Daily Mail 11.08.2017
If Elvis Presley had never existed, the film Love Me Tender would still have been made. But it wouldn’t have been called Love Me Tender, and wouldn’t have had that song in it – 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 Elvis’ 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 the November, he went from being a virtual unknown to becoming the most famous young man in the world. He was 21.
In those ten months he sold tens of millions of records of Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, Love Me and, yes, Love Me Tender, too – the recording of which had gone on sale weeks before the film was released. At the same time his frequent television appearances were thrilling, seducing and horrifying America.
There had never been a star with a trajectory like his before, and, unsurprisingly, Hollywood took note – eager to cash in on the boy wonder before his popularity waned.
This coming Wednesday (August 16), on the fortieth anniversary of Elvis’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, not anyone else, knew that. As far as he was concerned, only three years earlier he had been a cinema attendant while at high school in Memphis, Tennessee, when 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, and, given a screenplay to study on the plane, Elvis had been flown out to Los Angeles. The scenes he had been told to learn were from a film soon to be made called The Rainmaker, which was to star Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. Just the thought of those two scared him stiff.
Before the test he was worried about the slight stammer he would have all his life, but Hal Wallis told him that it wouldn’t be a problem because it would just make him appear more natural.
He thought he did reasonably well, but was surprised when, despite what he’d told his manager about not wanting to sing in movies, Wallis asked to see how he looked on celluloid when he was singing. So they played him a recording of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, gave him a guitar and asked him to mime. He’d been conned, of course. He should have realised that it was his singing Hollywood were really interested in.
Not surprisingly he didn’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 given the title The Reno Brothers. Planned as a cheap, black and white, quickie Western, the story concerned a boy who has fallen in love with, and married, the fiancé of an elder idolised brother whom everyone believes to have been killed during the Civil War. Then the elder brother suddenly turns up!
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. 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 a couple of times before as the background theme for other westerns.
So, when Ken Darby, the film’s musical director put lyrics to it (under his wife’s name of Vera Matson) and made it into a hit, he was utilising an already proven melody. The other name on the song credits was that of Elvis himself, the singer’s music publishers insisting that their star should be listed as a co-writer, as had been the case on Don’t Be Cruel. But, as Elvis would candidly sa, he hadn’t written a word or a note of it.
The attribution of song writing 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 hadn’t done. ‘I’ve never written a song in my life. It’s all a big hoax,’ he would admit – though that didn’t stop his manager demanding half the song writing royalties on his client’s 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 couldn’t fail. ‘Until then a lot of people thought all I could do was belt,’ he would say, when it became an all-time favourite.
Actor Dennis Hopper, then an up and coming Hollywood hopeful, had wheedled his way into the recording session and stood, he would later say, ‘about ten yards behind Elvis in the studio to see how he worked’.
But when he suddenly heard the song’s playback coming over the speakers he was astonished. He might have been close to Elvis, but he hadn’t even heard him singing. Elvis had sung the song very quietly into the microphone, at just about the level he would have used if he’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 actors’ lines, too. Debra Paget was playing the female lead, and was very pretty. But, although he hung around her throughout the entire shoot, she obviously wasn’t interested in him.
Later he read that she’d assumed before they’d met that he was ‘a moron’, and had then been ‘pleasantly surprised’ when she discovered he wasn’t. Obviously she hadn’t been pleasantly surprised enough.
Off the set he was more successful. The producer of Love Me Tender, David Weisbart, had made James Dean’s film Rebel Without A Cause the previous year, and introduced Elvis to Nick Adams, who, along with Denis Hopper, had played one of the high school gang in Rebel.
Befriending Elvis, Adams soon took Natalie Wood, the female lead in Rebel, to Elvis’s suite in the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Looking back Elvis didn’t suppose ‘Mad Nat’, as he would privately come to call her, was that impressed when he quoted James Dean’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 the girl who had stood between the revving cars and brought her arms down to start the chicken run in Rebel Without A Cause. Some movie scenes you never forget.
As soon as filming was finished, he was back on tour again, only to be recalled to the studio to sing an extra verse of Love Me Tender when, after a trial screening, some fans became upset at the end of the film when his character is conveniently killed off.
Presumably, the thinking must have gone, by showing him still singing ‘after death’ anguished fans would be comforted.
At the time fan magazines were suggesting that 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 ranch style 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 Natalie was a big movie star, and he was flattered that she’d come all the way from California. So, he took the chance to show her off, riding her around town on the back of his Harley-Davidson, hoping people would see them together
What Natalie thought about Elvis and parents when she saw them at home, she never publicly said. But the Presleys were a God-fearing, recently poor, unsophisticated family, and Elvis’s mother, Gladys, wasn’t exactly impressed with Natalie and the way she went around the house in front of Vernon and Elvis wearing just a skimpy nightdress. The builders working on the refurbishments to the home couldn’t help but notice, either.
Natalie had planned to stay for a week but left, after three days, on a made-up excuse. It was a relief to everyone when she went, especially the perpetual fans waiting on the road outside who resented her.
She was only eighteen and had only just finished high school herself, but she’d been a child actress in Hollywood virtually all her life. While Elvis had been catching dogfish in Mississippi as a little boy, she’d been appearing in Miracle on 34th Street with Maureen O’Hara.
Elvis would later be told that after their first meeting in Los Angeles, Natalie had said that she thought he was ‘slow’. He probably was with her. He was out of his depth with her really. The previous year while she’d been making Rebel Without A Cause she’d been having an affair with the film’s director, Nicholas Ray. She’d been 16. He was 44.
Love Me Tender was released in late November 1956. Elvis saw the picture before it came out, and he would call in at a cinema in Memphis a couple more times to sit with the audience and watch it – always slipping out before the lights came up at the end so that no-one would see him.
At first he didn’t think he’d done too badly. Because of who he was, he was expecting a scorching from the film critics. But some of them were deliberately cruel. And although the movie made its money back in two weeks and was a huge worldwide hit, some of their barbs really hurt.
He was used to reading that he couldn’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 wasn’t true. And he could understand when the film was described as ‘horse opera’, which he supposed was a way of saying it was a western.
But was he really ‘a 172 pound six foot tall sausage’ (he was actually only about 160 pounds), ‘a goldfish’, and did his voice really sound like ‘a rusty foghorn’?
Had comments like that been printed in small town newspapers he wouldn’t have minded too much. But they were in papers in New York and Los Angeles, and he knew that everybody in the film industry would see then and laugh at him.
That hurt. But rock and roll singers had feelings, too, and before very long he began to believe he shouldn’t have been in the film at all.
He was wrong. He’d certainly been rushed to Hollywood before he was ready, but by the standards of acting in most Western movies of the time he wasn’t outshone by the other actors. The critics had let their middle-aged prejudice against rock and roll get in the way of their judgement.
He didn’t realise it then, but compared with some of the films he would make later in his career, when Hollywood really used and abused him, Love Me Tender was 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 US television shows were not seen on British TV then and who had therefore never actually seen Elvis sing, it brought him to life ar as something more than just a voice, middle aged outrage and a photograph.
As for the song, Love Me Tender, it remains one of his most enduring hits.
Being Elvis: A Lonely Life by Ray Connolly is now on sale in paperback from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.