Elvis Presley stars in Love Me Tender (1956) as actor Richard Egan as Confederate soldier, Vance Reno. Wait… no, that doesn’t make any sense. Elvis and Richard Egan were separate people, right? So what the hell? Well, if we’re to believe the cover art for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of Love Me Tender, the front cover of which is at least 75% occupied by an image of Elvis and his name, Elvis is the unequivocal star of the show. So for someone new to the film as I was, it was rather surprising to find that Elvis doesn’t appear onscreen for almost a full twenty minutes. Instead, we follow Richard Egan’s character, the protagonist mind you, on his return trip home from fighting in the Civil War. Apparently the movie didn’t get the memo that it was supposed to star Elvis.
So how did it come to be that Elvis is uncharacteristically cast in a supporting role here? Simple! This was his first film. The world had yet to realize that Elvis could also act, so for him, Love Me Tender was something of a proving ground, which ultimately established him as a bona fide movie star. And although he in fact delivers a solid, if surprisingly dark, performance in his first outing here, and the last fifteen minutes or so of the film are actually quite interesting, Love Me Tender is unfortunately exceedingly dull throughout the bulk of the running time.
The film opens on a group of Confederate soldiers robbing a Union train, unaware that the war has already ended. Afterward, the group, led by Vance Reno (Egan), learns of the Confederate surrender, and they decide to split their spoils and go their separate ways. Returning home, Vance finds his girl has since been married to his kid brother Clint (played by Elvis Presley), having believed Vance dead. Then Elvis sings two songs right in a row, stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. And it doesn’t get going again until after Elvis sings another two songs back-to-back twenty minutes later. After that, the train robbery comes back in to play and things get moving again.
What makes Love Me Tender interesting is that you don’t really expect to find Elvis in such a dark role, one that [spoilers!] finds him ultimately overwhelmed by jealousy and driven to domestic violence. Clint in fact becomes the villain in the climax of the film, believing Vance to have run off with his wife Cathy, and so he tracks her down, beats the hell out of her, and sets out to kill his brother. This actually makes for quite a tense climax in spite of the dullness that characterized earlier portions of the narrative. Of course, all this is undermined by an embarrassing recycling of the song “Love Me Tender” in the very last shot of the movie, but I’d rather not spoil that here. You really have to see it for yourself to get the full effect of that particular moment.
In spite of its problems, Love Me Tender is at least an interesting film in its own right, and one that Elvis fans certainly shouldn’t miss on this Blu-ray, which streets on July 30th, 2013. The transfer on this release is quite nice, with a crystal clear image characterized by a rich grain structure and high contrasts between the lights and shadows of the black and white cinematography. Special features include audio commentary by Elvis historian Jerry Schilling; three featurettes including “Elvis Hits Hollywood,” “The Colonel & The King,” and “Love Me Tender: The Birth & Boom of the Elvis Hit”; as well as Love Me Tender: The Soundtrack.