The opening line of Otto Preminger's 1968 film Skidoo is "Harry, no, I don't wanna see that!"--a response that greeted the film upon its initial release, and frequently since. One of the most notorious boondoggles of the late 1960s--a period in which the Hollywood studios weren't exactly creating their most enduring works--Skidoo was an all-star disaster, so poorly received and legendary in its badness that this 2011 DVD is its first official home video release. Cult movie (and bad movie) aficionados had to make do with its occasional airings on pay cable; it was most recently sighted as part of TCM's late-night "underground" series.
So, after all this time, how is the movie? I'm not gonna lie to you: it's pretty rotten. But it's not boring--like Myra Breckenridge or Southland Tales, Skidoo is so spectacularly ill-conceived and so far removed from anything resembling either art or reality that it is perversely, yet undeniably, entertaining.
The plot, such as it is: Car wash owner "Tough" Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) is a former mob enforcer who quit the business to marry Flo (Carol Channing) and start a family. Now, nearly two decades later, just as his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) has fallen in with a large group of San Francisco hippies, he is called back into action by mob boss "God" (Groucho Marx), and dispatched into Alcatraz, where he is to ice a former associate (Mickey Rooney) who's turning state's evidence. Inside, Tony accidentally drops acid and can't go through with it; he orchestrates an acid trip for the entire prison and escapes the island in a floating garbage can. That is the actual plot.
The all-over-the-goddamn-place cast also includes Frankie Avalon, Michael Constantine, Peter Lawford, John Phillip Law, Slim Pickens, Richard "Jaws" Kiel, George Raft, and Preminger's fellow Batman villains Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Cesar Romero. The number of old-school show-biz faces in what was meant to be a cutting-edge portrait of "youth culture" indicates Preminger and his fellows were trying to be hip, but the picture is desperately, laughably square; it was dated before it was released.
Preminger's portrait of the hippie lifestyle is downright dopey (pardon the pun), full of body-painting and folk-singing and far-out dialogue like "If you can't dig nothing, you can't dig anything, you dig?" The film's most notorious scene, Gleason's acid trip, is utterly ridiculous; as he sweats on his mattress ("I see mathematics! Mathematics!") his hallucinogen-induced visions include numbers machine-gunned into a white wall, Groucho's head on a giant spinning wood screw that drops into the prison cell sink, disembodied heads, neon colors, Mickey Rooney singing, and laser sound effects. Far out, man. In that scene, and in those dealing with the hippie crew led by Law, we can only guess at what Preminger's trying to accomplish; if he's thinks he's being authentic, he's way off, but if he's making fun, then he's a cruel bully, literally kicking the hippie. It says much about the film's tone that his intentions are mostly indecipherable.
Skidoo is ostensibly a comedy, which is another of its problems, since Preminger was never exactly renowned for his sense of humor. Most of the satire is broad and unsuccessful, and the "jokes" land with a thud; Considine, as Gleason's cellmate, is a serial rapist, so after observing Gleason's trip, he gets the following laugh line: "Maybe if I took some of that stuff, I wouldn't have to rape anyone anymore!" Ha... ha? Preminger appears to have taken his cues from silent movies--he augments the unfunny activities onscreen with desperate musical hits (lots of bass drums and slide whistles), and during the all-prison LSD trip, everyone just acts like a drunk in a Keystone comedy. When he stages a bit with Law refusing to move his car, he doesn't even have the good sense to give us a wide shot to see the gag--it's all done in close-ups of Law and the wacky doorman. Some of those shots are sped-up! Comedy!
The performances, unsurprisingly, are a tad uneven. Gleason is enjoyable enough; he's basically playing his regular persona (interrogating his daughter's hippie suitor, he demands: "Who's your tailor, Sittin' Bull?!"), but he earns some laughs and plays the pathos. Channing is given one of the most unfortunate scenes in the film, boogeying around Avalon's bachelor pad and stripping down to her undies; one can't help but wonder if the producers of the film version of Hello Dolly! got a look at this scene before deciding to go with Babs Streisand. In the film's climax, Channing dons a pirate outfit and bleats the insufferable (yet disturbingly catchy--it's still lodged in my brain) title song aboard "God"'s yacht with her hippie band, and by this point the film has gone so far off the rails, you look at her and Gleason like hurricane survivors. Hay is as stiff as a board, though the always-reliable Austin Pendleton appears, almost alone among the cast, to be having a good time. Preminger's insistence that Groucho dye his hair black and don his old greasepaint mustache (he was 78) borders on humiliation--people were used to the grey Groucho from You Bet Your Life, and he just looks silly here. Still, it's good to see him; shame they didn't give him any funny lines--and the ones he gets, he's clearly (and badly) reading off of cue cards. "It's a lousy way to get old," he says at one point, and boy does he get that right. (Regrettably, this was his last film role; in his book The Groucho Phile, he simply notes "Both the picture and my role were God-awful.")
But even with all of those complaints, it's still an oddly compelling piece of work. Some of Preminger's experimentation is interesting--I liked his inventive use of split-screen to show a flashback during an expositional scene, and the closing credits, which are all sung by Harry Nillson (every one of them, down to the negative cutter and production accountant), are clever. And it's a fun film to look at--his wide-screen compositions are, true to form, attractive and stuffed with details and background action. But he was clearly absolutely lost on this set, and it shows in the final product.
Skidoo is among the first 27 Paramount catalog titles acquired for DVD distribution by Olive Films (others include Bergman's Face to Face, Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents, and two more Preminger titles: Hurry Sundown and Such Good Friends). The packaging is pretty cheap-looking (it looks to have taken a high school kid about an hour on Photoshop) and there are no extras, but the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is pretty good. Saturation is a little gaudy, but most films from the era look like that; the print itself is in decent shape--there's occasional dirt and specks, but nothing distracting.
The Dolby Digital mono track occasionally gets a bit muddy in busier scenes, but overall, dialogue reproduction is decent and music is fairly crisp.
Nothing--a shame for a picture as strange and notorious as this one.
True to its reputation, Skidoo is a mess. But it is an entertaining mess, one you can't quite take your eyes off of, full of familiar faces making utter fools of themselves at the service of a director who has clearly lost at least some portion of his sanity. It's worth seeing, if for no other reason than to have the singular experience of seeing it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.