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Veteran Hollywood producer Hal Wallis stumbled across Elvis Presley performing on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's television variety series Stage Show in April 1956. Wallis found this headline-making singer with the odd name "electrifying," according to his autobiography, and he couldn't help but notice the effect Elvis had on the studio audience. He recognized Elvis's charisma as a performer, and he knew the singer could transfer that appeal to the big screen. As the title of his autobiography, Starmaker, suggested, Wallis knew how to establish and cultivate a movie star.
Wallis had been under contract to Warner Bros. during the Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s, when the star system was the primary means of promoting and marketing movies. Wallis produced some of the studio's best films, including Casablanca (1942), Sergeant York (1941), King's Row (1942), and Now, Voyager (1942). In 1944, he formed his own production company, releasing his films through Paramount and later Universal. As an independent producer, he signed several prominent entertainers to personal contracts, including the team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Charlton Heston, and Elvis. His talents as a producer included his ability to match a performer to material that would showcase the newcomer's unique qualities. To Wallis, this strategy was a guaranteed path to long-term stardom.
After Wallis signed Elvis to a contract, he realized he needed time to develop the right material for America's newest sensation--material that would serve as a vehicle tailored to Presley's image and talents. In the meantime, he loaned Elvis to Twentieth Century Fox to costar in a Civil War western originally titled The Reno Brothers. Anxious to become an actor, Elvis eagerly accepted the role of young Clint Reno, giving him secondary billing for the only time in his acting career. More melodrama than western, the story revolves around a love triangle between Clint, older brother Vance (Richard Egan), and Cathy (Debra Paget).While his three older brothers went off to fight the war, Clint stayed home to take care of their widowed mother and to work the Reno homestead. He married Cathy, Vance's sweetheart, after the family received word that Vance had been killed in battle. The film opens with Vance, Brett, and Ray Reno robbing a Yankee train with their fellow Confederates only to discover that the war is over. The brothers return home with their share of the money. Vance plans to marry Cathy, but when he learns that his little brother has taken his place at the altar, he decides to leave for California. The brothers' involvement in the train robbery comes back to haunt them, while tension over the marriage results in a series of bad decisions and tragic mistakes in judgment by a jealous Clint.
Pairing Elvis with established actors helped him to learn the ropes of film acting and to mask his inexperience onscreen. Star Richard Egan mentored the novice actor, who worked hard to construct a credible character. As for Paget, Elvis developed a crush on the young starlet, and he tried his best to win her affections. Elvis and Paget got along well on the set, but she didn't return his romantic feelings, primarily because her mother had bigger plans for her daughter's career. Elvis went on to make 30 more feature films, and during the production of many of them, he became attracted to someone in the cast, often his leading lady.
In many ways, Elvis's first film is an anomaly in his career, because it was not a vehicle tailored to his talents and image. Other young actors had been considered for the role of Clint Reno, including Robert Wagner. Not only was Love Me Tender (1956) not a Presley vehicle, but the singer was cast in a supporting role, the film was a period picture, and his character died at the end. These characteristics would not be typical for future Presley movies. Still, concessions were made because of Elvis's participation, including the addition of four songs to appeal to his fans and to exploit his appearance. Not surprisingly, Elvis's rockabilly singing style was at odds with the period in which the story is set, and most of the songs actually detract from the drama. When Clint cuts loose on the front porch of the Renos' 19th-century farmhouse with a hip-shaking rendition of "We're Gonna Move," it disrupts the narrative instead of enhancing it.
Of the four songs added to the film, the ballad "Love Me Tender" was best suited to the storyline. Songwriter Ken Darby reworked the Civil War song "Aura Lee" as "Love Me Tender," adding new lyrics but retaining the melody. The ballad was released with slightly different lyrics as a single record. After Elvis sang the ballad on The Ed Sullivan Show in the fall of 1956, the single sold a million copies in advance, reaching the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart. Its success prompted the studio to change the title of the movie from The Reno Brothers to Love Me Tender.
. During production, fan magazines leaked the rumor that Elvis's character was slated to die during the climax of the film. The final scene supposedly featured Mother Reno (Mildred Dunnock) solemnly ringing the dinner bell as her three sons toil in the fields. Their faces are marked by pain and sorrow over the loss of Clint as the scene fades to black. Elvis's fans were disturbed by reports that their idol was to be killed off in his first movie. To counter an adverse public reaction, the studio shot an alternative ending in which Clint is spared, but this version was rejected. Finally, a compromise ending was written in which Clint is killed, but in the final moments, a ghostly close-up of Elvis crooning "Love Me Tender" is superimposed over a shot of his family walking slowly away from his grave. With this ending, the fans were left with a final image of Elvis Presley doing what he was famous for--singing his latest hit.
The mainstream press had scrutinized and criticized Presley's personal deeds and professional accomplishments for most of 1956, and his first foray into movie stardom proved to be no different. The pre-release promotion, which included publicity over a 40-foot likeness of Elvis as Clint Reno erected atop New York's Paramount Theater, sold magazines and created excitement among fans. It also generated loathing among movie reviewers, who seemed to be lying in wait for the film. Elvis's performance may have been a bit raw and uneven, but the talented cast cushioned the ragged edges. However, reviews of his performance were downright hateful. Some were so intent on skewering Elvis the Pelvis that their comments made little sense as film reviews. The critic for Time magazine offered one of the most ridiculous movie reviews on record: "Is it a sausage? It is certainly smooth and damp looking. . .Is it a Walt Disney goldfish? It has the same sort of big, soft beautiful eyes and long, curly lashes. . .Is it a corpse? The face just hangs there limp and white with its little drop-seat mouth, rather like Lord Byron in the wax museum."
If studio executives were upset over the reviews, then they cried all the way to the bank. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Love Me Tender recouped its production costs within two weeks of its national release, setting a record.
Producer: David Weisbart
Director: Robert D. Webb
Screenplay: Robert Buckner, based on a story by Maurice Geraghty
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editor: Hugh S. Fowler
Art Directors: Lyle R. Wheeler and Maurice Ransford
Costume Design: Charles LeMaire with Mary Wills
Music: Lionel Newman
Vocal Supervision: Ken Darby
Technical Advisor: Colonel Tom Parker
Cast: Vance Reno (Richard Egan), Cathy Reno (Debra Paget), Clint Reno (Elvis Presley), Mr. Siringo (Robert Middleton), Brett Reno (William Campbell), Mike Gavin (Neville Brand), Martha Reno (Mildred Dunnock), Ray Reno (James Drury), Major Kincaid (Bruce Bennett), Pardee Fleming (L.Q. Jones).
by Susan Doll