101. SKIDOO (1968)

“It is the gassiest, grooviest, swingingest, trippiest movie you’ve ever seen… Anybody that don’t like that, daddy, don’t like chicken on Sunday.”–Sammy Davis, Jr. recommending Skidoo to the younger generation in the film’s trailer

DIRECTED BY: Otto Preminger

FEATURING: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, , Alexandra Hay, , Austin Pendleton, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang, , Burgess Meredith, , Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, George Raft, Richard Kiel, Harry Nilsson

PLOT: Tony is a retired mobster living in the suburbs with wife Flo and daughter Darlene, who has an unwelcome (to Tony) interest in dating hippies. A crime kingpin known as “God” pressures the ex-hit man into doing one last job—going undercover in Alcatraz to assassinate a stool pigeon.  When Tony accidentally ingests LSD in the pen, his entire worldview is flipped and he decides to ditch the hit and break out of the clink; meanwhile, Flo and Darlene have taken it upon themselves to track down God with the help of a band of flower children.

Still from Skidoo (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Otto Preminger had been nominated as Best Director for two Academy Awards (for Laura and The Cardinal).  Known for pushing the envelope on taboo topics, Preminger was instrumental in breaking the back of the Hollywood Production Code by releasing The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which dealt with the then-forbidden topic of heroin addiction, without MPAA approval.
  • Skidoo was a giant flop sandwiched between two other Preminger flops, Hurry Sundown (1967) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970).  Despite its notorious reputation, Skidoo was part of a series of failed films and was not solely responsible for Preminger’s fall from grace.
  • Two years after Skidoo, screenwriter Doran William Cannon penned the exceedingly weird Brewster McCloud (1970).
  • This was Groucho Marx’s final film.  He dropped LSD (with writer Paul Krassner) in preparation for the role.
  • Preminger also took LSD, supposedly under the guidance of none other than Timothy Leary (who promoted the film in the trailer).  Preminger had originally been slated to make an anti-acid movie, but had decided that he should experience the drug before condemning it.  After his trip he decided to make Skidoo instead.
  • Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Cesar Romero, who all have cameo bits in Skidoo, had also appeared together in the same movie just two years before: as the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Joker in Batman: The Movie (1966).  Director Otto Preminger had a rare acting role as Mr. Freeze in two episodes of the “Batman” TV show in 1966.
  • After flopping in 1968, Skidoo became virtually a lost film—not because it was suppressed or the prints were unavailable, but because no one seemed interested in exhibiting it.  A Turner Classic Movies screening in 2008 was the first opportunity most people had to view the movie since its release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jackie Gleason’s acid trip is one for the ages, particularly when he sees Groucho Marx’s cigar-puffing head affixed atop a rotating wood screw.  His response to the apparition, naturally, is to say “Oh no, I’m not playing your game… go ahead, drop,” at which point the screwball vision slips down the prison sink drain.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Like an onion soaked in high-grade acid, Skidoo contains layers upon layers of weirdness. In 1968 it was not that far out for a movie to take us on a swirly psychedelic journey to check out that purple haze all in our brains. What was freaky was for establishment icons Otto Preminger, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Groucho Marx to serve as our tour guides. Add to that the fact that the film is a notorious flop full of painfully strained attempts at comedy, jaw-dropping left-field musical numbers, scattershot satire, and Harry Nilsson singing the closing credits, and you have a singular pro-drug oddity that mines rare camp.


Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski discussing the trailer for Skidoo (1968)

COMMENTS: Watching Otto Preminger’s Skidoo is like listening to a cover version of the Doors’ Oedipal epic “The End” performed by a scatting Tony Bennett (“mother… I want to… scooby-dooby doo da doo, oh yeah!”)  It’s pure squaresville, man, yet how can you tear your eyes and ears away from the spectacle of an aging entertainer desperately trying to appear “with-it” while simultaneously staying true to their own outdated idioms?  A purely cynical attempt to cash in on youth culture might have resulted in a deplorable misfire, but here, sexagenarian Preminger is genuinely intoxicated by the hippie movement.  The gruff European, known for his combative nature and dictatorial behavior on the set, so ancient that he was actually born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, truly believes in peace and love and the transformative power of LSD.  It’s the sincerity of his conviction in Flower Power, coupled with his fumbling outsider attempt to express that zeitgeist through a sort of psychedelic vaudeville, that creates something more interesting than a cheap counterculture cash-in.  His conviction lays the substrate for a camp classic.  Preminger doesn’t seem to realize that, in the eyes of his audience, he and his thespian cronies (who include almost everyone in Hollywood over thirty with a SAG card) represent the very Establishment he’s attempting to mock.  Although the script takes some light satirical jabs at stoner philosophy (“if you can’t dig nothing, you can’t dig anything, you dig?” muses John Phillip Law as “Stash”), for the most part Skidoo‘s hippie heroes are a superior race of draft-card burning, pumpkin-puffing (yes, they smoke pumpkins) peaceniks who come off so smug and virtuous that they almost make you sympathize with the Ohio National Guard.

Anarchic all-star comedy extravaganzas were still all the rage in the late sixties, following a formula pioneered by 1963’s cameo-packed It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (see also 1967’s Casino Royale with Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress et al.; 1970’s Myra Breckinridge with Raquel Welch, Mae West et. al;, and probably a dozen other examples you can think of).  Preminger enlisted every talk show mainstay who wasn’t guest-hosting Johnny Carson that month for a walk-on role, including three major “Batman” villains.  The significance of many of these “big names” will be lost on contemporary audiences, but even if you don’t know much about Peter Lawford or George Raft, you can almost see the stale aura of anti-hipness radiating from them.  Dour and irritable, Gleason makes for a reasonable Tony Banks, playing him as Ralph Kramden with a rap sheet, but the craziest casting coup was an landing an elderly Groucho Marx to play the gangster kingpin “God.”  Although Groucho demonstrates infamously uninspired line readings (it’s sometimes claimed they were read off cue cards), he’s such an iconic presence that he manages to emerge from this mess with his image untarnished.  In fact, I’m dead serious when I say I can’t think of a better sendoff for this iconoclastic comedy legend than going down in a hail of absurdity: that final shot of him dressed as a Hare Krishna, sailing off to parts unknown in a skiff while puffing on a spliff.

Skidoo‘s real surprise is then-47-year-old, gravel-voiced Broadway legend Carol Channing, who throws herself into the role of Tony’s wife Flo with the shameless abandon of a true professional.  She does the watusi, strips down to yellow pantyhose, and dresses as a pirate to lead the hippie assault on God’s yacht (I swear I am not making any of this up) while singing “Skidoo, skidoo, the only thing that matters is with who you do…”  It’s the cheeriest of career suicides: while the other stars on hand hide out in the shadows, hoping not to draw attention to themselves, Carol is brashly belting out the theme song, putting her heart and lungs into every line.  Channing is wonderfully uninhibited; of the past-their-prime principals, she alone actually captures the spirit of youth.

Skidoo announces its intent to baffle audiences from its disorienting opening credits, a Saul Bass sequence with a cartoon convict in stereotypical black and white striped prison garb (it looks more like a caricature of director Preminger than of star Gleason) holding a multicolored flower.  The credits click off just as they’re starting; it turns out Gleason and Channing are at home, flipping through channels with their remote.  Besides the credits for the movie they’re currently starting in, they also catch bits of a John Wayne flick (Preminger’s own In Harm’s Way), a Senate hearing on organized crime (plot point alert!), and a series of commercial parodies featuring a smoking dog and a beer-drinking pig.  The demented fun slows down in the succeeding minutes as the elaborate plot is laid out piece by piece.  One of Skidoo‘s major issues is that its badness is placed up front, while most of its awe-inspiring craziness is backloaded into the final half hour.  There are some deranged moments in the early going to keep you entertained: Gleason’s split-screen slapstick flashbacks of his criminal career and a visit to Frankie Avalon’s swinging bachelor pad with its waterbed that descends to the basement when it’s not needed.  For the most part, however, the film’s first hour focuses on explication—introducing us to a mob of underworld types contrasted with a cadre of “assorted beautiful people” who the authorities think are “a backward step in the evolution of mankind”—and cringeworthy comic misfires (how many times can the characters proclaim that they’re going looking for God before the joke wears thin?)

Things intensify delightfully when Gleason, now undercover in jail with the intent of rubbing out Mickey Rooney, accidentally licks an envelope laced with LSD and takes his first sojourn into the astral realms.  The (once) respected comedian’s eyes widen, and he swats at the imaginary flies flitting around his body while his two-inch high cellmates look on.  As his “naked spotless intellect” becomes like “a transparent vacuum” (in the words of his trip guide), Preminger breaks out the undulating fisheye lens and the pink and orange aura effects: the novice tripper lies down and sees eyeballs poking through the rivet holes in the prison bunk bed.  “I see mathematics!” he says as he hallucinates a Tommy gun punching out equations in bullet holes.  A vision of “God” on a rotating screw comes to torment him, but he wills it down the sink drain.  About half the cast—including Rooney singing and dancing with big bags of cash and Channing explaining that “the truth is often stranger than lots of things”—appear to him through a wavy pink haze as he stares into a pool of water.  The trip lasts a good ten minutes, making it possibly Hollywood’s longest LSD sequence, and ends with a life-changing epiphany that sets Gleason off on a path of righteousness (and more importantly, of hipness).  “I want a flower,” he says when he loses his ego.   His transformation is so exemplary that a fellow jailbird wonders, “Maybe if I take some of that stuff I wouldn’t have to rape anybody anymore?”

The madness mounts in the final half hour as the reformed Gleason hatches a plan to escape Alcatraz by blending sheets of blotter acid into the prison biscuits on the night Warden Burgess Meredith shows his solidarity with the prisoners by having the entire staff eat with the men.  The jailhouse turns into a nuthouse.  While a pair of hallucinating prison guards are distracted watching trash bins do a solarized dance to the Nilsson number “Living in a Garbage Can” (“the great garbage can is a tribute to the ingenuity of man”), Gleason and a cellmate fly away in an improvised air balloon.  Meanwhile, Carol Channing, dressed in tights and a pirate hat so that she looks like the illicit love child of Peter Pan and Captain Hook, leads an armada of flower children in a song-and-dance assault on God’s floating headquarters.  The scary thing is, she’s not tripping on LSD at the time.  Groucho escapes; his last words to the world are “pumpkin” as he takes a hit off a roach clip.  There are a pair of weddings, with the Skipper (George Raft) reading the rites from Gabriel Vahanian’s “The Death of God.”  In an unforgettable touch, Harry Nilsson sings the closing credits in their entirety (trust me, nobody sings the line “executive assistant to the producer Nat Rudich” like Nilsson).

So, at the end of Skidoo the existing order has been entirely overturned, replaced by a freakocracy.  The hippies even depose the ultimate authority figure—God, revealed to be a venal mobster, a paranoid germophobe, and a dirty old man.  The healing powers of psychoactive intoxicants have reconciled Tony Banks to his family and helped him escape from the metaphorical prison of his “nine-to-five bag.”  Borscht-belt comedians and longhaired pumpkin-smokers strut together arm-in-arm, in peace and harmony.  As Groucho might say, “very groovy.”  And, if you can’t dig that, then you probably don’t like chicken on Sunday.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… something only for Preminger-watchers, or for people whose minds need pressing by a heavy, flat object.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“It is so blatantly weird and in such marvelously bad taste that it feels as if Preminger was prescient on the pending rise of underground counterculture comedy such as John Waters and Cheech and Chong.”–Film Threat (screening)

“…a weird, weird film from 1968… This movie goes strange in 17 ways…”–Richard von Busack, Cinematical (retrospective)

IMDB LINK: Skidoo (1968)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Skidoo (1968) – Overview – TCM – The Turner Classic Movies Skidoo page contains the standard information, but also hosts 6 clips from the movie including a large part of Gleason’s LSD trip

Acid Test: The curiosity of Otto Preminger’s Skidoo – Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article on Skidoo‘s re-release contains a wealth of background information and is probably the most serious and in-depth analysis of the film available online

On the “Skidoo” set with Otto Preminger – A contemporaneous report from the Skidoo set by a young Roger Ebert (mostly focused on Otto Preminger’s irritability)

In the Windmills of SKIDOO (1968) – Entertaining essay on Skidoo and LSD by Erich Kuersten, whose blog/magazine Acidemic covers LSD in cinema (and more)

DVD INFO: The Olive Films release (buy) disappointingly contains no extra features (not even the film’s multiple trailers).  Still, we should be thankful that someone decided to release this important (if embarrassing) piece of cinematic history—basically unseen for over 40 years!—at all.

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