Back in the mid-1970s, my mother ran into Otto Preminger on a street in New York’s Upper East Side. When I say that she ran into Preminger, I don’t mean that she encountered him in a leisurely, social environment. Instead, she literally collided with the legendary filmmaker: she was rushing to catch her bus home and in rounding a corner she slammed straight into Preminger as he strolled down the street. As any student of old time Hollywood knows, Preminger was one of the most autocratic and intimidating men in Hollywood history – he was not exactly the kind of man you ran into at full speed. However, Preminger accepted my mother’s profuse apologies with very good humor and charm – he may have tyrannized the likes of Dorothy Dandridge and Jean Seberg on the soundstages, but on the rush hour New York street he was the perfect gentleman who kindly and happily suggested that my mother slow down and take it easy.
I bring this anecdote up as evidence that Preminger did possess a sense of humor. Many of his critics have suggested otherwise, and they hold up his 1968 comedy “Skidoo” as proof. But in my view, “Skidoo” offers irrefutable proof that not only was Preminger capable of making a comedy, but that he was years ahead of his time with that wonderfully loopy and much-maligned creation.
“Skidoo” came at a weird time in the course of popular culture. The burgeoning youth market and the increasingly visible drug culture baffled the old Hollywood guard. Creating films that spoke to this hitherto untapped audience was a challenge, and there were relatively few younger hip filmmakers who knew how to approach this changing audience.
Preminger, who was never the most comfortable director of comedy films, nonetheless dared to create a cutting-edge movie that unapologetically embraced the narcotized elements of society. Whereas previous movies looked upon drugs as an evil (most memorably Preminger’s own “The Man with the Golden Arm”), “Skidoo” happily ingested the once-taboo substances. Furthermore, Preminger made rather strange decisions in casting the leading roles – and the presence of the unlikely stars only added to the craziness.
“Skidoo” presents an unlikely domestic situation in which Jackie Gleason plays a retired San Francisco hit man-turned-car wash owner and Carol Channing plays his daffy wife. Yes, Gleason and Channing as man and wife – can you imagine them making love? Gleason soon finds himself on a mission from God. Not the God of the Father-Son-and-Holy Spirit fame, but the head of the local mob who is known as God. God is played by Groucho Marx, and if you can believe Groucho as a mafia chieftain…
Any way, Gleason is ordered by God to get himself arrested and sent to Alcatraz, where he is to do a hit on a former gangster who turned informer. Unfortunately for Gleason, this target (played by Mickey Rooney, who seems to be reading his lines from cue cards) is in ultra-tight protective custody and is thus immune from unpleasant visitors carrying shanks. Unable to fulfill his assignment and stuck in Alcatraz on a bogus rap, Gleason finds an escape by accident: he shares a cell with a draft-dodging writer (Austin Pendleton, in his film debut) who laced the glue of his stationery envelopes with LSD. And you’ve not lived until you’ve seen Jackie Gleason on LSD – talk about “and away we go!”
Meanwhile, Channing is coping with the news their teenage daughter has fallen in with a group of hippies. The mod mom happily embraces the hippies and brings them into her home. She tries to get to God by seducing a young mobster (Frankie Avalon – yes, that Frankie Avalon). When that fails, she and the hippies commandeer a small armada and sail off to God’s yacht off the San Francisco coast. Meanwhile, Gleason spikes the soup in the Alcatraz commissary with the LSD-laced envelopes and creates a makeshift balloon out of garbage bags and a garbage can. He and his druggie cellmate fly off to God’s yacht just as the hippie fleet arrive. After much to-do, God and the acid-tripping writer abandon ship together and sail off into the sunset with a bountiful supply of acid.
“Skidoo” is such a wild assault on the sense that it’s hard to imagine the film was ever made. Under Preminger’s direction, LSD is a liberating and empowering tool – it makes Gleason and Marx’s characters end their criminal ways in pursuit of a greater truth. It also allows an astonishing number of guest stars in the Alcatraz sequences (including Rooney, Peter Lawford, Richard Kiel, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin) pretend they are tripping on acid. The last two actors are especially fun – imagine the Penguin and Riddler on acid!
Imagine Ralph Kramden on acid! Gleason takes his trip by popping his eyes, dropping his chins, and laughing like a lunatic. As he rolls into his mind-fraying trip, numbers fill the screen and begin to multiply before his eyes. He looks up at this numeral progression and proclaims what must be the weirdest observation related to cinematic drug usage: “I see mathematics!”
Fortunately, he doesn’t see Carol Channing turning on her erotic charms to Frankie Avalon. Despite a pencil mustache and a bad James Cagney imitation, Avalon looks like he is 12 years old. Channing is perfectly ghastly in her mini-skirt and her full-throttle carnal enthusiasm. When she reclines on a bed and purrs sexually, every man watching will instinctively cross his legs and cover his groin.
If that’s not enough, the film is packed with other unlikely star turns including Cesar Romero as Avalon’s dad, George Raft as the skipper of God’s yacht, Arnold Stang as Gleason’s stooge (he gets whacked in the car wash), and the great character actor Fred Clark and singer Harry Nilsson as prison guards. Clark and Nilsson are among those who drink the spiked soup, but neither man knew how to act stoned so they went through their scene pretending to be drunk.
As for the acid trips, Preminger fills the screen with such imagery as the Green Bay Packers mooning the camera (it’s really just a college team in Green Bay uniforms) and an elaborate dance sequence with women dressed in garbage cans doing a mock ballet under a red light. Preminger reportedly experimented with Timothy Leary to get a feel for what one experiences on LSD. Obviously, viewing football players’ backsides and women dressed like garbage cans filled Preminger’s acid-tinged imagination. (Groucho Marx supposedly tried LSD as well before making the film, but that story has never been confirmed.)
Few films opened to such critical savaging as “Skidoo.” The critics of 1968, who were mostly middle-aged and older, were clearly offended by Preminger’s playful drug comedy and its lapses away from refined behavior; even J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was offended and investigated the film’s production, fearing (wrongly) it would reflect poorly on law enforcement! Older audiences, who could not relate to the drug culture, avoided the film while the kids stayed away as well – they didn’t want to see Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx tripping the acid fantastic. In many theaters, “Skidoo” was pulled from screens after less than a week.
But viewed anew, “Skidoo” is one of the most wonderfully rude movies ever made. 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. It is a film where the druggies are the heroes and even criminals can become angels if they just learn to chill with LSD. It is a movie where Hollywood’s icons happily ham it up while being under the narcotic influence – the closing shot, with Groucho Marx and Austin Pendleton dressed as Hare Krishnas in a boat full of drugs is too funny to endure. There is also a very cute closing credits joke – the entire closing credits were sung by Harry Nilsson!
I hosted a screening of “Skidoo” in 2001 in New York and I honestly did not know what to expect. I never
saw the film prior to the screening and I only knew that it had a wobbly reputation. But to my surprise, the screening sold out with people who laughed with the film (not at it), who applauded the conclusion, and who actually left the venue singing the title song! That’s not my idea of a turkey.
“Skidoo” was never released on American home video. Paramount Pictures and the Preminger estate have kept it out of commercial circulation for many years, due to the very poor reception it received in 1968, although it has played on TV in other countries. But over the past few years, “Skidoo” has occasionally surfaced for special retro screenings. It is presented in these screenings as a campy curiosity, but it is really much more than that – it is a richly funny flip of the middle finger at the niceties of proper society, made by a truly unlikely proponent of counterculture values.
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Posted on October 14, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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