Presley plays Clint Reno, the youngest of the four Reno brothers who stays home to take care of his mother and the family farm as older brothers Vance, Brett and Ray fight in the American Civil War for the Confederate Army. The family is mistakenly informed that eldest brother Vance has been killed on the battlefield. After four years of war, the brothers return home and find that Vance's girlfriend Cathy has married Clint. Although Vance accepts this wholeheartedly ("We always wanted Cathy in the family"), the family has to struggle to reach stability with this issue. The subplot of unresolved passion carries the film; it is clear from the outset upon the Reno brothers return home that Cathy still loves Vance, although she is true to the younger Clint. Honor prevails for Vance, but jealousy turns Clint into an irrationally thinking rival for the love of the heroine. In the film's opening scenes, the main plot is presented; the three Reno brothers, serving as Confederate cavalrymen, attack a Union train carrying Federal payroll of $12,000. They do not know that the war ended only a day before. The Confederates come to a decision to keep the money as spoils of war, an issue that will come back into the plot after the Reno brothers return home. A conflict of interest ensues when Vance tries to return the money against the wishes of some of his fellow Confederates, all of whom are being sought by the U.S. Government for robbery. The film reaches its tragic conclusion with Clint's death during a final shootout. In the end, the money is returned, the Reno brothers are released, and the other three ex-Confederates are arrested. The youngest Reno brother is laid to rest at the family farmRichard Egan as Vance Reno
Debra Paget as Cathy Reno
Elvis Presley as Clint Reno
Robert Middleton as Mr. Siringo
William Campbell as Brett Reno
James Drury as Ray Reno
Neville Brand as Mike Gavin
Mildred Dunnock as Martha Reno
Russ Conway as Ed Galt
Ken Clark as Mr. Kelso
L.Q. Jones as Pardee Fleming (uncredited)
Dick Sargent as Confederate Soldier (uncredited)
Barry Coe as Mr. Davis
Before his success as a singer, Presley had shown interest in becoming an actor. He had worked as a cinema usher in his youth and would often watch his screen idols James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Tony Curtis during shifts, studying their acting and learning lines from their movies. When he first met his future manager, Colonel Tom Parker, he expressed an interest in the movies and his desire to be an actor.
In interviews during his rise to fame, Presley would often talk about his hopes of attending somewhere like the Actors Studio. He also insisted that he would not like to sing in any of his movies because he wished to be taken seriously as a film star. However, Parker had a plan to cross-promote Presley's films with his music and this led to soundtracks being as important, if not more important, than the scripts. Because of this, not only is Elvis regarded as a musician, he is regarded as an actor as well.
Presley screen-tested for Hal Wallis on March 26, 1956 at Paramount Studios. The test lasted three days and included Presley performing two scenes from The Rainmaker, and lip-syncing to Blue Suede Shoes. Wallis' partner, Joe Hazen, commented: "As a straight actor, the guy has great potentialities." His first screen test, a scene from the William Inge play The Girls of Summer, resulted in drama coach Charlotte Clary declaring to her class of students, "Now that is a natural born actor".
On April 2, Wallis offered Presley a contract for one motion picture, with options on six more. The contract was finalized on April 25, and also stipulated that Presley was free to make at least one picture a year for other studios. Wallis, who had produced classics such as Casablanca, Little Caesar, and The Maltese Falcon, had promised Presley that he would look for dramatic roles to let the singer take his acting career seriously. Wallis considered Presley for a role in The Rat Race, a film about a "naive, innocent boy" who was struggling to make it as a musician in Manhattan, but he decided against it after another studio executive said, "Elvis Presley just doesn't look like that". The film was eventually made in 1960 with Tony Curtis in the lead role. Another possible idea that Wallis mulled over was to pair Presley with Jerry Lewis. Lewis had just separated from his comedy partner Dean Martin after a successful run of seventeen movies together, but again the idea was shelved.
On April 10, Presley confidently announced during a radio interview that his debut feature would be The Rainmaker with Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn. However, despite this belief, and due to Wallis being unable to find a project "good enough for the debut of Elvis Presley", he was loaned out to 20th Century Fox on August 13 and began work on Love Me Tender on August 22. Presley's role had originally been turned down by both Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner because the part was too small, but when Presley signed up to the picture the role was expanded to take advantage of his current popularity. A somewhat more realistic film telling the story of the Reno Brothers, Rage at Dawn starring Randolph Scott, had been released by RKO Radio Pictures only the year before. According to Presley's then girlfriend, June Juanico, he was reluctant to take the role after realizing that his character died at the end, but he was persuaded to do it after she told him that the characters audiences were most likely to remember were the ones who had a tragic fate.
Presley arrived for filming with all of his lines learned, as well as the lines for all the other parts. He found filming quite tasking, once commenting to a friend that he had spent a whole day "behind a team of mules". In little more than a month Presley had recorded all the songs for the film and had finished filming his scenes.
Filming of the movie's climactic sequence, including the death scene for Presley's character, took place at the Bell Moving Picture Ranch in the Santa Susana Mountains west of the San Fernando Valley on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The exact filming location, sometimes referred to among historians as the "Rocky Hill," remained elusive for almost 60 years, until the site was discovered on an expedition by filming location researchers in early 2015. The researchers were able to locate the site by combining details from Love Me Tender and the Victor Mature movie Escort West, which also filmed on the "Rocky Hill." Additional details on this expedition can be found in the external links, below.
When Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show during a break in filming the movie, on September 9, he performed "Love Me Tender" for the first time. Two weeks later RCA confirmed that advanced sales of the single had resulted in it going Gold before even being released—an industry first.
Test screenings of the film resulted in people being upset at the death of Presley's character. Attempting to reach a compromise between the death and pleasing his fans, Presley filmed an extra scene and recorded an extra verse to the title track to be played over the end credits.
Love Me Tender had its premiere on November 15 at the Paramount Theater in New York City, and was released nationally on November 21, 1956. 20th Century Fox released 575 prints, a record for its studios at the time; normal releases were only 200-300. Presley attended a private screening of the film on November 20 at Loew's State Theater in Memphis prior to its national release. During this private screening Presley's mother, Gladys, cried at the death of her son's character at the end, leading Presley to insist that his characters would never die on screen again.
In its first week of release the film grossed $540,000, #2 at the box office for that week, beaten only by James Dean's posthumous release Giant, and had made back the money it cost the studio to produce it. Within weeks it had recouped the costs of the negatives, and despite being released in November, the film finished 1956 as the 23rd highest-grossing film of the year. Despite many critics giving it a lukewarm reception, a number of critics viewed it in a positive light. The Los Angeles Times wrote: "Elvis can act. S'help me the boy's real good, even when he isn't singing." Presley would later express regret at making the film, and was disappointed that the additions of songs had set up the future of his Hollywood career.
In his book Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Jerry Schilling recounts the atmosphere inside Loew's State Theater in Memphis during the premiere screening: "The screams of the girls around me made it just about impossible to follow the story—this was the first time I'd seen an audience treat a film like it was a live concert, loudly responding to every move made and word uttered by their favorite star." Presley would later tell his friend Cliff Gleaves that he found this type of reaction from his cinema-going fans embarrassing, and that it had prevented him from being accepted as a serious actor.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"Love Me Tender" – Nominated
In the summer of 2006, the film was released on DVD in a special 50th anniversary issue. It was featured in a slipcase, and included a set of 4 lobby card reproductions. The disc contains the movie in its original widescreen letterbox format, plus audio commentary by noted Elvis historian, and Memphis Mafia member, Jerry Schilling. The disc includes three featurettes: "Elvis Hits Hollywood", "The Colonel & The King", and "Love Me Tender: The Birth & Boom of the Elvis Hit". Also part of the disc are original trailers for Love Me Tender, Flaming Star and Wild in the Country.