The cliché is that none of Elvis Presley's narrative movies are any damn good, except perhaps for some of the songs in a few of the earliest ones (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, etc.). Though it's true that Presley's infamous manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, steered The King into a routine of family film blandness and away from more interesting offers (including, reportedly, The Defiant Ones, West Side Story and most intriguingly, Midnight Cowboy), some of his early pictures are actually quite good, especially King Creole and Flaming Star, while his later films are peppered with entertaining if innocuous entertainments: It Happened at the World's Fair, Spinout and, apologies to Paul Mavis, Paradise, Hawaiian Style.
On the other hand, after about 1964 Elvis's movies were generally pretty rotten. Harum Scarum is terrible, and Easy Come, Easy Go is nearly unwatchable. Kissin' Cousins (1964), made at the beginning of Elvis's, uh, spinout as a movie star regrettably falls into this latter category. There's not a single laugh in this would-be hillbilly comedy-military satire, and just about every opportunity for some fun is completely botched.
The story concerns the Pentagon's efforts to convince hillbilly Pappy Tatum (Arthur O'Connell) to allow Strategic Air Command to lease part of his mountain so they can build an ICBM missile base (!). General Alvin Donford (Donald Woods) assigns Captain Salbo (Jack Albertson) to "Operation Smokey Mountain," and he in turn orders 2nd Lt. Josh Morgan (Elvis), a Smokey Mountain Region native from Hidden Rock, North Carolina, to accompany him as a kind of "mountain man" liaison.
The hillbillies have no use for Josh or any of his "government critters" until Daisy Mae types Selena and Azalea Tatum (Pamela Austin and Yvonne Craig), Pappy's daughters, notice a striking resemblance between Josh and their brother Jody (also Elvis, in ludicrously unconvincing strawberry blonde wig). The girls are delighted when Josh reveals that they're all distantly related. "We're practically kissin' cousins!" he exclaims, before clearing away any doubt about his sexual orientation, awkwardly adding, "Uh...to you two gals. Not him."
Most of the picture consists of an extremely mild satire of military officiousness, with Albertson's blustery character bemused by hillbilly ways, etc., while Elvis more diplomatically tries to win everyone over by romancing the girls, providing a WAC (Cynthia Pepper) for Jody to fool around with, and lavishing the entire Tatum family with gifts.
Though "Colonel" Tom Parker deservedly gets most of the blame for Elvis's lackluster movie career, Presley was also generally saddled with aging producers and hack directors who did little to infuse the kind of energy an Elvis movie deserved. He did eight or nine films with longtime Warner Bros. and later Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis, who by the early '60s was an old man more interested in collecting art in Europe than making good movies. Worse, on Kissin' Cousins Elvis's producer is "Jungle" Sam Katzman, who made almost nothing but cheap program pictures at Monogram and, later on, Columbia.
Kissin' Cousins' director and co-screenwriter was dancer-actor Gene Nelson (Crime Wave, Oklahoma!), who turned to directing after his dancing career was cut short by a 1957 accident that fractured his pelvis. Two songs late in the film, "Barefoot Ballad" and "Once Is Enough," are quasi-Seven Brides for Seven Brothers style dance numbers that show a bit more energy than most such scenes in Elvis's movies, but overall the film is directed with no more energy or musical savvy than those helmed by hacks like Norman Taurog.
The screenplay is particularly tepid in the way it completely fails to take advantage of Josh's backwoods roots, and especially botches the "dueling Elvises" premise so emphasized in the film's advertising. Peculiarly, there's very little interaction between Josh and Jody: one might naturally have expected a climatic showdown between the two characters, or maybe a scene where they switch identities to fool everyone else, but instead Jody is a minor supporting character with little screentime and almost no emphasis, and the two rarely are ever even in the same scene together.
Possibly the filmmakers were worried about the added time and expense involved in putting two Elvises onscreen at the same time. There are only a couple of split-screen shots; mostly these scenes are achieved through clever cutting and a much less effective use of doubles.
Elvis looks bored most of the time and his songs are generally unmemorable, though "One Boy, Two Little Girls" and "Tender Feeling" are pretty good. Albertson, Austin, and Craig can do little with their stereotyped characters, though to his credit Arthur O'Connell initially is almost unrecognizable as Pa Tatum, while Glenda Farrell, the wise-cracking reporter from Mystery of the Wax Museum more than three decades before this (and memorable as Torchy Blane soon thereafter) is sweetly effective as Ma.
Video & Audio
Kissin' Cousins is presented in its original Panavision widescreen format in a strong 16:9 enhanced transfer that has good (Metro) color and decent mono sound. For reasons unknown the movie's first musical number, "Smokey Mountain Boy," was cut out of the film's VHS version and possibly TV syndication release as well, but in any case it's reinstated here. Optional French subtitles accompany the feature presentation.
Before even the main menu, the DVD automatically begins with 16:9 trailers for Viva Las Vegas and Jailhouse Rock, not a bad way to start the show though unusual for a Warner Home Video release. Also included is a much less dazzling trailer (narrated by Les Tremayne) for Kissin' Cousins, presented as an extra feature. For some reason it's not 16:9 enhanced, but rather 4:3 letterboxed and looking like something leftover from the laserdisc era.
Also included are some nice postcard-size black-and-white still reproductions, as well as a full color reproduction of the original one-sheet.
The labored comedy, bland songs, and a bored Elvis place Kissin' Cousins squarely in the bottom-third of Elvis oeuvre. Those curious about his pictures are strongly advised to look elsewhere, while even die-hard fans will find this offering awfully tepid. Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.