Saturday, January 12, 2019

Hail and Happy Birthday to the King :: Elvis + Elvis = Something Rather Egregious in Gene Nelson's Kissin' Cousins (1964)

Oh, mama, but it’s that time a year again, keeds, where we, here, at Micro-Brewed Reviews celebrate our man Elvis Presley’s birthday by once more getting “Promised Land” stuck on repeat in our cerebral jukebox, grill us up a peanut-butter 'n' nanner sammich that’s more bacon than bread, and take a look at one of The Big E’s fractured forays into feature film. And, believe me, it don’t get much more fractured than Kissin’ Cousins (1964). A film where we get two Elvises for the price of one (-- well, sort of, but not really).

Seems in the interest of National Defense, the Pentagon has prioritized the establishment of an ICBM launch site deep in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee for strategic reasons (-- of which our film never makes all that clear, really). Regardless, when Uncle Sam says you go, you go; and so, not ready to drop the hammer of eminent domain just yet, several attempts have been made to negotiate for a land lease with the Tatums: the indigenous clan of trigger-happy hillbillies currently residing on said strategic mountainside of Big Smokey Mountain -- namely Pappy Tatum, but all envoys have ended in failure and were subsequently run off the coveted rocky-top under a hail of buckshot.

Fearing Operation: Big Smokey is about to go up in smoke, General Alvin Donford (Woods) gives Captain Robert Salbo (Albertson) just one more week to secure the lease or be permanently reassigned to Greenland. At his wits end, Salbo begs for reinforcements, like, say, a tank battalion, but Donford has another idea, thinking they need someone who can speak hayseed and is fluent in the etiquette of cornpone to communicate on the Tatum’s rural level. And after a quick check of military records, the computer belches up a hot-shot Second Lieutenant from the Air Force, Josh Morgan (The Big E), who was not only born in the vicinity of Big Smokey Mountain but is also distantly related to the Tatums on his grandmother’s side, who is then assigned as Salbo’s chief negotiator.

And so, as these two lead a squad of Army Engineers up the mountain, the column soon comes under fire from the mountain-folk. But despite Salbo’s orders to return fire, the invading party pops-off nary a shot. Why? Seems Josh was in charge of requisitioning the ammo and, not wanting to get anyone hurt, fudged the papers, leaving the chambers empty. Thus, Josh is volunteered to palaver with the enemy alone, carrying a white flag, which consists of a pair of nylons skewered by a portable wireless radio’s antenna (don't ask), who then trots up the mountain and is surprised to find these ambushers consist of two beautiful vixens, Azalea and Selena Tatum (Craig, Austin), and a startling doppelganger with their brother, Jody Tatum (The Big E Squared), who would be a dead ringer of our hero if not for his blond hair. (Sing it with me now: “Oh, they’re cousins, identical inbred cousins…”)

Once Josh proves his heritage, manages to keep the highly amorous Azalea and Selena at arm's length, and takes two falls out of three from champion wrassler Jody, they agree to take him and Salbo to meet Pappy Tatum (O’Connell). But despite the offer of building a private road on the other side of the mountain and one thousand Yankee dollars a month, the initial negotiations break down and end in disaster over culture shock and intestinal distress when Ma Tatum’s (Farrell) roadkill vittles and rotgut moonshine revolt and repeat on Salbo. And with the clock still ticking, Josh now has less than three days to regroup and try again. For not only must he convince the stubborn Pappy, who has no use for "government critters" on his mountain, to agree to the missile base, but decide on who to romance between the bumpkin’s two voluptuous daughters. And if he fails, the Greenland destined Salbo promises Josh his own reassignment to the northernmost outpost of the D.E.W. Line somewhere above the Arctic circle...

Hoo-boy. Where do we start with this one, Boils and Ghouls. First, I am honestly surprised Colonel Tom Parker didn’t demand a double-salary for his boy, my boy, for playing two roles in Kissin’ Cousins. Yeah, after being played the fool during the production of Viva Las Vegas (1964), where director George Sydney ran circles around Parker and his constant meddling and demands, the agent and promoter had had enough and started to cement his own scheme.

You see, back in '64, Presley was obligated to shoot two pictures, back to back, for MGM. And while Viva Las Vegas was filmed first it wouldn’t be released until after the follow-up feature, which hadn’t been shot yet. Now, Parker hated Viva Las Vegas with a passion for myriad (and petty) reasons: one, he felt Sydney was favoring co-star Ann-Margret too much and let her steal the movie; secondly, at the time, Presley was paid $500,000 a picture plus 50% of the profits, of which Parker, as his manager, received half of all those dividends. Of course, that back half amount only counted what profits were left after all other production and advertising costs were recouped first. And so, Parker was constantly negotiating with several Hollywood studios for a new contract, seeking a million dollar payday per-picture deal upfront. Thus, until that was secured, Parker went out of his way to keep production costs down to reap all he could off the back-end of the deal, explaining why the man went apoplectic over the money producer Jack Cummings and Sydney and the studio were “wasting” on the lavish production of Viva Las Vegas, which went over time and way over budget.

"Jungle" Sam Katzman (Seated). 

Ever the mercenary, Parker was determined to never let this happen again and quickly made a two-picture deal with Sam Katzman and his merry band of Four-Leaf Productions for that follow-up feature. A legendary figure in the industry for his cheapness, Katzman was known as the ‘King of the Quickies’ and never met a corner he wouldn’t cut. The notoriously stingy producer started as a prop man in the silents, and then worked his way up, learning all the phases of movie-making, until he became a producer in 1935 with Tombstone Terror (1935). He then worked in the serials, flogged the Bowery Boys until they were all long in the tooth, took Johnny Weissmuller out of his Tarzan loincloth when he got too paunchy and turned him into Jungle Jim, and then really left his mark in the 1950s with Columbia and a string of exploitation pictures, including Rock Around the Clock (1956) and The Giant Claw (1957).

And together, these two decided to do a stealth remake of Li’l Abner (1959), which was based on the exaggerated stereotypes of the backwater yokels and yahoos of Dogpatch found in Al Capp’s satirical comic strip. In the original film, Dogpatch had been designated as a new atomic bomb test site and everyone needed to evacuate. Perhaps in an effort to not get sued by Paramount, screenwriter Gerald Drayson Adams at least switched it around, wanting to make Big Smokey a launch site instead of ground zero. 

And the similarities don’t really end there, either, with Pa and Ma Tatum easily serving as surrogates for Pappy and Mammy Yokum; Ma Tatum’s “Maiden’s Breath” moonshine paralleling Mammy Yokum’s "Yokumberry Tonic,” and Jody Tatum is obviously derived from Earthquake McGoon -- the world’s dirtiest wrassler; and instead of confining it to just the Sadie Hawkins number, Big Smokey Mountain is infested by a horde of nubile and extremely horny young girls, known as the Kittyhawks en masse, who are always on the prowl and constantly spring out of nowhere to pounce on any unsuspecting males on the mountain like, say, oh, I don’t know, a platoon of Army engineers.

To try and make some sense out of all this, Katzman hired Gene Nelson to direct (-- who also co-wrote the script with Adams). Apparently, a 13-year old Nelson saw Flying Down to Rio (1933) and was captivated by the grace of Fred Astaire and decided then and there he would become a dancer. He toured with Sonja Henie’s Ice Follies until joining the army during World War II. Once he got out of the service, Nelson signed a multi-year contract with Warner Bros. and appeared in film and on TV, co-starring with Doris Day in Tea for Two (1950) before landing his most notable role as Will Parker in the big screen adaptation of Oklahoma (1955).

Sadly, Nelson’s dancing career was cut short when he suffered a fractured pelvis when he fell off a horse during a shoot in 1957. And while he would continue acting, Nelson would also slide into the director’s chair by 1960; first on TV, and then made his feature film debut with the oddball John Agar-fueled creature feature, Hand of Death (1962). Kissin’ Cousins would be Nelson’s third go as a director. And he was given just 15 days and a budget of $800,000 (-- over half of which went to Parker and Presley up front, remember, so make that $300,000 and change). 

By contrast, Viva Las Vegas was an eleven week shoot with a budget estimated just north of $1 million. I don’t want to even fathom how difficult it must’ve been to try and pull off an MGM-style barn-burning musical on a Sam Katzman budget with Parker breathing down your neck and cutting corners wherever he could. In the end, Nelson tried his best but still went two days over-schedule, and while Katzman would claim the picture cost nearly $2 million the old skinflint was also well-renowned for fudging and inflating his own numbers.

As for the star of the picture, Elvis Presley was about to reach the halfway point of his film career. And while it hadn’t quite yet plunged into the insipid depths of Easy Come, Easy Go (1967) or colossal misfires like Charro! (1969), it was precariously teetering over the precipice, just waiting for Parker to give it that one last fatal nudge. To get a feel of what he was getting into, Presley was given a private screening of Hootenanny Hoot (1963); a nine day wonder Nelson had directed for Katzman with musical direction by Fred Karger, who had composed all the scores for Katzman’s cheapjack musical-act showcases since Twist Around the Clock (1961).

I know The Patty Duke Show had premiered the year before Kissin’ Cousins went into production, but I have no idea if the notion of identical cousins was cribbed from that sitcom or not but the timing is suspicious. Presley apparently loathed the wig he had to wear while playing Jody. Lance LeGault would serve as a stunt-double and stand-in for Presley when both actors were required to be on screen together. A fine character actor with a very distinctive voice, LeGault is probably best remembered for playing Colonel Decker, who was charged with rounding up the fugitive A-Team on TV. He joined Presley’s entourage during Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) and would serve as an uncredited stunt-coordinator on several of his pictures before LeGault’s career shifted to the small screen.

Somewhat sadly, the film pretty much fails to cash in on this notion of dueling Presleys. I honestly wonder if Jody Tatum had a bigger role in the screenplay that fell to the wayside to save money. There’s hardly any interaction between Josh and Jody; and when they do share the screen, we mostly only see the back of the other’s head or jump back and forth with strategic jump cuts.

You can count the opticals and split-screens used on one hand, and that’s just sad. This kind of FX could’ve allowed for some shenanigans and actually give the audience what the promotional materials promised, but the production had neither the time nor the money (or interest) for such frivolities, meaning it was cheaper to just use a double. And it won’t take that sharp of an eye to see several blown takes where you can clearly see LeGault’s face that are left in simply because neither Katzman or Parker cared to fix it. I mean, seriously, during the reprise of "Kissin' Cousins" for the finale they weren't even trying anymore.

And that’s why Jody kinda disappears for most of the movie, or lingers in the back of a crowd, trying really hard to keep someone in front of him to obscure his face. And so, it’s up to Josh to keep the movie rolling. And he hits upon an idea to win Pappy Tatum’s kids over first, then Ma Tatum, and get them all on his side. And to accomplish this, he takes the girls into town for a huge shopping spree on the government’s dime, and then finds Jodie a girl with the timely arrival of Private Midge Riley (Pepper), a WAC with some much needed typing skills and a nice right hook. And it’s around this time Josh settles on Azalea because for some reason Selena has also disappeared from the movie. Weird.

Anyhoo, Josh’s plan is coming together nicely as he shifts his efforts to Ma Tatum, only to find her in the middle of a nervous breakdown because the family coonhound has returned without Pappy and she fears the worst. Luckily, what’s left of the search party after the Kittyhawks thin them out considerably finds Pappy dangling from a tree; seems he tried to seek refuge there from a bear attack and got stuck. Once he’s rescued, Pappy is so grateful he decides to throw a giant hootenanny and invites all his kin from the mountain, Salbo, and the Army engineers.

This celebration then gets a boost when Josh announces there will be a triple wedding: him and Azalea, Jodie and Midge, and Selena and one of the engineers. (Ah, so that’s where she went.) And with General Donford due at any moment, alas, Pappy still hasn’t been swayed as he drinks Salbo under the table, who passes out from acute corn-mash toxicity, leaving it to Josh to finish the negotiations. And he finally convinces Pappy to sign on with a promise that no government personnel will ever be allowed on his side of the mountain in perpetuity, meaning no Revenue men looking for his illegal still. Which leaves us with one last musical number before the end credits finally roll.

Great googly-moogly but this movie always gives me a bad case of the Screaming Wilhelms. There are eight musical numbers crammed into this 96-minute film, and these tunes are another watershed moment in Presley’s film career, where Parker’s low-rent songwriters were simply given a situation or a phrase of dialogue from the film and concocted a nonsensical song around it that did not advance the plot but brought the film to a screeching halt. And worse yet, during the big production numbers for the fizzling finale I have no doubt there was very limited rehearsal, maybe one walk through, and then the cameras rolled as everyone flails around completely out of sync -- one dancer even falls to the ground during “Barefoot Ballad” but the cameras kept rolling, making everything look amateurish and slapped and dashed within an inch of its cinematic life, which I guess it probably was.

Not all the songs are terrible. The title theme is rather catchy, as are the ballads, “One Boy, Two Little Girls” and “Tender Feeling.” But oddly enough the best number in the movie was Glenda Farrell’s torch song, “Pappy, Won’t You Please Come Home.” My unabashed love of my gal Glenda is well documented elsewhere (Torchy Blane 4VR!!!), but she is honestly pretty great in this and I believe that’s actually her singing but I can’t confirm it for certain. 

Arthur O'Connell is equally hilarious as the constantly snockered Pappy. As is the constantly befuddled Jack Albertson. And it's these three professionals and their comedic chops that keeps the film afloat and give it any real juice. And I’m also grateful to this movie for making me realize O'Connell and Albertson were two different people as I always thought Parnell McCarthy and Grandpa Joe were played by the same guy.

As for the two leading ladies, we have Yvonne Craig and Pamela Austin. Both had appeared in previous Presley pictures -- Craig in It Happened at the World's Fair (1963) and Austin in Blue Hawaii (1961), and both had dated their co-star for a spell off-camera. As I mentioned earlier, with Selena disappearing, Craig gets the most play and she and Presley do have some decent chemistry together. 

But the most hilarious thing about the movie, after the shopping spree, and Azalea and Selena comeback wearing bikinis this totally backfires because the producers wouldn’t let them show any navel to keep the film family friendly, making it appear they are both wearing diapers that, well, appear to be full. 

Craig, of course, would go on to play Batgirl in the Batman TV series destined to hit in 1966. Austin, meanwhile, was about to join the car revolution and become a permanent fixture in the advertising world as “The Dodge Girl."

As for Presley himself, well, he hadn’t quite given up yet and still seems engaged for the most part as Josh but seems rather stiff as Jodie as I know he didn't like playing a hick or rube because it fed into Presley's insecurity about his background. Then again, Presley was kind of distracted during the production. See, it was during the shooting of Kissin’ Cousins, which subbed in the San Bernardino Mountains of California for the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to save even more money, when Priscilla Beaulieu was finally allowed to leave her sequestration at Graceland and visit Presley in Hollywood.

L to R: Priscilla Beaulieu, Elvis, Col. Parker, Sam Katzman.

But her visit was cut short when Ann-Margret was quoted in a London paper saying she was in love with her Viva Las Vegas co-star and hadn’t ruled out getting married to him. Fearing the press would start digging into Presley’s other relationships, including the one with the underage Priscilla, Parker had her quickly sent back to Memphis, and then set about to clandestinely torpedo Presley’s relationship with Ann-Margret. A goal he eventually achieved.

Speaking of hicks and rubes, one of the things I also found odd about Kissin’ Cousins was the subject matter. Remember, back in the 1950s, Elvis was known as the “howling hillbilly cat,” whose jungle music and gyrating hips were a sign the apocalypse was nigh. And while he was in the Army, Hal Wallis and the William Morris Agency worked double-time to clean-up his image before he got back. And on that they succeeded as the Elvis Presley of G.I. Blues (1960) and Blue Hawaii was a far cry from the predatory Elvis Presley of “Let’s Play House” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” 

Thus, this return to southern-fried bumpkin buffoonery seems counterproductive to me. But strangely enough, Kissin’ Cousins would earn a nomination as Best Musical by the Writer’s Guild for 1964. And while you’d think the competition must’ve been pretty bad that year to warrant this you’d be wrong as other nominees included the superior vehicle Viva Las Vegas, My Fair Lady (1964), and the eventual winner, Mary Poppins (1964).

Thus and so, 1964 was the crucible for Presley’s film career. With Viva Las Vegas proving to be his biggest moneymaker it still could’ve gone either way in someone else’s hands but, nope. All you have to do is do the crooked math. For while Viva Las Vegas made more money, Kissin’ Cousins made more profit for Parker. And that’s why Kissin’ Cousins set the assembly line template for all of Presley’s follow up features. For no matter how little they spent on the production, or how shoddy the results, the films still made money. Things had been leaning this way since Flaming Star (1960) and Wild in the Country (1961) proved box-office disappointments, which convinced Parker no one wanted to see Presley playing anyone else but Elvis Presley. Which is why Presley would never be surrounded with such talent, production values, or co-stars of the Viva Las Vegas caliber ever again and instead wound up in vehicles like Harum Scarum (1965), which reunited Presley, Parker, Katzman and Nelson into what I feel is, hands down, the worst movie Presley ever did.

As Variety surmised back in the day Hollywood had learned its lesson when it came to Presley pictures: “Do it on a dime, fast as you can, and for Presley fans only.” So, for all intents and purposes, Presley's film career was officially scuttled at this point and never had a chance for legitimacy after the financial turnaround of Kissin’ Cousins. And while these later films can be enjoyed on some level as the goofs they are, it’s still bittersweet. And while I do take some cold comfort that Parker essentially cut his own throat with this cheap-ass approach as the films got worse and the returns got smaller, resulting in even lower budgets, lower production values, even more inane songs, and even lower box office, until the whole thing finally cratered for good with Change of Habit (1969), and he totally had it coming, I just wish it hadn’t come at Presley’s expense.

Other Points of Interest:

Kissin' Cousins (1964) Four-Leaf Productions :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Sam Katzman / D: Gene Nelson / W: Gerald Drayson Adams, Gene Nelson / C: Ellis W. Carter / E: Ben Lewis / M: Fred Karger / S: Elvis Presley, Arthur O'Connell, Glenda Farrell, Jack Albertson, Yvonne Craig, Pamela Austin, Cynthia Pepper, Donald Woods Donald Woods

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