June 8, 2017
Love Me Tender – US, 1956
Love Me Tender is the paper-thin story of Vance Reno (Richard Egan), a Confederate soldier who, in the days immediately following the end of the American Civil War, robs a train delivering the salaries of Union soldiers. Being true Southern gentlemen, Vance and his men consider the money to be the property of the Confederacy, yet after learning that the war is over, they eventually decide to keep it and split it evenly. Vance returns home, clean shaven and decked out in his best attire, intent on finally tying the knot with his long-time sweetheart, Claire (Debra Paget). The only hitch? She’s married his younger brother, Clinton, played by Elvis Presley, here making his screen debut. Talk about awkward.
For most of Love Me Tender, I was unclear just whom to root for. Are we meant to back Vance, a decent man who in the service of the Confederate Army committed various crimes? What about his pursuers, Union officials who are just trying to recover what was stolen from them? Should we throw our support behind Claire, who loves one brother, but married another after hearing incorrectly that her true love had died in the war? Or should we just root for the movie to find another occasion for Elvis to belt out one more tune? I suspect for many viewers it’s a no-brainer – Bring on the superstar. That may sound harsh to everyone else involved in the picture, but when a film has as little going on as this one does, it’s the only option that makes any sense.
And the film obliges. While we first see Clinton plowing the field, the film quickly decides to get its most famous star into his element. So, standing on the front porch after a confusing reunion, Elvis – I mean Clinton – grabs a guitar and belt out not one but two tunes back to back – “We’re Gonna Move” and the film’s title track “Love Me Tender.” One would think that his musical talents would be one of the things Claire liked about him, yet during these numbers she seems much more pensive than pleased, and her eyes drift nonchalantly to Vance, and thus the film misses a chance to establish a connection between these two characters. For the rest of the film, I never got the impression that there was a bond between them.
A few other observations. First, for a film set in the South, hardly anyone speaks with a Southern accent. Elvis has one naturally, but for some reason it fades in and out, and during a pivotal moment, he is practically unintelligible. As for his singing, it would seem somewhat obscene not to include it in the film, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in the film’s musical moments, Elvis is playing himself, not Clinton Reno. There’s nothing in the film that suggests that Clinton is a local celebrity, yet there he is shaking in front of rows of screaming female fans in the exact manner that Elvis the celebrity did. It’s a fun performance, but it’s not necessarily acting.
Love Me Tender picks up in its second half, as Vance is in a race against time to set things right. There’s a nice moment on a train when he realizes that something is happening that can only make things worse for everyone involved, and the game of cat-and-mouse that develops between Vance’s band and their pursuers is particularly involving. Yet the film approaches farce when it tries to portray Clinton as emotionally unhinged, and when Clinton begins to manhandle his wife, it enters a realm of extreme discomfort. The switch isn’t earned, and it doesn’t make it easy for the audience to empathize with Clinton. I found myself thinking that he didn’t deserve her, a cardinal sin in a movie of this sort.
Still, Love Me Tender is entirely watchable. It contains good performances, in particular by Egan and, if you’ll pardon the lack of an accent, Paget. Presley proves he can act, although I imagine later films were better showcases of his talent. Director Robert Webb does a decent job capturing the film’s various landscapes and creating an almost claustrophobic feel during several chase scenes. He does as well as he can with the musical numbers. While the script misses as often as it hits, the film has enough to retain viewers’ interest throughout. All in all, a decent effort, yet one that is far more important as trivia than impact. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars