Movie that made the world fall in love with ELVIS: 40 years after he died, a very revealing insight into the star's screen debut Love Me Tender
- Had Elvis never existed, the film Love Me Tender would still have been made
- But it wouldnâ€™t have been called that, and it wouldnâ€™t have had that song in it
- That being so, in all probability, neither you nor I would ever have heard of itÂ
Had Elvis Presley never existed, the film Love Me Tender would still have been made. But it wouldnâ€™t have been called Love Me Tender, and it wouldnâ€™t have had that song in it â€” or, for that matter, any other songs
Had Elvis Presley never existed, the film Love Me Tender would still have been made. But it wouldnâ€™t have been called Love Me Tender, and it wouldnâ€™t have had that song in it â€” or, for that matter, any other songs. That being so, in all probability, neither you nor I would ever have heard of it.
That it marked Elvisâ€™s film debut made all the difference. But then Elvis made so many differences in 1956.
From the day he recorded his first hit in January of that year to the release of his first film in November, he went from being virtually unknown to the most famous young man in the world. He was 21.
In those 11 months he sold tens of millions of records of Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Donâ€™t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, Love Me and, yes, Love Me Tender, too â€” the recording of which had gone on sale before the film was released. At the same time his TV appearances were thrilling, seducing and horrifying America.Â
There had never been a star with a trajectory like his before and Hollywood took note, eager to cash in on the boy wonder before his popularity waned.
This coming Wednesday, the 40th anniversary of Elvisâ€™s death at the age of 42 in 1977, fans will reflect that his star never did come crashing down. But back in 1956 neither Elvis, nor anyone else, knew that.Â
Only three years earlier he had been a cinema attendant while at high school in Memphis, Tennessee, and being a movie star had been the stuff of dreams.
The call for a Hollywood screen test came from top producer Hal Wallis at Paramount Pictures after he saw Elvis on TV and, given a screenplay to study on the plane, the singer had been flown out to Los Angeles.
The scenes heâ€™d been told to learn were from a film soon to be made called The Rainmaker, starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. Just the thought of those two scared Elvis stiff.
That it marked Elvisâ€™s film debut made all the difference. But then Elvis made so many differences in 1956
Before the test he was worried about the slight stammer he would have all his life, but Wallis told him it wouldnâ€™t be a problem; he would just seem natural.
Elvis thought he did reasonably well, but was surprised when, despite having told his manager he didnâ€™t want to sing in movies, Wallis asked to see how he looked on celluloid when he was singing.Â
So they played a recording of Blue Suede Shoes, gave him a guitar and asked him to mime.
Heâ€™d been conned, of course. It was his singing that Hollywood really wanted.
He didnâ€™t get the part in The Rainmaker, but Paramount signed him to a contract anyway, before immediately loaning him out to Twentieth Century Fox. That puzzled him. While it was flattering that two producers wanted him, he also felt a little like a rental car being casually passed from one studio to another.
The film he would now be appearing in had originally been titled The Reno Brothers. It was planned as a cheap, black-and-white Western and the story concerned a boy who has fallen in love with, and married, the fiancee of an idolised eldest brother whom everyone thought had been killed in the Civil War. Then the brother turns up alive.
After a quick rewrite of the screenplay, the new title of Love Me Tender and the addition of four songs, it was ready to shoot.Â
The melodies of the songs were all in the public domain, with that of Love Me Tender going right back to the Civil War, when it was called Aura Lee. It had also been used twice before as the background theme for other Westerns.
From the day he recorded his first hit in January of that year to the release of his first film in November, he went from being virtually unknown to the most famous young man in the world
So, when Ken Darby, the filmâ€™s musical director, put lyrics to it and made it a hit, he was using a proven melody. The other name on the song credits was that of Elvis himself, his music publishers insisting he should be listed as a co-writer, though he hadnâ€™t written a word or note of it.
The attribution of songwriting credits to Elvis occurred several times early in his career until, embarrassed by it, he asked that it be stopped.
It seemed deceitful to take credit for anything he hadnâ€™t done â€” though that didnâ€™t stop his manager Colonel Tom Parker demanding half the songwriting royalties on his behalf. The songs were recorded before shooting began. The lyrics and tune of Love Me Tender were so pure, Elvis knew when he was recording it that it couldnâ€™t fail.
â€˜Until then a lot of people thought all I could do was belt,â€™ he would say, when it became a huge hit. Actor Dennis Hopper, then a Hollywood hopeful, had wheedled his way into the recording session.Â
When he heard the songâ€™s playback coming over the speakers, he was astonished. Elvis had sung the song very quietly into the microphone, at just about the level he would have used if heâ€™d been saying those words to a girl. That was why it worked so well.
Shooting his part in the movie took less than three weeks, with Elvis so keen to impress that he memorised all the other actorsâ€™ lines, too.
Debra Paget was playing the female lead and was very pretty. But although Elvis hung around her throughout the shoot, she obviously wasnâ€™t interested in him. Later he read that, before theyâ€™d met, sheâ€™d thought he was â€˜a moronâ€™, and had been â€˜pleasantly surprisedâ€™ to find he wasnâ€™t. Obviously not pleasantly surprised enough.
Off the set, Elvis was more successful. The producer of Love Me Tender, David Weisbart, had made the James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause the previous year and introduced Elvis to Nick Adams, who had played one of the high school gang in Rebel.
Befriending Elvis, Adams soon took Natalie Wood, the female lead in Rebel, to Elvisâ€™s suite in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
In those 11 months he sold tens of millions of records of Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Donâ€™t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, Love Me and, yes, Love Me Tender, too
Looking back, Elvis didnâ€™t suppose â€˜Mad Natâ€™, as he would privately come to call her, was that impressed when he quoted James Deanâ€™s dialogue to her, but it was his turn to be a fan.
He was star-struck. To him, and a whole generation of young people then, Natalie was famous as the girl who had stood between the revving cars and brought her arms down to start the chicken run in Rebel Without A Cause.
At the time, fan magazines were suggesting Elvis and Natalie were having a romance, a rumour that gathered credence when the actress flew to Memphis to stay with the Presley family in the new suburban house the singer had just bought (this was the year before he bought Graceland).
Elvis was now used to girls following him around, but was flattered that Natalie had come all the way from California. So he showed her off, riding her around town on his Harley-Davidson.
What Natalie thought about Elvis and his parents when she saw them at home, she never publicly said. But the Presleys were a God-fearing, unsophisticated family and Elvisâ€™s mother, Gladys, wasnâ€™t exactly impressed with Natalie going around the house in front of Elvis and his father Vernon wearing just a skimpy nightdress.
Natalie left after three days on a made-up excuse. It was a relief to everyone, especially the perpetual fans waiting on the road outside, who resented her. She was only just 18, but had been a child actress in Hollywood. While Elvis was catching dogfish in Mississippi as a little boy, she had been appearing in Miracle On 34th Street with Maureen Oâ€™Hara.
Elvis was later told that, after their first meeting in Los Angeles, Natalie had said she thought he was â€˜slowâ€™. He probably was with her. He was out of his depth really. The previous year, while making Rebel Without A Cause, she had been having an affair with the filmâ€™s director, Nicholas Ray. She was then 16. He was 44.
When Love Me Tender was released in late November 1956, Elvis had already seen a preview, but he would call in at a cinema in Memphis twice more to sit with the audience and watch himself, slipping out before the end so no one would see him.
At first he didnâ€™t think heâ€™d done too badly. Because of who he was, he was expecting a scorching from the film critics. But some were deliberately cruel. And although the movie made its money back in two weeks and was a huge hit, some of their barbs really hurt.
There had never been a star with a trajectory like his before and Hollywood took note, eager to cash in on the boy wonder before his popularity waned
He was used to reading that he couldnâ€™t sing and that he was like the Pied Piper leading young people into drugs and sex. He could handle that because he knew it wasnâ€™t true. But was he really â€˜a 172lb, 6ft tall sausageâ€™ (he was actually about 160lb), â€˜a goldfishâ€™, and did his voice really sound like â€˜a rusty foghornâ€™?
Elvis wouldnâ€™t have minded seeing comments like that in smalltown newspapers. But they were in papers in New York and Los Angeles, and he knew people in the film industry would laugh at him. That hurt, and he began to believe he shouldnâ€™t have been in the film at all.
He was wrong. He had certainly been rushed to Hollywood before he was ready, but by the standards of most western movies of the time he wasnâ€™t outshone by the other actors. The critics had let their middle-aged prejudice against rock and roll colour their judgment.
Elvis didnâ€™t know it then but, compared with some movies he would make later, when Hollywood really used and abused him, Love Me Tender was an honest, sometimes moving little film, containing one of the most popular love songs of all time.
And for fans such as this one, who, because U.S. shows were not seen on British TV then and who had therefore never seen Elvis sing, it brought him to life as something more than a voice, a photograph and a lot of controversy.
Being Elvis: A Lonely Life, by Ray Connolly, is now on sale in paperback (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Â£9.99).Â
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