“Movies gave them a mass audience, and they were the instrument that translated what was once essentially a Jewish style of humor into the dominant note of American comedy. Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential.”–Roger Ebert on the Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers were, understandably, the darlings of the surrealists; and that should be a red flag to contemporary audience members belonging to the religious cult of Hyperrealism.
I say that up front because I have watched this film in the company of such alien types as the Hyperrealists. Their melodramatic, aggressive reactions were the same as I saw in a showing of the films of Busby Berkeley (be forewarned: a series on Berkeley is coming). Naturally, I saw it as my aesthetic duty to cut those sophistic assailants down to size.
The Marx Brothers, perhaps, are the quintessential comedy team with an edge. W.C. Fields exhibits a comparable level of surrealism, but as a predominantly solo act, he’s a mono whisper compared to the quadrophonic Brothers. 1930s audiences showed themselves to be a somewhat more imaginative lot (not by much) than us in that they not only accepted the Brothers level of unhinged zaniness, but they even made stars out of them.
Note that “but not by much,” because Duck Soup (1933) was the Marx Brothers most revolutionary film, a surrealist-politico masterpiece, and it totally bombed at the box office. This resulted in the Brothers being released from their Paramount contract. MGM and Irving Thalberg were quick to snap them up, but Thalberg, a self-confessed fan, knew he had to polish their act in order to increase their accessibility.
“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
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.
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)