For generations that grew up on television airings of the song-heavy, plot-light, rear-projection-crazy vehicles Elvis Presley himself dismissed as "travelogues," Presley's performance in 1956's Love Me Tender should come as a shock. The Elvis Presley movie eventually became a mini-genre in itself, but in Tender, Presley is a mere supporting player who doesn't appear until a good 20 minutes in, and who plays second fiddle to a solid slab of beefcake named Richard Egan. It's an anomaly in Presley's film career, too—his acting chops get more of a workout than his pelvis or vocal chords.
The film began as a non-musical Western, but was rewritten to accommodate its key supporting player's surging fame. So even though the film is set in 1865, Presley shows off plenty of the moves that shocked and titillated the world 90 years later. The first-billed Egan stars as a Confederate soldier who robs a Union payroll at the end of the Civil War. Once Egan learns that the war is over, he returns home and learns that his sweetheart, thinking him dead, married his adoring younger brother (Presley) in his absence. Awkwardness ensues, but matters of the heart recede into the background once the Yankees show up to demand the stolen loot back.
For much of its duration, Love Me Tender is a solid, unremarkable Western melodrama highlighted by clumsily integrated musical numbers in which Presley's hip-swiveling antics mark his character as a product of the 1950s only slightly less indelibly than if he were driving around in an Edsel. For the first two acts, everyone behaves with remarkable civility and politeness, considering the highly charged emotions at play. The film doesn't truly come alive until Presley goes mad with jealousy and shows off the brooding intensity that might have made him a respected peer of Marlon Brando or James Dean, had he escaped Colonel Tom Parker's golden handcuffs. But after delivering a refreshingly bleak ending, the filmmakers hedge their bets with exactly the kind of commercially calculated postscript that would first compromise, then cripple, the icon's once-promising film career.