DVD/Blu-ray / The Classics

Blu-ray Review: Love Me Tender

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Don’t judge this Love Me Tender Blu-ray DVD by its cover. Yes, Elvis Presley’s pained painted-in baby blues and slicked-back raw umber hair may give you the creeps and lead you to think that they decided to go the horrifying “colorized” route a la the Miracle of 34th Street print that AMC used for this past Christmas’ daylong marathon. But do not fret, the restoration team stayed true to the original’s black-and-white CinemaScope print and only enhanced the film’s sharpness, resulting in a crisp picture that adds an unexpected gravitas to a seemingly standard 1955 B-Western albeit starring one of the world’s greatest icons. Even more misleading is the size of Elvis’ image on the cover, roughly 80%, and overshadowing the film’s leads, who are relegated to a comparatively miniature size in the upper left corner along with the family farm and matriarch. Fair warning for Elvis fans who have not yet seen this or are somewhat hazy on the details, you have a good 20 minutes until the King arrives onscreen and even then, he is playing an unsexy secondary character, with Richard Egan as the hunky lead and Debra Paget as his romantic interest.

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Love Me Tender is an odd film to try to place, not unlike Cowboys and Aliens. It can certainly fit into the box of a 1950s Western, but the obligatory Elvis songs make it an awkward squeeze. Adapted from Maurice Geraghty’s short story loosely based off of a real gang, the Robert Webb-directed film was originally titled “The Reno Brothers,” but was changed to Love Me Tender after Elvis’ record of the same name sold over 1 million copies, a first. Set in post-Civil War South, it begins with the Confederate Reno Brothers gang stealing $12,000 of the Union Army’s payroll.Unfortunately for them, it’s April 10, 1865, also known as the day after Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox Court House, and therefore they can no longer declare that money part of the spoils of war. Now on the run from the law, the brothers return home to their loving mother (Mildred Dunnock) and the rest of the Reno clan. The eldest Vance (Egan) discovers that his awkward younger brother Clint (Presley), who had stayed behind during the war, went ahead and married Vance’s sweetheart Cathy (Paget) after Vance had been declared missing presumed dead. For the rest of the film, we’re subjected to a fairly miserable love triangle: tense, longing looks and curt words between Egan and Paget while Presley goes from naively confused to filled with stifled rage. That isn’t to say that this becomes mainly a romantic drama; there’s still a lot of gun-slinging to be had, including a train hold-up and a to-the-death shoot-out.

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Even so, Love Me Tender is not just a B-Western, thanks to the presence of the one-and-only Elvis Aaron Presley. Though this doesn’t read like a typical Elvis movie, Love Me Tender still follows the 3-T Elvis mold: thrills, tunes and t… lady friends. For thrills, there are horses, trains and locomotives. For tunes, you’ve got 4 great songs, including the massive hit and now wedding standard, “Love Me Tender.” “Love Me Tender” is also the most authentic, the tune lovingly ripped from “Aura Lee,” an American Civil War song. With each of the songs, you can tell that Elvis is trying his darnedest to give his fans what they want, but his hip-swinging and leg-thrusting style ultimately detracts from the film as a whole. One night after dinner, the family is sitting out on the porch and begins to melodically clap their hands. Rather than staying in the low-key authenticity of the moment, Elvis leaps up with his guitar and begins a set of “Let Me” and “Love Me Tender.” Later at the community fair, Elvis performs “Poor Boy” and “We’re Gonna Move” with his characteristic aplomb (which was racy enough for 1956, let alone 1865) to a crowd of swooning young women, making the scene seem more like a costumed Elvis concert rather than part of a Western movie. Although all four songs are still technically part of the film’s diegesis, they feel more like brief interludes or intermissions rather than parts of the film. Not to say that this doesn’t happen in other Elvis movies, but it’s still jarring.

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In regards to lady friends, it’s a bit tricky. For starters, there’s only one female romantic interest and she’s claimed by another character, very uncharacteristic of a typical Elvis movie. Elvis usually played the lusted-after leading man and became friendly with his co-stars, including a romance with Ann-Margret. Instead, his Love Me Tender leading lady went with other men both on and off-screen: her character pines for Egan’s Vance, and in real life, it was rumored that though Elvis had a bit of a crush on her, she was seeing the legendary Howard Hughes. So again, we can call Love Me Tender an Elvis movie, but it wouldn’t seem fair as not only did it share traits with other Western films, and he went on to make a few more of that genre, but he played a more secondary character, who seems more of an afterthought to create more compelling conflict for Vance (Egan’s character) than a standalone character.

You may recognize Richard Egan from 1959 melodrama A Summer’s Place with Dorothy Maguire or the 1960 Disney classic Pollyanna with Hayley Mills. As Vance, Egan provides a standard combination of rugged good looks and forceful albeit not-too-threatening line delivery for the role of Vance, while being overshadowed not just by Elvis, but by his own teeth. Every time Egan speaks, you’re compelled to blink to protect your eyes from the near-blinding whiteness of his choppers. Not his fault per se, but they are very distracting, especially in such a clear and crisp print of the film. As for his leading lady, Debra Paget is possibly best remembered for her minor role in The Ten Commandments. Her role of Cathy does not require much beyond a decent figure and the ability to convince the audience that she’s torn between Richard Egan and Elvis Presley. As her lines become more emotional, her voice becomes deeper and throatier. When she tells Egan’s character he can’t go “not now or not ever,” you’re almost ready for a frog to jump out.

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Now for what you really clicked on and/or scrolled down to read about, Elvis gives a commendable debut performance as Clint Reno, Vance’s brother who married Cathy in Vance’s absence. *Spoiler Alert* In the role, Elvis goes through the most character development of anyone in the film, from a shy younger brother to a raging jealous husband to a reconciled dying man. Just as he did for the movie’s songs, Elvis lunges head first into his acting, although with a bit more subtlety. Elvis begins the movie cringingly naïve-sounding and schoolboy-esque, which could either be interpreted as great method acting or seen as Elvis being uncomfortable in the role. After his character learns of his wife and brother’s betrayal, Elvis clenches his fists and jaws with a startling intensity, acting nearly possessed without flying into a gnashing maniacal rage. In another, subtler, film, these choices could have worked (think Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but unfortunately, in the midst of a 1950s studio Western, Elvis’ acting choices go nearly unnoticed—blink and you’ll miss the determination of Elvis’ eyes and brow. When Clint finally confronts his wife Cathy, Elvis unleashes Clint’s anger but not with enough physicality to carry the moment to its fullest, most violent potential. Trying to channel Marlon Brando and James Dean, both whom Elvis revered, Elvis falls short in this performance, but he may have just been out of place and ahead of his time.

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As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, “Perhaps all the other actors realized that ‘Love Me Tender’ was just another western film[…] But not Mr. Presley. He goes at it as though it were ‘Gone With the Wind.’” What makes Elvis’ performance extraordinary is how well he dies. Whereas most actors may have handled the other scenes better and struggled with the ending, Elvis delivers one of the most poignant death scenes in Hollywood history, or as longtime friend and Elvis historian Jerry Schilling said in his audio commentary (one of the DVD’s special features), “Now if you don’t feel something when you see that scene, you’re dead.” Whether you’re a diehard Elvis fan or not, he did one hell of death scene and showed an acting potential that makes you curse the Colonel for squandering his talent on such dreck as Stay Away, Joe and Change of Habit. In tragic irony, the bittersweet beauty of the scene is undercut ultimately by a gimmicky ending that involves a transparent Elvis singing over his character’s own grave or as the A.V. Club described, “exactly the kind of commercially calculated postscript that would first compromise, then cripple, the icon’s once-promising film career.”

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The rest of the supporting cast includes Mildred Dunnock (the definitive Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman) as the not too vocal Reno mother, Robert Middleton (Gary Cooper’s horsecart-racing neighbor in Friendly Persuasion) and Bruce Bennett (Joan Crawford’s first husband in Mildred Pierce) amongst the lawmen after the Reno boys, and Dick Sargent (the other Darren on Bewitched) in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role of travel-weary Confederate soldier.

Expectedly, the Blu-ray DVD’s bonus features center on Elvis and include the same extras as the 2006 50th anniversary edition: “Elvis Hits Hollywood,” “The Colonel and the King,” and “Love Me Tender: Birth and Boom of the Elvis Hit” along with a very insightful audio commentary by Elvis’ longtime friend and historian Jerry Schilling. The featurettes include commentary from Schilling, Chris Isaak, Rolling Stone’s Joe Levy and Steve Pond, Colonel Tom Parker biographer Alanna Nash, Elvis Radio’s Tony Yoken, and a few Elvis impersonators.

In “Elvis Hits Hollywood,” we learn that Love Me Tender didn’t begin as an Elvis vehicle, Elvis thought James Dean was a genius and idolized Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, and that Elvis had a photographic memory when it came to memorizing scripts. Also according to this featurette, the film’s original ending had Mrs. Reno and Cathy sadly sitting at the dinner table after returning from Clint’s grave, which depressed the test audiences so much that they changed it to the more gimmicky ending of Elvis singing “Love Me Tender.”

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“The Colonel and the King” looks at the relationship between Elvis and his manager Colonel Tom Parker. Along with revealing some long-hidden personal details about Parker (including that time he got discharged from the army for being a certifiable psychopath), Parker’s biographer likens his managing of Elvis to his experience training elephants, making sure Elvis never knew the entirety of his strength. Outside of some cringe-worthy recreations (shadows loosely resembling Elvis and Parker have a cartoonishly heated discussion), it’s a very informative watch. “Love Me Tender: Birth and Boom of the Elvis Hit” looks at the impact of the song “Love Me Tender,” and how it launched Elvis into the hearts of most Americans, not just hormone-crazy teen girls.

The real treasure in the extra features is Jerry Schilling’s audio commentary. He shares not only his own very personal memories of Elvis (Schilling grew up in the same town and was a member of the Memphis Mafia), but also really great Elvis trivia. Although the movie’s trailer advertised it as “the role he was born to play,” it turns out that Paramount producer Hal Wallis had originally lined Elvis up to make his film debut in The Rainmaker starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn. According to Schilling, Elvis even made two screen tests for the film (both have been lost or destroyed), including one of him miming to a song playback with a prop guitar and apparently, there are stills of those tests floating around somewhere. Not to spoil the rest of Schilling’s commentary, suffice it to write that including Elvis’ death scene and the quality of the enhanced Blu-ray black-and-white CinemaScope, Schilling’s audio commentary is one of the top three reasons to purchase this DVD.

Simply, the Love Me Tender Blu-ray is the perfect addition to the DVD collections of anyone whose drunken Karaoke sessions involve Elvis tunes and/or your Dad. On a side note, check out Jerry Schilling’s Me and a Guy Named Elvis and George Klein’s Elvis: My Best Man for further Elvis-related reading.

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