The making of ‘Love Me Tender’ (1956)

 

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I was ten years old when my grandparents took me to see Elvis Presley’s first picture, Love Me Tender. I think they were curious to see what all the fuss was about. I had been reading history books for a few years by then, mostly books about wars and the American Civil War especially. I knew it pretty well and nowhere did I read that Rock & Roll started towards the end of it. Yet here we have Elvis on-stage in around 1865, at the local fair, belting out ‘Poor Boy’, complete with swiveling hips and screaming female fans among the townsfolk! It is one of four songs he sings in the picture. He did not write any of them, but is credited with doing so in order to reap song-writing royalties. Surely, that must be illegal?

It was around this time that a fifteen-year old neighbor of mine named Maureen ran down our driveway screaming, ‘Jimmy’s dead! Jimmy Dean’s dead!’ Who? I had never heard of him. Maureen’s home life was not very happy so she had kind of ‘adopted’ my grandparents. The distraught girl buried her head in my grandma’s apron and sobbed for a half hour. She was inconsolable. I later learned that Maureen only loved two things – Jimmy Dean and Elvis – and one of them was gone. She had already seen Love Me Tender three or four times and had bawled her eyes out each time Elvis’s character got himself shot. And that was just make-believe.

I could never understand what girls saw in Elvis. I mean, how could they possibly prefer him over Audie Murphy? Audie was obviously the best actor in the world, he was a war hero and he was a cowboy most of the time. And he rode a horse and I loved horses. My grandfather trained two racehorses that resided in our back yard. One of them, Royal Jet, was a pretty handy sprinter. The other, Gold Jet, wouldn’t run out of sight in a sandstorm. But they were majestic, beautiful animals. Far more beautiful than Elvis Presley! And so was Audie for that matter.

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Debra Paget in Broken Arrow                         and with Elvis in Love Me Tender

Elvis developed a crush on his co-star Debra Paget but his feelings were not reciprocated. Not in the beginning anyway. She would marry three times, her third husband being a Chinese-American oil company executive and a nephew of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. On her relationship with Elvis, she had this to say: ‘Following the film, he did ask me to marry him, but my parents objected to my getting married. I cared about Elvis, but being one not to disobey my parents that did not take place. He was a precious, humble, lovely person. He could have been a fine actor.’

Debra was not quite 16 years old when she tested for the role of the Apache princess in Broken Arrow in 1949. Jimmy Stewart, her leading man, was over forty, so the producers told her to lie about her age when she met him. ‘Well, I had a birthday on the set’, she recalled, ‘and when Jimmy saw the number of candles, he screamed, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a dirty old man!’ A week after shooting finished he married his fiancée Gloria.

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Debra (16) & Jimmy Stewart (41)

Presley did not want to sing in Love Me Tender, but once he came on board that was no longer up to him. 20th Century Fox were intent on cashing in on his skyrocketing popularity. Theatre patrons the world over complained that they could not hear the dialogue once he began to sing. It was drowned out by the squeals and screams of his female fans. The picture’s budget was bumped up to $1 million with the inclusion of Elvis. It recouped its costs in the first weekend! For the only time in his career Elvis was billed third behind Richard Egan and Debra Paget. He received top billing for every other movie he appeared in.

Elvis always wanted to become an actor, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, kept signing movie contracts that always included more singing than acting. Parker was not interested in selecting quality scripts that might elevate his meal-ticket into a higher bracket of actors. Both men were making a fortune from Presley’s musical movies and their soundtrack albums. Perhaps, Parker was worried that, given half a chance, Elvis might focus on acting alone.

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Rock & Roll – Civil War style

In March 1956, Elvis tested for Hal Wallis at Paramount. The tests were carried out over three days and he impressed. Wallis’s partner, Joe Hazen, commented. ‘As a straight actor, the guy has great potentialities.’ Drama coach Charlotte Clary screened his first test for her students, declaring to her class, ‘Now, that is a natural born actor.’ Little wonder that, after more than a decade of making the same kind of musical opus again and again, he lost interest in performing and simply went through the motions in his later films. It is little known today, but Wallis seriously considered Elvis as a replacement for Dean Martin, a new partner for Jerry Lewis!

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Elvis & William Campbell              JFK                              Judy Exner                 Sam Giancana

An interesting member of the supporting cast is William Campbell who portrays Brett Reno, one of Elvis’s character’s brothers. He would become the first actor to sing with Elvis in a film, but it was the identity of his first wife that would connect him to one of America’s most historic moments. While making Love Me Tender he was in the midst of his marriage to Judith Exner. The union ended in 1958 and she moved on to more illustrious partners. Frank Sinatra soon became her lover but tired of her and introduced the attractive girl (now using the name Judith Exner Campbell) to President John F. Kennedy. They were soon lovers. Through Sinatra she also met Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana and before long was warming his bed as well. In a 1988 interview, conducted a decade or so before her death, she told of arranging meetings between Giancana and Kennedy. Had this become known to the general public back in the sixties it would surely have put paid to JFK’s political career. As it happened, his career was cut short anyway when he was shot to death in Dallas in November 1963.Giancana was the victim of a gangland execution in his home in 1975. Judith would pass away from breast cancer in 1999.

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