Rock’n’roll singing army officer Josh Morgan (Elvis Presley) is ordered to accompany Captain Salbo ([Jack Albertson) to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee on a mission to persuade his kinfolk to allow the military to build a missile base on their land. Things get complicated once Josh encounters his look-alike hillbilly cousin Jodie Tatum (Elvis with blonde hair!) along with two beautiful relatives, Selena (Pamela Austin) and Azalea (Yvonne Craig) who fall head over heels for their crooning cousin.
Dopey but lovable as only an Elvis movie can be, Kissin’ Cousins gave fans two Elvises (Elvi?) for the price of admission though whether the film was twice as entertaining was open to debate. Aside from an alarmingly cavalier attitude towards the genetic consequences of, ahem, keeping romance in the family, the plot sports a Cold War angle that seems pretty bizarre when viewed in the context of an innocuous musical comedy. In fact the film shares some thematic similarities with Li’l Abner (1959), the musical adaptation of the likeable comic strip created by Al Capp. In both movies a family of backwoods hillbillies are caught up in a government scheme involving missile tests. Touching on the hostility towards the government among mountain folk, Kissin’ Cousins spares no clichés in depicting the kind of gun-toting, pickled possum eating hicks the Clampetts would look upon with disdain.
Given this is the kind of movie where getting Yvonne Craig and Pamela Austin’s characters into skimpy bikinis is not simply an excuse for gratuitous cheesecake but an actual sub-plot, it would be a considerable stretch to describe Kissin’ Cousins as satirical. Yet there is something faintly subversive about the third act plot development wherein a hordes of woodland-dwelling nubile nymphos pick off the not-unwilling soldier boys one by one, seducing them to the joys of making love not war. On the other hand the conclusion hammers home the notion of sacrifice for the greater patriotic good, so clearly the filmmakers were trying to have things both ways.
Strangest of all the film does next to nothing with the whole concept of Elvis having an identical double. There is no case of mistaken identity, no evil twin scenario, frankly no reason for Jodie to be included in this plot at all aside from offering conclusive proof that Elvis would not be half as cool as a blonde. You do get to see the smackdown of the century as Elvis takes on Elvis in a brief karate battle. Spoiler warning: Elvis wins. Clearly the King did not come here to act and simply coasts along on a half measure of his usual charisma. Happily, veteran character players Arthur O’Connell, Glenda Farrell and Jack Albertson - a.k.a. Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) - take up the slack aided by a turbo fuel injection of va-va-voom from perky, gorgeous Austin and Craig, who of course went on to stir the hearts and loins of a generation of Bat-fans as TV’s Batgirl. Type the word “yum” into any search engine and there is a good chance their pictures will pop up. Both ladies had acted opposite Elvis before: Austin in Blue Hawaii (1961), Craig in the charming and underrated It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963).
Craig was also dating Elvis at the time, which explains their rather enthusiastic love scenes and why she ends up being the cousin Josh settles for after extensive comparison tests with Selena. Of course the logical solution would have been to have each Elvis romance both leading ladies, but instead the plot contrives to bring PFC Midge Riley (Cynthia Pepper) onto the Great Smoky Mountains as a love interest for Jodie whilst palming the stunning Selena off on Josh’s pal Sgt. Bailey (Tommy Farrell). Named after Beetle Bailey perhaps? What is with all the comic strip references in this movie? Jodie’s courtship of the lady army officer is none too subtle but though initially less than enthusiastic Midge eventually gives in. After all, dumb blonde dye-job or not, Elvis is still Elvis. Am I right, ladies?
The nutty plot (if you really want to call it that) veers off on all sorts of wild tangents with director Gene Nelson more interested in staging lively musical numbers than making any kind of sense. Keep a look out for Maureen Reagan (yes, daughter of actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan) and a young Teri Garr among the dancers. Nelson started out as an actor in musicals appearing opposite some of the leading stars of the genre including Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day before his most notable appearance as cowboy Will Parker in the seminal Oklahoma! (1955). He debuted as a director with the horror film Hand of Death (1962) and made the Hank Williams biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) along with two films with Elvis including Harum Scarum (1965). After bowing out with The Cool Ones (1967), a go-go dancing comedy starring Roddy McDowall, Nelson stuck with television where he directed episodes of shows like Star Trek, The Rifleman and I Dream of Jeannie. Interestingly, Nelson also composed the songs for Kissin’ Cousins, none of which are likely to make you forget Heartbreak Hotel or Love Me Tender in a hurry but are goofily likeable. Which sums up the movie as a whole.