understand his part in the picture, he understands his role and his place in the thing, and he keeps it simple. That’s talent. Stella Adler said, “Talent is in the choice.” I agree with her. There is nothing more revealing than a movie camera. It picks up phoniness from a mile away. It is the most unforgiving of mediums, in that respect. If you are honest, true, and open, the camera sees it. Magnifies it. If you are phony or a ham, the camera magnifies that as well. Presley intuitively understood that, and it shows in the performance.

He showed up on set on the first day, having memorized not only his own lines, but everyone else’s. He was totally prepared. He was unused to the schedule, having to get up at 5:30 a.m., and he was only 21 years old. A pampered boy who was used to be taken care of by his parents who were devoted to him. Thrust out into the world of grownups, he did his best at every moment. Everyone had good things to say about his work ethic. Everybody liked him. The critics were condescending towards his performance, and in the context of that day, when Presley hadn’t really reached the tipping point yet – he was close, very close – but still sort of a wild card. He had already received bad press (or, I should say, terrible press, fire-and-brimstone press) due to his gyrations when he performed. He was bad for America, bad for everyone. People looked on at the teenage frenzy he inspired and just wanted it to stop because they did not understand it. With all of that going on in his life, he threw himself into the moviemaking process with dedication and abandon.

There are a couple of funny anecdotes from filming. There is a tense scene when Clint, his mother, and his wife are holed up in the house. His brothers are on the run, and the local sheriff is looking for him. They hear the galloping horse hooves outside, and Clint grabs his gun and starts outside. His mother says, “Put that gun down!” The script has him ignore his mother’s appeal and charge out of the house to protect his family. The first time they did the scene, when Mildred Dunnock said, “Put that gun down!”, Presley, who always did what his mama told him to do, actually stopped and put the gun down. It was an automatic response. Everyone laughed at him for that, and Elvis laughed at himself, and they had to do the scene again. “It’s okay, Elvis, you can disobey your mother. This is just a movie.”

In another scene inside the house, the sound of horses approaching is heard, yet again. Clint and his mother stand and listen. Then Clint runs to the window, looks out, and says, “There’s someone coming.” Presley had a hard time getting through the line without laughing. He kept saying the line, and then breaking out into laughter, “No shit, Sherlock, someone’s coming …” While that’s a funny anecdote, I think it says something about Presley and his instinct for truth. “There’s someone coming” is a dumb line. We know someone’s coming because 1. We hear the horses and 2. Presley is looking out the window at them. You don’t need to narrate what is already clearly happening on the screen. Presley eventually did get through the line, because it is in the film, but it’s a minor stupid moment, and Presley found it so funny because it was dishonest and dumb. Again, that’s indicative of talent.

In the more heightened scenes later in the film, when Clint has to “turn bad”, Presley is not as effective. I didn’t really buy that that sweet young kid at the beginning would turn so villainous. Despite the rebel pose of his music, he also always seemed like a nice polite young man. A strange hat-trick, and his stock in trade. It seemed honest: those poses were not poses. They were organic to him. He was polite to fans, he signed autographs willingly, he honored his commitments, he was polite to reporters, he was deferential to women or people in power … And onstage he let the dirty sex boy out of the bag. Yes, he liked cars and motorcycles and making out. But he didn’t drink, he considered a water-pistol fight to be the height of his misbehavior, and in an interview a year later when asked what was the worst thing about being so famous, he replied honestly that he could no longer go to church. BOTH of these seemingly disparate “poses” can be true, and that was what was so revolutionary about him at the time. He wasn’t a bad corrupt boy. He was just the opposite. So …. kids like to bump and grind? And they’re still good kids? THIS CANNOT BE. So Clint, sneering and scowling and vowing revenge on his brother, just is out of Presley’s range. He can’t “get there” as an actor. It’s not in him.

The musical numbers (there are four) are superimposed onto this dusty 1865 drama, and they make very little sense, but it doesn’t matter. The songs are integrated into the action, they aren’t “musical” songs, where a character sings instead of speaks. They’re songs sung by the family at the homecoming gathering, there are songs performed at a local picnic and fundraiser. But there is no attempt to create any kind of musical authenticity, despite the fact that “Love Me Tender” is actually “Aura Lee”, a classic from the American songbook, and very popular during the Civil War. But when Elvis picks up the guitar at the family gathering (clip at the very bottom) and everyone has a singalong, he’s doing his gyrations, his crazy leg thing, his crooked foot thing, and it’s totally anachronistic. But it’s fascinating to watch because it does capture a little bit of what Elvis must have been like at that time (albeit a bit more toned-down): he jitters with nervous energy. His body jiggles up and down, he can’t stand still, he holds the guitar out in front of him so he can move around behind it, and he seems totally insouciant and joyous and unembarrassed. So no. I can’t imagine a family sing-along that looked like THAT in 1865, but I couldn’t care less. It’s far more interesting to watch a young blonde Elvis do his thing. He’s still got his baby fat. He’s a kid.


Clint is killed in a High Sierra-esque standoff at the end. Another radical move on the part of the Presley team and the studio. You … excuse me? You’re killing Elvis Presley in his first movie? Are you out of your cottonpickin’ minds?

When they first ran the film for test audiences, the ending, with Mildred Dunnock and Vance visiting the grave of their lost family brother, tested poorly. So in a move that will certainly induce cringes, they superimposed a ghostly image of Presley with a guitar, singing “Love Me Tender”, over the graveyard scene, and it actually ends with a big smile from Presley. It is incomprehensible, except when you consider his fame. “I’m dead, yes, but here I am again, and although I am still dead, please be happy, because look, here I am, a hovering ghost with a guitar.”


“Love Me Tender” (the song) was a departure for Presley. A simple ballad, sung just with a guitar and a gentle quartet as accompaniment. I am not sure that the studio and Presley knew what they had in that song, although it is woven throughout the film as a theme (it works beautifully), so obviously they invested in it. “Love Me Tender” (or “Aura Lee”) had been used to solve a couple of problems, with copyright issues, etc., and a sort of bone thrown to historical accuracy. But the song was a juggernaut that started in 1956, and, in all honesty, has never stopped momentum. It is one of the songs that Elvis, with all of his #1 hits, and billions of records sold, is known for. He sang it right up to the end. It was a defining moment for him. His early Sun sessions records show a raspy sexy Presley, a voice that has the thickness of the gospel singers he so admired. He liked to keep it moving, he liked to “rip it up”. Ballads scared him a little bit because he couldn’t really move during them, and he had to move, too much nervous energy, too scary to stand still. But along with the gospel singers he revered, he also loved Dean Martin, and you can actually hear Presley take a giant leap, in terms of singing versatility, in his rendition of “Love Me Tender”. Dino showed him the way to another type of singing, and nothing whatsoever is lost in the transfer. There are only gains. There may have been some trepidation about mixing things up for Presley, about releasing a song that wasn’t hard rock and roll. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? But in “Love Me Tender”, Presley almost singlehandedly solidified his position as THE guy to watch, and not just some symbol of a trend that would quickly dissipate. Listening to his first record, and then listening to “Love Me Tender”, recorded not even a year apart, is astonishing.

The guy was a sponge. His obedience, his willingness to do what he was told, actually led him to grow by leaps and bounds (there was also a dark side to that same obedience, but that is not relevant to this discussion – not yet). He would never be stuck in just one time, he would never be associated with just one trend. He was too versatile. And that was the case very very early on, almost immediately, actually, when his songs were getting simultaneous play on black radio stations, country radio stations, and pop radio stations. All three at the same time? Hits on all three?

Never happened before.

Has rarely happened since.

You can see him in the middle of that maelstrom in Love Me Tender. It’s touching.

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12 Responses to Elvis Dispatch #4: Love Me Tender (1956)

  1. Shelley says:

    I didn’t realize he worked so hard.

  2. Kent says:

    Nice, Sheila!! I am vicariously loving your E revelations and reports from the brink of obsession! I like Love Me Tender mainly because it is a Franken-rocker-b-drive-in-movie mess. But Elvis steals it, and as you point out, he got one of his best songs and biggest hits out of it. Who knows, perhaps in some mad Hollywood show biz genius way they knew the girls would squeal louder if they had to wait to see Elvis NOT do Teddy Bear.

    Diamonds are appreciated for their brilliance, and they way they are cut. Their many facets. Elvis was a nice guy, and a mama’s boy, and a radical mover. While his stage and business moves were bold, his personal style was kind, smart and professional. He did not abuse Jack L. Warner, as James Dean had. Everyone I’ve ever met who worked with him LOVE loved him, because he’d hang out on the set. Talk. Strum a guitar. Sing with the gang. He wasn’t nice as a political move. He was nice. He had been a truck driver long enough to understand the true worth of the golden rule.

    The old RCA building on Sunset had a studio that Elvis loved to record in when he was in Los Angeles. He would record late at night, sometimes all night. You could tell when a heavy session was going on because the big sound trucks and generators would be parked on the side street. The lobby guard would tell you who was in there. He’d say “Elvis” very quietly. Later, talking in confidence, the guard would tell you that he thought most rock stars were “sacks of shit”. Not Elvis. Why? “It was cold in here, and he brought me coffee.”

  3. debra t. says:

    I am loving your obession.

  4. sheila says:

    Shelley – You don’t get to be Elvis Presley by not working your ass off. :)

  5. sheila says:

    Kent – I love your perspective. Thank you so much! Yes, it seems to me that in person he was usually polite and deferential, and the sex-thing, the bad-boy thing came out onstage or behind closed doors with his lady friends. He was an almost pathological compartmentalizer – brilliant at it – in ways that I think boggle the mind. He had a true artist’s sense of the flow of it, and it seems to me that when he did allow himself to get frustrated or angry, it was when he felt trapped, or finally fed up with sycophants or people lying to him. Then he truly could be dangerous, a lion suddenly lashing out. But on everyday terms, with everyone – he was polite. Nobody ever had a bad word to say about him. Crafts services people, fans, the cops in Memphis – his electrician – these people all loved him. He recognized their worth. That’s not always the case with someone so famous. He had humility. It’s insane, when you think about it.

  6. sheila says:

    Debra – Glad you are enjoying. I’m having fun with it! I’ve seen all these movies so many times – starting from when I was a kid – but it’s fun to put it all into context.

  7. nightfly says:

    I learn something every single time you talk about movies and acting.

    The story about Elvis struggling to get through the bad line, but sticking with it; and the story about how willing he was to stretch and learn, both remind me of another Elvis anecdote, when he recorded “It’s Now or Never.” It was apparently a long and difficult session, and someone (probably a producer, I don’t remember now) suggested that they could just stitch together several takes to get the cut they needed. He was adamantly against it. “I’m going to sing it straight through or I won’t do it,” he said, and then he sang it straight through, right to the very last measure, nailing the high note at the end (“my loooooove won’t wait”) that had bedevilled him. Great illustration of his commitment. (Also, great illustration of that whole sexual barely-sub text. A lot of these songs are essentially Elvis talking his way into a girl’s pants, but it’s ELVIS so they don’t mind.)

  8. Sheila says:

    Nightly- oh, I love that anecdote too. It says so much, especially when you hear the final take. Another Dino-inspired song. He was incapable of phoning it in, and when he was forced to (some of the movie soundtracks) it was akin to spiritual death.

    I have more to say on the getting- in- your-pants phenomena – it has to do with his roots being strictly 1950s, not 1960s, but I will get to it. Your comment definitely hints at it. It has to do with friendliness in association with sex (I mentioned it in my review of Girl Happy) … But I will elaborate another time. You expressed the crux of it though.

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