Love Me Tender: Elvis Presley's First Film

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website. This article was selected for publication on January 8th, the anniversary of Elvis' birth in 1935. This post contains spoilers.

Elvis Presley was the hottest act in all of show business by the summer of 1956. The 21-year-old singing dynamo had electrified the entire world in his live show, concerts, and television appearances. His records and albums were selling like the proverbial hotcakes. In the early months of 1956, Elvis' long sideburns, swinging hips, and wild gyrations had made him one of the most famous men in America. But in spite of all his incredible success, Elvis had one major dream- he wanted to be a movie star.

As a teenager, Elvis had been an usher in a movie theater. He studied his silver screen idols: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and above all, James Dean. Elvis watched Dean's iconic performance in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause dozens of times. It was reputedly his favorite film of all time and he knew the entire movie's dialogue verbatim.

Dean's tragic death at the age of 24 in September of 1955 profoundly affected young Elvis (Elvis was to call Dean "a genius"). There seems little doubt that Elvis' fervent hope at this early point in his career was to become the movies' next James Dean.

Early in 1956, after two screen tests, Elvis was put under contract to Paramount Studios. But Elvis' film debut was to be a "loan out" to 20th-century Fox. Although Elvis had signed a multi-picture deal with Paramount, his manager Colonel Tom Parker had shrewdly incorporated a clause allowing him to work with other studios.

Elvis' first day on the set was August 20, 1956. The film, originally titled The Reno Brothers, was a Western, set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Elvis' co-stars were veteran actors Richard Egan, Robert Middleton, William Campbell, and Mildred Dunnock. His leading lady was the lovely Debra Paget, who Elvis developed a huge crush on.

Although Elvis was very dedicated and professional as a fledgling actor, according to everyone involved, Elvis flirted with Paget almost from day one, following her around the set like a lovesick puppy. Unfortunately for Elvis, the young starlet was already involved in a relationship (with Howard Hughes) and she kept Elvis at arm's length. Although nothing was ever to become of Elvis' first "movie crush," he never really got over the sexy Miss Paget. He later married Priscilla Beaulieu, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Paget.

Elvis' role (as youngest Reno brother Clint) was expanded from one that had just a few lines (both Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter had already turned the role down). Also, with superstar Presley coming aboard, the movie's title was changed from The Reno Brothers to Love Me Tender, to capitalize on Elvis' hit song. Several other songs were added to the movie after Elvis joined the project. Reportedly, Elvis didn't know he would be singing so many songs in the picture and believed he would just be doing a straight acting role. This would be a sad pattern for the rest of Elvis' movie career, with him wanting to do serious acting and the studios wanting to cram in as many new Presley songs as possible in every film.

Elvis got cold feet during the picture when he saw his character died in the end. His girlfriend June Juanico recalled persuading him by saying that she tended to remember the characters who had a tragic fate far longer than those who lived happily ever after.

Love Me Tender turned out to be the only film in which Elvis did not get top billing. It is also the only film in which he played an out-and-out anti-hero (as opposed to his future roles: a good guy with redeemable character flaws). In the film's original ending, Ma Reno rings the dinner bell and the three remaining Reno brothers come in for dinner (Elvis had been shot and killed in a previous scene). At an early Love Me Tender screening, the Elvis fans hated seeing their idol die and a new ending was cooked up. At the film's conclusion, as the end credits roll, Elvis' ghostly presence appears and sings the title song. After watching an early preview of Love Me Tender, Elvis' mother Gladys was reportedly hysterical after watching her son die onscreen. It took Elvis several minutes to calm her down and reassure her it was only a movie.

Love Me Tender wrapped in October of '56 and was rush released by November 15th. It proved to be a box office bonanza and became the first film in history to recoup its initial investment in the first three days of release. But Elvis was to be disappointed with his screen debut, later saying "It was an old, old picture, story wise, and I shouldn't have been in it from the beginning."

Although Elvis had begun shooting Love Me Tender with high hopes for a great career in film, it was (with precious few exceptions) to be only the first in a long chain of screen disappointments for him. The long line of Elvis Presley films, after the handful of early encouraging entries, were soon to become not classics, or even respectable vehicles, but sad, campy, grade-B objects of satire and ridicule. And, in a painful irony, although he grew to loathe them and they were savaged by the critics, the Elvis musicals of the '60s inevitably cleaned up at the box office.

In the Greek tragedy that was the life of Elvis Presley, the vastly talented musical superstar, the icon of icons who revolutionized music forever, he was, for almost a full decade, relegated to playing the good natured, guitar-playing "hero" who would inevitably beat up the bad guy and dance around with a bevy of bikini-clad lovelies. And although Elvis was to go on to one of the most amazing, successful, and legendary careers in the history of show business, his dream of becoming "the next James Dean" of the movies was probably the single greatest disappointment of his life.

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Twentieth Century Fox followed in the footsteps of Hal Wallis and Paramount Pictures when they signed Elvis Presley to star in the movies.
Elvis was following on the heels of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (As a matter of fact, one of Elvis' idols was Dean Martin). As The team of Martin & Lewis made the transition from nightclubs to radio to television, it proved a rough road. Their first radio outing failed dismally. The big television networks were just beginning to take route. Movie studios didn't know if TV was going to overtake the public's box office spending. Everyone was cautious.
When Hal Wallis saw that Dean's singing and Jerry's clowning could bring in nightclub crowds, he took a gamble their persona would translate on the big screen - BUT - he didn't just jump in with both feet. Martin and Lewis got fourth and fifth billing in their first two films to "test the waters". They proved after that they could bring in the audiences with their own name on top.
Fox, following Paramount's lead, took the same precautionary steps, sticking Elvis in a movie with third billing under Richard Egan and Debra Paget.
Of course, who couldn't have a crush on Debra Paget? She had done almost two dozen movies including "The Ten Commandments" (and interestingly enough, had the role of Cosette in 1952's Les Miserables).
Elvis proved in Love Me Tender that he could handle the starring role, but just like his idol Dean Martin, had a hard time breaking the mold of playing a handsome, sexy singer being cast to star in light fluffy comedies. As a side note, Dean took the biggest gamble of his career when he took a role in the movie "The Young Lions" just to escape the image the public saw of him - Col. Parker, Presley' manager, didn't grant Elvis the opportunity.
Thank's again Eddie for making me think and want to write a comment. You write such interesting articles!
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I hate to admit it but I was never that big a fan of Elvis' movies. I was a big Elvis fan but just never cared for him as an actor or the plots. Eddie Murphy summed it up best when he said that Elvis just sang all his lines..."We're gonna win this race", etc. Nice details though about Love Me Tender Eddie. Made it very interesting.
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I'm watching "Jaihouse Rock" with wonderful Elvis on TCM as I read your great article, Eddie. Holy cow, Debra Paget DID look so much like his wife Priscilla. Both stunning women. As always, your writing is superb and always so interesting, Eddie. The photos you choose compliment your writing as well.
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