Elvis Presley stars in trailer for 1956 film Love Me Tender
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66 years ago this month, Elvis crooned Love Me Tender in the heartbreaking Western of the same name. The song and the singer remain as famous today as ever but his very first film was the only time he would not receive top billing – which went to his on-screen brother Richard Egan. It was also the last time he would appear with his natural mid-brown hair and also the last time a film killed off his character. Elvis swore it would never happen again after it made his mother cry. Plus, of course, film producers quickly realised it was not what the screaming fans in the cinema wanted to see. The movie was also the start of a pattern of The King falling for his co-stars, but, in this case, Debra Paget set the benchmark all others (including his future wife) would have to reach. She also became notorious for a scandalous ‘nearly naked’ snake dance. WATCH THE MOMENT ELVIS MET DEBRA PAGET BELOW AND SCROLL DOWN FOR THE SNAKE DANCE
Elvis met young actress and dancer Debra Paget on the Milton Berle Show. It was The King’s second appearance on the popular national TV show and provoked a horrified outcry from critics and conservative viewers. The 21-year-old rising star had put aside his guitar and showed the world his signature dance moves for the first time in a now-iconic rendition of Hound Dog.
Outraged publications branded him “obscene” and demanded a boycott. Naturally, this simply sent the singer’s career stratospheric. Debra, however, was too focussed on her own dance routine on the show to pay Elvis that much attention, not knowing she would find herself starring opposite him in his first film role just months later. However, she gamely played along with a skit, pretending to scream with excitement when they were introduced in the show.
Debra was already an established Hollywood star at 22, with 19 films under her belt. That same year she also starred opposite Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in Cecil B DeMille’s Biblical epic The Ten Commandments.
Unusually, there was no on-screen kiss in Love Me Tender but a smitten Elvis made sure there was a very passionate, lip-locked embrace in the promotional images. He “reportedly flirted with Paget almost from day one and followed her around the set like a lovesick puppy.”
Debra later recalled in 1997: “I was very shy, very quiet and very immature for my age. I was in my very early 20’s, but I was emotionally more like a 16-year-old. Elvis and I just sort of came together like a couple of children, really.”
She took him home to meet her parents, who he charmed with his manners, leaving the room once to go and get Mrs Paget a chair: “From the time he first came to the house, my folks considered Elvis a member of the Paget clan – which I believe, he reciprocated. I had the feeling that our closely-knit family life resembled his own.”
The besotted star would even drive over at night and park nearby, watching the house jealously to see if Debra had any other callers. Like Elvis, Debra was deeply religious but also had a wilder side – which would be exposed three years later in one of the most provocative scenes ever seen on screen at that time.
In 1997 Debra revealed: “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.”
In fact, she was actually already engaged in a two-year affair with the billionaire industralist and film producer Howard Hughes – a man far more rich, famous and powerful than Elvis.
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But Debra always spoke highly of Elvis in the following years, saying: “He was a precious, humble, lovely person. Elvis had a lot of talent; there was a lot of depth they never used. He could have been a fine actor.”
Frustrated by opportunities in Hollywood, in 1958, Debra travelled to Germany to film Fritz Lang’s epic two-part historical Indian saga, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.
The latter contains an extraordinarily daring (for the time) snake dance sequence, where the star appears to be almost entirely naked.
WATCH DEBRA PAGET IN THE INDIAN TOMB SNAKE DANCE:
Elvis never forgot her and many of his leading ladies like Joan Blackman resembled the brunette beauty and it’s hard to miss how much Priscilla Presley also shared a very similar look and styling.
Meanwhile, back in the US, Debra’s career was in decline with diminishing film roles and a few TV appearances, mainly in Westerns like Rawhide and Johnny Ringo.
Her parents might not have wanted her to marry Elvis, but she made two short-lived mistakes – a four-month marriage to actor David Street in 1958, followed by an even shorter marriage to director Budd Boetticher, from who she separated after just 22 days.
However, her third and final marriage lasted much longer. In April 1962 she married American-Chinese oil magnate Ling C Kung and entered a world of extraordinary power and wealth.
Her husband’s father HH Sung was the richest man in early 20th-Century China. His aunt Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was First Lady of the Republic of China, who Life Magazine called “the most powerful woman in the world.”
Debra had one son, Gregory Teh-chi Kung. Her husband’s position and her new family prompted her retirement from acting in 1964, although the marriage ended in 1980.
She never remarried or returned to show business but became a born-again Christian in the mid-1980s and worked on numerous faith-based projects, including hosting her own show on a Christian network.
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