In 1956, Elvis became both a rock star and a movie star.
That year, Elvis was everywhere – on radio, TV, and, with his first movie, “Love Me Tender,” he was also on the big screen. “Love Me Tender” premiered on November 15, 1956 – 60 years ago this week.
And really, getting Elvis to the big screen was a fairly quick process.
Elvis’ screen test for Hal Wallis at Paramount Studios in Hollywood took place in late March 1956. Elvis performed two scenes from “The Rainmaker,” and he lip synched his hit “Blue Suede Shoes.” A few weeks later, Wallis offered Elvis a contract for one movie with options for six more. Elvis signed a deal that would pay $15,000 for his first film,$20,000 for his second, $25,000 for his third, and so on up to $100,000 for his seventh movie. “Loving You” and “King Creole” were made under that contract, and both of them paid more than the agreed-upon salaries listed in the contract. That contract was totally rewritten in 1958.
Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, had negotiated with Wallis so that Elvis could make films with other studios, and that’s how “Love Me Tender” happened. Without a script ready to go, Wallis waived his right to produce Elvis’ first movie. 20th Century Fox set a deal with Parker in August 1956 to appear in “The Reno Brothers” – better known to us now as “Love Me Tender” – for $100,000 and co-star billing. Fox also had an option for two more movies for $150,000 and $200,000 (those two films that were shot under the contract were “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”).
Elvis arrived in Hollywood on August 16, 1956, and filming began on August 22. Filming wrapped on September 21.
Elvis also recorded the “Love Me Tender” soundtrack during this time, too. The title track was inspired by the Civil War ballad “Aura Lee.” The original title of the movie was scrapped for “Love Me Tender” after advanced sales for the “Love Me Tender” single passed 1 million.
Robert D. Webb directed “Love Me Tender.” In the movie, the oldest Reno brothers serve in the Confederate Army in the Civil War, and the Reno family back home – which includes the youngest Reno brother, Clint (that would be our star, Elvis) – receives news that the eldest Reno brother, Vance (Richard Egan) was killed in the war. Vance actually hasn’t been killed. However, he is up to no good – he and his brothers rob a Union train just as the Civil War is ending. They return home to celebrate their earnings, and Vance is brokenhearted to learn that Clint married his sweetheart, Cathy (Debra Paget), since they all believed Vance had died. The Reno family struggles with the pressure of the eldest brothers’ legal battles, and Vance, Clint and Cathy are caught in a passionate love triangle. “Love Me Tender” is loosely based on the real-life Reno Gang, making this the only movie in which Elvis played a historical character.
Spoiler alert: Elvis’ character dies at the end of “Love Me Tender.” Fans heard this spoiler, too, and as you can imagine, were not happy with this ending. The ending was altered just a bit to appease fans: Clint still died, but a ghostly image of him appeared over his grave singing “Love Me Tender.”
“Love Me Tender” premiered at New York City’s Paramount Theater with 1,500 fans lining up the night before under a 40-foot cut-out of Elvis. The movie opened nationwide on November 21. While critics were, well, critical, fans loved the movie, and it opened in second place behind Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor’s hit “Giant.”
To celebrate this movie’s 60th anniversary, we’re launching some bonus episodes of the Graceland Podcast. These bonus episodes, called “Starring Elvis Presley,” will focus on Elvis’ movies. We’ll cover one movie per episode, starting with “Love Me Tender.” Listen to the podcast now.
Want to learn more about Elvis’ movie career?
Check out the VIP tour at Graceland. Our VIP exhibit is “Elvis in Hollywood: From Teen Idol to Leading Man,” and it features scripts, movie costumes and more from Elvis’ movie career. Make your plans to experience Graceland now.
Talk back! What’s your favorite part about “Love Me Tender” – do you have a favorite line, song or scene?