Love Me Tender was Elvis Presley’s debut on the silver screen, a Western set in the aftermath of the Civil War. Including four songs by the King of Rock & Roll, Elvis does not receive top billing for the only time in his movie career. Love Me Tender has something to offer viewers beyond Presley’s charisma as a performer. The romantic tragedy is not solely a vehicle for the King’s musical performances.
The year is 1865 and three Reno brothers have survived the Civil War. Led by the eldest brother as its commander, Vance Reno (Richard Egan), they were members of a Confederate Cavalry Brigade. In the last week before General Lee surrendered to the Union Army, Vance and his small unit tricked a Union Paymaster into handing over $12,000 in army payroll. Finding out the war is over, Vance divides the money and each member goes their separate ways.
Vance and his two brothers return home, burying the money in secret. Things have greatly changed at home in their absence. Cathy (Debra Paget) has married Vance’s youngest brother, Clint Reno (Elvis Presley), believing Vance to have been killed in action. Cathy is the love of Vance’s life and he can’t seem to get over her. Cathy and Vance love each other, but she is now faithfully married to Clint. Clint is very trusting and adores Vance. The tragic love triangle becomes unbearable to Vance and he decides to do the honorable thing and leave home, before it wrecks Cathy’s marriage.
Vance is about to leave when the U.S. Army shows up looking for their missing money. Clint thinks this is a horrible mistake and that his brothers are innocent of the charge. Vance peacefully accepts the arrest, hoping to cut a deal for everyone’s freedom. Hearing Vance has been arrested, the soldiers who shared in the stolen money intend to break Vance out in a daring train raid. The second half of the film deals almost entirely in Vance’s conflicts with his Federal pursuers and the Confederate soldiers.
Elvis Presley is perfectly fine for a music star in his first role. He is better in the first half of the story, playing the boyish side of Clint. His limited range does become apparent later in the film, as the role requires more emotional intensity as Clint’s personality changes. This part was originally intended to be a non-singing role but it made no sense at the time for the country’s biggest music star to avoid it. The King sings four different songs, including a stirring rendition of one of his biggest hits, “Love Me Tender.”
Love Me Tender has a simple but effective story that still works today. Richard Egan plays Vance to perfection, adding emotional depth and nuance to what could have been a stock role. Elvis acquits himself quite well as a first-time actor, bringing a jolt of energy with his musical performances.
Twentieth Century Fox has produced another fine transfer for a film deep from their catalog. Black-and-white CinemaScope source has been procured from solid film elements, and given full benefits of a modern transfer. Picture quality is largely filmic and retains a fine patina of natural grain.
Love Me Tender does not have the sharpest cinematography. It becomes mildly soft in some distant shots, though focus and clarity is fine in tighter shots. A smidgen of possible processing is visible, only on the largest home displays. Trace ringing is briefly seen in the first act, but picture elements are typically free of halos.
The even grain structure is actually too consistent, indicating slight amounts of artificial grain were added after a filtering pass. The print is completely free of damage and wear for a 1956 film, indicating some level of DNR and scratch repair has been used for Love Me Tender to look this pristine. Thankfully, processes were performed gracefully and leaves film detail intact.
Technically, the video encode handles the older film with ease. Encoded in AVC at high bitrates on a BD-50, there are compression gaffes. Video encoding is completely transparent, replicating source grain and shadows without complications.
Most importantly for a black-and-white movie, contrast is stable with little fluctuation to brightness levels. This transfer has superb shadow delineation and top-notch black levels. Aside from a couple of scenes where white balance runs a little hot, Love Me Tender looks good.
Lionel Newman’s score and Presley’s music are nicely preserved in the 1.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack, authentic to the original monaural mix. As they have a habit of doing with vintage movies, Twentieth Century Fox has included a 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The surround mix has only negligible differences with the mono mix, as music has minimal spread across the front soundstage. Do not expect much in the way of separation from the surround mix; there is little to be heard from it.
Both mixes have fine fidelity for a film made in 1956. Dialogue is perfectly understandable and clear, though a hint of harshness creeps into the sound. Elvis’ recording of “Love Me Tender” sounds great, as the ballad is played in front of his family to Cathy.
A number of audio options have been included as dubs: Italian DTS-HD MA, Mono Spanish DTS-HD MA, Mono German Dolby Digital 5.1, Polish: Dolby Digital Mono, Catalan: DTS-HD MA. Optional subtitles are displayed in a white font for the main feature, entirely inside the 2.35:1 frame: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Italian, Cantonese, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Greek, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mandarin (Traditional), Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Slovenian, Swedish.
Love Me Tender gets a few more special features than your average catalog release these days.
Elvis Hits Hollywood (12:43 in 480i) – A motley crew of talking heads, including singer Chris Isaak, discuss Presley’s entry into acting and his love for movies.
The Colonel & The King (11:03 in 480i) – This featurette profiles Colonel Tom Parker, the man that manages Elvis’ entire career. It doesn’t pull punches on his shady background or some of the more questionable business dealings.
Love Me Tender: The Birth & Boom of the Elvis Hit (08:06 in 480i) – Presley’s big hit is discussed at length, from its initial history to chart-topping status.
Love Me Tender: The Soundtrack (07:32 in 480i) – More background on the film and how Elvis came to participate in it.
Original Theatrical Trailer (02:21 in 480i)
Spanish Trailer (02:04 in 480i)
Audio Commentary by Elvis Historian Jerry Schilling – Schilling personally knew Elvis Presley since the early 1950s and became something of his chronicler in the years after the King’s death. This is a rambling commentary but tells plentiful personal insight about the film, items only an associate of Presley’s could provide. Apparently Presley had a thing for Debra Paget, but she continued to rebuff his advances. Schilling does tend to wander a bit in discussing subjects beyond the actual movie itself.
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