Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Love Me Tender (1956)

Kentucky born Robert D. Webb got his start in Hollywood in his mid thirties as an Assistant Director on Henry King’s Lloyd’s of London, an acclaimed Historical drama from 1936 starring Freddie Bartholomew. While perhaps better known as a director, it would indeed be as an Assistant Director that Webb would garner his first and only Oscar, for 1938’s In Old Chicago. Webb finally graduated to the director’s chair less than a decade later with the mostly forgotten thriller The Caribbean Mystery (1945) and continued to work steadily until the late part of the sixties.
Love Me Tender (1956) would mark Webb’s ninth film in the director’s chair and it is probably his most famous one even though, truth be told, it isn’t among his finest works.
20th Century Fox’s Love Me Tender started out life as The Reno Brothers, a short treatment from prolific Western writer Maurice Geraghty. Originally thought of as a vehicle for up and coming star Robert Wagner, the direction of the film changed course when 20 year old singing sensation Elvis Presley was cast in the supporting but pivotal role of Clint opposite popular Fox contract players Richard Egan and lovely Debra Paget.

Golden Globe winner Egan was born in San Francisco in 1921 and had begun acting for the camera in his late twenties in such productions as The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Ruggedly handsome and talented, Egan quickly became a reliable force in many Fox films throughout the fifties (including Esther and the King, which can be read about in Tim Lucas' Mario Bava biography) and would eventually make quite a splash in television in the sixties and seventies.
Paget was almost a decade younger than Egan but she had been no less prolific and had actually made her film debut a full year before her co-star with 1948’s Cry Of The City. Easily one of the prettiest and most charismatic Fox players of the fifties, the fresh faced Paget offered a nice counter to Fox’s biggest star of the day, Marilyn Monroe. Paget could also act and viewing her work today it is surprising that she didn’t become a bigger star than she did.
Love Me Tender is a fairly simple Civil War based western that would probably have been forgotten by now if it wasn’t for the debut of Elvis, who holds his own fairly well with his much more seasoned co–stars even though he is obviously inexperienced and is a bit awkward at points.

In a very profound way Love Me Tender serves as an interesting foreshadowing to some of the major film work Elvis would do throughout the next decade. The film, much like King Creole (1958), Flaming Star (1960), Wild In The Country (1961), and Change Of Habit (1969), was clearly meant to be a straight drama before Colonel Tom Parker got his hands into it and forced songs into the mix. Sometimes, as in King Creole, this worked incredibly well but more often than not, it hurt and cheapened what were otherwise very serious minded films. While Love Me Tender is not at the level of say a Wild In The Country or Flaming Star the forced songs do hurt it as bad, which isn’t to say the songs are not good (they are actually quite smashing), but they don’t have any place in the film. They have obviously just been added to appeal to Elvis’ music fans and the film suffers for it, with the title track excepted as it only plays during the opening and closing credits.

The film itself is a decent production that is mostly let down by the pedestrian screenplay that feels more wooden than anything else. It is a lovely looking film though, itself an accomplishment as this was a modestly budgeted production, and it benefits greatly from the photography of legendary cinematographer Leo Tover. Prolific Oscar nominee Tovar always did splendid work and his black and white photography here is very striking and Love Me Tender is never less than gorgeous to look at. Famed composer Lionel Newman’s score is also worth noting and he particularly does a great job weaving the haunting main theme throughout the film.

The cast does the best it can with the script, especially Paget who is really believable in the film as a woman torn between two brothers. Keep an eye out for future Bewitched star Dick Sargent in a bit part as a soldier and legendary future Sam Peckinpah actor L.Q. Jones makes an early appearance in a very small but noticeable un-credited role.
It is finally all about Elvis though and like I said he really is quite good here for the most part. He hasn’t fine-tuned his underrated acting style yet but the camera, which is in love with him from the first scene on, already captures his natural charisma completely here. He grew incredibly quickly as an actor, which is not noted often enough, as his first starring role a year later in Loving You shows him giving a much more accomplished and energetic performance. It all begins here though and despite the fact that Love Me Tender is not a great film, it is an important one.
The film would have a huge opening and would become one of Fox’s biggest moneymakers of 1956. It is currently available on a sharp widescreen special edition DVD that features a short documentary and an engaging commentary by Jerry Schilling.

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