Love Me Tender (Blu-ray Review)12 Aug, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Stars Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley. Mildred Dunnock.
Elvis’s screen debut has a disproportionately lousy reputation yet has its share of fascinations as long as you don’t need one of them to be compelling storytelling. Merely on the level of director Robert D. Webb’s directorial career (he had previously been a fairly celebrated assistant director), it has a lot more going for it than, say, Seven Cities of Gold or White Feather or Pirates of Tortuga, ranking perhaps a little beneath the Bernard Herrmann-scored Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (the third movie in CinemaScope and one at which my 6-year-old self hid under the seat when Robert Wagner fought an octopus inside a 2.55-to-1 aspect ratio).
But getting back to Elvis, Love Me Tender is of major academic interest because it’s the only movie he wasn’t asked to “carry” (though does he ever); he is in fact, third-billed. And without checking, it almost has to be the only filmographic crisscross of L.Q. Jones and Mildred Dunnock — she the former Mrs. Willy Loman who plays Elvis’s mother (a combo of roles to justify a career right there). It also reunites Elvis with Debra Paget, whose dance-number gyrations on a famous Jun 5, 1956 “Milton Berle Show” (one I saw at the time) earned her moralist brickbats that weren’t all that subordinate to The King’s own (after this broadcast,‘50s TV almost never photographed Elvis below the waist). For gravy, all four of its songs are decent or better, including a title tune that was monster year-end hit at the time, to say nothing of a future concert staple. And by virtue of its rock-and-roll gyrating couched in an immediate post-Civil-War setting, the movie is one of a kind.
Of course, if none of this does anything for you, you’re in big trouble here — as much trouble as the inebriated patron who once stumbled into my AFI showing of Tender, stared at the screen for 20 minutes, and in the Godzilla-of-epiphanies, blurted out to his companions in total amazement, “this is terrible.” Teenaged girls no doubt felt the same way in that same opening 20, waiting for their savior to show up. Because in keeping with an initially intended non-musical that was going to be called The Reno Brothers, Confederate Richard Egan and two non-Elvis siblings are among those who steal a jumbo helping of Yankee dollars without realizing the war has just ended — and eventually prove reticent to relinquish the stash even after the Feds employ persuasive tactics. Meanwhile, back on the plow (and, again, the “meanwhile” takes its time getting set up), kid brother Elvis has married Egan’s honey (Paget) after reports that the rest of the clan has been killed in combat. This naturally results in a “situation,” as a super-buff Egan is relegated to shacking up in close quarters with the other two brothers while Elvis gets the Debra goods (though, uh oh, she’s still has it for her ex).
I enjoy watching early-CinemaScope black-and-white, and this is one of the first examples; 20th Century-Fox’s 1953 mandate that all Scope movies be in color finally cracked in December 1956, when Teenage Rebel (better than it sounds), Three Brave Men and Tender all opened around the same time. Whatever the pigment situation, there’s something transforming about seeing Elvis wiggle on stage to screaming girls in widescreen, especially when it’s at an 1865 county fair and Andrew Johnson is president or about to be (the exact chronology is a little imprecise here). At this point, the movie briefly comes to life and becomes than just a curiosity, though I do think a more involved director could have pumped up the same script a notch or four into something almost respectable. The Blu-ray rendering merits kudos, however, and do remember that the cinematographer here was Leo Tover of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Snake Pit and The Heiress.
As for teenaged girls 91 years later, I was there as a fourth-grader in an aisle seat at the Grandview Theater watching several of them run sobbing past me and into the ladies room when Elvis (who dies here for the only time on screen) re-appeared as an apparition to reprise the title ballad. This, of course, was the song that finally convinced grandmothers and fathers (about a month before Ed Sullivan gave Elvis the invaluable “Ed imprimatur” on national TV) that this hoody-looking guy’s sexual intentions toward their granddaughters and daughters were at least more savory, on balance, than say, Chuck Berry’s. The Grandview was a neighborhood house, and this Tender engagement followed a three-week downtown run at the Palace (a 2800-seater) with a non-contributing co-feature: The Desperadoes Are in Town.
I suspect that the Palace play-date could have gone even longer because the Palace finally moved it out for fading Eddie Fisher (co-starring with Debbie Reynolds) in Bundle of Joy, whose grosses sent RKO’s accountants to a heartbreak hotel, where by that time they had to be, anyway.. Entertainment was changing, and Elvis was immediately on his way to becoming one of the six stars who made it huge (and “sustained huge,” so Al Jolson doesn’t count) in both recordings and the movies. That is, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day and Barbra Streisand.