1956's Love Me Tender marked the big screen debut of the massively popular young Elvis Presley, who would—over the next thirteen years—
star in 30 additional movies of rapidly dwindling quality. Films like Clambake, in which he's an oil industry heir who gives up his millions to
become a waterskiing instructor in Florida, and Speedway, where he plays a singing NASCAR driver. The "Elvis movie" is most
definitely its own cornball sub-genre, typically involving a formulaic story, some unique location—see Seattle's Space Needle in It Happened at the
World's Fair—and a few obligatory, hip-wiggling musical numbers. The projects were negotiated by Elvis's tight-fisted manager, Colonel Tom
Parker, who was far more concerned with profits than critical acclaim. By the sheer merit of Elvis' presence, these movies would make money; whether
they were good or not was of seemingly little interest. It's a shame, because Presley had a natural gift—the moves, the look, the ability to hold
attention without particularly doing anything—and in the hands of the right filmmakers he might've been formidable. He's certainly not bad in
Love Me Tender, although the movie itself—a dippy postbellum melodrama—is wholly unremarkable aside from its minor historical curiosity as
Elvis' first film.
Presley doesn't even appear until about 20 minutes in. He's billed beneath the hunky Richard Egan (Pollyanna), who plays the rough-riding
Vance Reno, a Confederate cavalryman who—in the opening sequence—leads a heist on a Union train, making off with twelve grand in cash. He splits
the money with his compatriots, including his younger brothers Brett (William Campbell) and Ray (James Drury), believing they have a rightful claim to
the spoils of war. What they don't realize, however, is that the war actually ended a few days before their raid, rendering them little more than
common thieves. This, of course, will come into play later in the story, when the feds come a'lookin' for the missing cash.
But first, Vance and his bros return to the family farm after four years away, and are shocked to discover that their Ma (Mildred Dunnock) and
youngest brother, Clint (Presley)—who stayed behind to tend the fields—were under the assumption that they were all dead. The happy reunion is
dampened significantly when it comes out that Clint has since married Vance's longtime sweetheart, Cathy (Debra Paget), who clearly still harbors
some feelings for the man she thought had died in battle. Awkward. Vance tries to play gracious—"Congratulations, Clint. We always did want
Cathy in the family, didn't we Ma?"—but this is one situation that clearly stretches the bonds of brotherly love.
The story from here is laid out in a series of obvious turns, with jealousy and bad timing giving way to mistrust, legal troubles, and a climactic shootout.
This is a potboiler of a western, but it struggles to work up any real dramatic heat. The film wasn't originally written with Elvis in mind, or as a musical
at all, so one wonders—considering how dull it already is—how boring it would've been without Presley's hound-dog charisma and swoon-inducing
gyrations. Yes, The King gets a few good chances to put his jelly-boned lower extremities to use. Besides the title ballad—which Clint croons to his bride
much to Vance's mounting annoyance—Elvis blasts through three anachronistic rock numbers here, most memorably blowing back the bonnets of the
shrieking lasses at a local shindig with the suggestive "Let Me," his legs going wild and mouth curled in that iconic one-sided smile.
Acting-wise, Presley comes off as a little over-eager—it feels like he's trying to prove himself—but he's the only face worth watching here. The beautiful
Debra Paget (Demetrius and the Gladiators) is only required to look worried and forlorn, and Richard Egan has all the charm of a chewed up
piece of rawhide. The script, though, is the biggest contributing factor to the film's limited appeal; Love Me Tender may not be as goofy as
some of Presley's later movies, but it's not nearly as fun either, and it's doubtful 20th Century Fox would be reissuing the movie on Blu-ray were it not
for the Elvis connection There's a certain pleasure to be found in the truly awful Presley films—which are often entertaining for entirely unintentional
reasons—while Love Me Tender, in comparison, is straightforwardly mediocre.
20th Century Fox knows how to treat its catalog titles well, and Love Me Tender is no exception. Shot in black and white Cinemascope, the film
transfers gorgeously to Blu-ray, with a 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation that's sharp, accurately balanced and true to source. You'll find no obtrusive
digital noise reduction here, no edge enhancement, no contrast boosting, and no compression artifacts—just a clean, naturally filmic image. While
preserving the film's grain structure entirely, Fox has given the print a thorough once-over, removing all specks and scratches. The sense of clarity in the
picture is exceptional; you can easily make out the finest details in the actors' faces and period costumes—see Elvis' corduroy coat from the end of the
film—and deep focus ensures that even backgrounds are often tightly resolved. The monochromatic gradation is perfectly adjusted too. The image has
plenty of pop, but blacks never crush and highlights never peak. There are no issues here at all, so I see no reason not to give Love Me Tender
perfect marks in the picture quality department.
Fox offers us two main audio options. For the purists, there is a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono track, but the disc defaults to a 5.1 mix, also in the
DTS-HD Master Audio codec. The multi-channel mix is one of those light, in-name-only expansions where reverb from the ambience and music in the
front channels is panned subtly into the rear speakers. You won't even notice it unless you actively listen for it. The two tracks, then, are practically
identical, and both will serve you well. Like the 35mm print, most of the age-related damage has been attenuated—there are no obvious pops, crackles,
or loud hisses—but the high-end does sound a little brittle at times, particularly in the voices of background singers. Otherwise, the music sounds fine—
both Lionel Newman's score and the four Elvis numbers—with good presence and clarity. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand too. In addition to the
English audio options, the disc also includes several dub and subtitle tracks; see above for details.
Commentary by Jerry Schilling: Former "Memphis Mafia" member Jerry Schilling—who has also produced a number of documentaries
about Elvis—gives a lot of historical and personal background on the rock 'n' roll legend and his role in Love Me Tender.
Elvis Hits Hollywood (SD, 12:43): A short piece about Elvis' intro to the film business, featuring interviews with several Presley experts and
The Colonel & The King (SD, 11:03): A profile of Colonel Tom Parker, "the hustler, the carnie" who was Elvis' longtime manager, and who
helped invent the culture of rock 'n' roll.
Love Me Tender: The Birth & Boom of the Elvis Hit (SD, 8:06): A featurette that tracks "Love Me Tender" from its origins as the
American folk song "Aura Lee" to its release as a single and appearance in the film.
Love Me Tender: The Soundtrack (SD, 7:32): Some background on how "The Colonel"—who saw movies as a way to sell more
records—sort of tricked Elvis into appearing in what he thought would be a non-singing, serious acting role.
Last Christmas, I sat down with my Elvis-obsessed grandma and watched the extraordinarily goofy Clambake, and I think we both enjoyed its
kitsch and general ridiculousness. I have a feeling if I watched Love Me Tender with her, though, we'd both be more bored than entertained.
Elvis' first film is an unremarkable western—well, "southern," really—and while it's more serious than most of The King's later roles, it's simply not quite
as fun. This is one of those films that's interesting in a historical context, but mediocre by any other measure. Still, just as when it first appeared in
theaters, Elvis fans are likely to enjoy Love Me Tender despite its flaws, simply because of Presley's leg-shaking presence. 20th Century Fox's
Blu-ray is pretty much a straight port of the old DVD edition, but the new 1080p presentation is certainly a worthwhile upgrade for those considering a
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment will bring three catalog titles to Blu-ray: Henry Hathaway's Niagara (1953), Joshua Logan's Bus Stop (1956), and Robert D. Webb's Love Me Tender (1956), and Rudolph Maté's The 300 Spartans (1962). All four titles will be available ...