Elvis movies: one of the most justly reviled genres in the annals of cinema. Nearly every film starring the King was a sad squandering of his charisma and singing talents (that is once past his pre -Army years, filled with legitimate early rock ‘n’ roll classics), yet they kept getting made, churned out year after year to diminishing creative returns and quality, and causing the King’s credibility to irreparably crash and burn in the eyes of all save the legions of Elvis Presley diehards. The majority of kids of my generation failed to get exactly what the big deal was about Elvis, and upon seeing his movies in rerun on local TV we understood it even less.
During my formative years the local cornucopia of weekday afternoon cinema, THE 4:30 MOVIE, would frequently treat Tri-State area viewers to “Elvis Week,” and more often than not the films chosen by the station’s programming director were pieces of shit like FUN IN ACAPULCO, FOLLOW THAT DREAM and HARUM SCARUM that only served to reinforce the negative reputation of the King’s cinematic oeuvre. But the one truly rock-bottom-awful Elvis movie I saw during my youth that I not only love without condition but also own the DVD of is 1964’s incredible KISSIN’ COUSINS, a prime example of the kind of idiotic redneck humor later popularized by the likes of HEE-HAW! and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (and to some extent the just-out-of-the-gate THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and its subset of satellite programs). KISSIN’ COUSINS is the kind of movie that’s so unapologetically stupid that the viewer gets caught up in its insidious, utterly brain-dead hijinx and sits there grinning from ear-to-ear like one of the inbreds depicted in the story. Seriously, how can you not love an Elvis flick that shamelessly advocates incest, not just in the story, but also in poorly written song?
Playing out like a story arc from L’IL ABNER, the plot revolves around the U.S. Strategic Air Command’s desire to build an ICBM base in the Smoky Mountains, but their plans meet with a snag when stereotypical hillbilly/drunk Pappy Tatum (Arthur O’Connell) refuses to deal with the government and allow them to lease the mountain they have their eyes on. Captain Salbo (Jack Albertson, best known as “the Man” from TV’s CHICO AND THE MAN) is tasked with convincing Pappy to co-operate — and should Salbo fail he’ll be permanently reassigned to Greenland — so the Captain calls in 2nd Lieutenant Josh Morgan (Elvis, natch) to help him bargain with the hillbillies because Josh was raised in the area and is actually related to Pappy and his kin. Josh reluctantly agrees to help — the Captain threatens to make Josh his second in command in Greenland should he refuse — and before you can say “the Beatles have made me utterly superfluous,” Elvis is leading a platoon of soldiers deep into the woods he left so long ago and singing the incredibly lame “Smoky Mountain Boy,” a terrible song made that much worse by being sung by the guy who once kicked so much ass with “Hound Dog,” “Little Sister” and “You’re So Square.”
NOTE: since there’s no way of avoiding Elvis basically playing himself, no matter what role he’s in, from here on I’ll just identify Josh as Elvis.
Upon arriving in Pappy Tatum’s territory, the platoon finds itself under rifle fire from the hotter-than-a-jalapeno-shit duo of Selena and Azalea Tatum (Pamela Austin and the very toothsome, pre-Batgirl Yvonne Craig, making her second Elvis movie appearance following the previous year's IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD'S FAIR), so it’s up to Elvis to make peace with the mountainhotnesses . Discovering that they’re cousins, the trio immediately falls in lust and Elvis finds himself in the middle of a triangle with the two horny sisters.
But before Elvis can get down to the serious business of impregnating his own kin, he meets his blonde lookalike cousin Jody (also played by Elvis in a bravura turn that portrays the mountain-Elvis as being about cerebrally on par with a can of Lemon Pledge), a testosterone-fueled idiot who’s the “champeen wrassler” of the whole mountain. Turning the "meet cute" on its ear, there's a great bit between Josh, er, Elvis and Jody when they meet: Elvis mentions to Jody and the girls that they're "kissin' cousins," before clarifying he'd be into that with the girls but not Jody, just in case anyone thought he was a 'mo or something. From that point on the film falls into the standard Elvis movie formula offightin’, courtin’ and singin ’, and by the time the film’s running time has ended all conflicts are ludicrously solved via the timely use of copious amounts of alcohol and the participation of the Kittyhawks, a roving tribe of hot nymphomaniacs from neighboring Kittyhawk Valley who infest Pappy’s mountain on a never-ending quest for dick.
No, seriously! I swear this is all actually in the movie!!!
Pappy agrees to lease the mountain to the Gubmint, Jody comes dangerously close to practically (comedically) raping a vute blonde WAC (Cynthia Pepper) who falls for his manly charms nonetheless, and the entire platoon of soldiers get their drunken hump on with theKittyhawks, so it’s a win/win situation all around. We’re also “treated” to a ludicrous blues song performed by Pappy’s wife (Glenda Farrell) when he disappears, presumably never to return, and she’s accompanied by a baying bloodhound, so what more could one ask for?
However, if you’re a true fan of the King, KISSIN’ COUSINS offers not one memorable number performed by him, instead trotting out listless, assembly line tunes that once heard will be forgotten less than a half hour later (on the other hand, the song with the dog is so bizarre that it’s damned near unforgettable, so that should tell you all you need to know about the soundtrack’s merits).
Shot on less of a budget than would pay for a super-sized meal at McDonald’s, KISSIN’ COUSINS was directed by one Gene Nelson, a guy who did scads of work in television, including the classic original series STAR TREK episode “The Gamesters of Triskelion” — which could easily have been the plot of an Elvis movie had one substituted the King for William Shatner. Think about it; you know I’m right!!! — and as a result the movie looks like an extended episode of any of the shows set in and around Hooterville. Oh, and let us not forget that the film was produced by Sam Katzman , the man who brought the world one of the all-time worst giant monster flicks, 1957’s THE GIANT CLAW, featuring a super-bogus giant bird marionette whose inclusion in KISSIN’ COUSINS would have been a masterstroke of sheer absurdity.
The title character from THE GIANT CLAW (1957): the one element missing from KISSIN' COUSINS.
In total Elvis Presley made thirty-one features and two concert documentaries, and of that body of work perhaps 1/8 of it is legitimately watchable as entertainment. The remainder ranges from the merely mediocre to the rock bottom horrendous, so it’s good to know which of the King’s cinematic floaters are actually worth sitting through for their utter wretchedness, and KISSIN ’ COUSINS is pretty much right at the top of that redolent heap of celluloid equine excrement. It’s a brainless and breezy way to kill an hour and a half, plus you get Yvonne Craig running around in a yellow bikini, so all is right in the world. Next time this shows up on Turner Classic Movies, take a chance on KISSIN’ COUSINS and be sure to have a couple of six-packs on hand. You’ll definitely need them.