Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Love Me Tender (1956, Robert D. Webb)

It is fitting that Presley's humble beginning in the film industry fell on such an unpretentious work.  A slight but never insignificant western, it is the only Elvis film in which he didn't receive top billing and the only film that had the guts to knock him off.

Love Me Tender is a rare beast in that it benefited from compromise.  Initially titled The Reno Brothers, the studio changed the title due to the overwhelming success of the lead single.  The change of title not only affords the film the right to stray farther from its source material (and distance itself from Rage at Dawn, a film about the same outlaw game that came just one year earlier), it allows tone to be more breezy.  The film kills off Elvis's character, Clint Reno the honest(er) younger brother of Confederate outlaw Vance (Richard Egan).  It's as if Elvis's presence alone gave license to present the Reno family as a victim of circumstance rather than bloodthirsty bandits, but the chemistry between the love triangle (grounded by an understated Debra Paget) smooths over any anachronistic burr.

Early test audiences didn't respond too favorably to the King's on-screen death.  An original ending had the remaining members of the family solemnly gathering over the dinner bell with grim faces and an irreconcilable past.  A second ending was filmed in which Clint was spared, robbing the film of any consequence.  Miraculously, a third ending was constructed as appeasement which reconciles the family (consistent with the justice and loyalty of the West), while immortalizing Elvis who sings the title song as a ghost, superimposed over the family as they walk away from his grave.  This ending gives resonance to Elvis's first non-rock ballad and sincerity to its ghostly echo.

And it shouldn't work.  The ending forces the audience into a spiritual realm that would seem to run counter to the cynical wasteland to which our antihero Vance returns.  Couple this with the fact that the historical Reno Brothers were ruthless murderers and pillagers whose life ended in lynching-- hardly a tale studios would deem worth of an empathetic reimagining in 1956.  But despite any vices and hangups in the picture (indeed, in Presley's own life), the man (and this movie) can't be separated from his faith.  And the film is more engaging because of it.  Any temptation to spiral into melodrama or despairing rigamortis of noir is softened by an unyielding warmth of spirit.  Ghost Elvis gives his signature grin over the closing credits and, though his mother was sobbing at the premiere, we wouldn't have it any other way.

Webb's direction takes on a similar warm, unaffected aura, pleased to let the drama unfold at its own pace, and disinterested in getting in its way.  Sure, we see the occasional shadow of camera equipment, but that never obscured Otto Preminger's vision.  It seems condescending to refer to Presley's acting as "quite good"-- as if back-stepping into the assumption that it shouldn't be.  And certainly there was a backlash from the media initially: one Time review in 1956 had the ill-advised gall to call Elvis (whose film producers banked on his erotic, if not homoerotic appeal) a "sausage".  But much initial criticism sounds like it comes from a Goug Doodman with his fingers in his ears, complaining that he can't understand the lyrics to rock and roll.  Even Presley hated that it called for so many songs (and at this point in his career, it was only four), but the precedent was being set early:  Elvis was a celebrity inseparable from his music.  Initial criticism had him riding the coattails of Richard Egan, Debra Paget and Mildred Dunnock.  As if there were any question half a century later as to whose legacy was more lasting.

Love Me Tender is an often simple, always pleasant little feature that stands on its own legs but knows its place. It's a film that Elvis owed a lot to, and which owed a lot to Elvis.  Without him, it would be all but forgotten.  -- ***/four stars

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