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Otto Preminger's least celebrated feature film came and went in a flash in 1968. Hollywood insiders closed their eyes and auteurist film critics politely looked the other way, preferring to laud Preminger classics like Laura, Angel Face and The Man with the Golden Arm. I came to the "Skidoo" party a bit on the late side. Around 1983 manager Sherman Torgan said he had finally gotten access to a title much-requested by the vocal patrons of his New Beverly Theater. I can't say I really saw the film that night, The hall was packed with an audience in search of a class-A train wreck, but the only print Paramount could muster was splicey and beat-up to the point that many jokes were missing their punch lines, and vice versa.
Olive Films rectifies this cultural outrage with a pristine new DVD of Preminger's jaw-dropper. Skidoo is a self-consciously "wild and crazy" comedy farce, a satire of gangsters, hippies, drugs 'n' free love in the anything-goes climate of the late 1960s. For much of his career Preminger had been a leading promoter of filmmaker's rights and an enemy of the Production Code. Several of his '60s movies were serious examinations of Big Subjects: the workings of government (Advise and Consent); the Catholic church (The Cardinal). Skidoo is a radical departure from thematic relevance, a comedy about the victory of flower power, love and zaniness over the Syndicate. Where things went wrong is not entirely clear. The director loved the script by Doran William Cannon (Brewster McCloud) but his rewrites show little or no understanding of the counterculture. The comedy approach emulates the "wacky" spirit of Campy TV shows like Batman, where Preminger had enjoyed himself immensely playing the villain Mr. Freeze. Writer Cannon wanted the gangsters to be deadpan serious, but Preminger opted for cartoonish villains.
Retired hit man "Tough Tony" Banks fights for the TV remote control with his ditzy wife Flo (Carol Channing), his moll from the old days. His sweet daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) has taken up with the hippie guru Stash (John Philip Law). Mobsters Hechy (Caesar Romero) and Angie (Frankie Avalon) tell Tony that the elusive Syndicate head "God" (Groucho Marx) expects him to murder the talkative associate "Blue Chips" Packard, now rooming in Alcatraz. Tony has no choice but to get himself arrested and sent to The Rock. To find her missing husband Flo goes to Angie's bachelor pad/sex pit to pry information from the young mobster. Tony accidentally takes an LSD trip courtesy of his cellmate, Fred the Professor (Austin Pendleton), and experiences a transcendental spiritual realignment away from violence. Darlene and Stash journey to God's secret yacht to appeal for her father's life, while Flo leads a hippie flotilla to the rescue.
By any standard measure Skidoo is a high profile failure, an elaborate but unfocused satire. Director Preminger's out-of-control comic epic is woefully short on laughs, starting with Tough Tony's depressing sitcom lifestyle. Besides discovering that his lackey Harry (Arnold Stang, always good) has been Flo's secret lover for years, Tony sees his daughter cavorting with a longhaired hippie. Straight from Barbarella and Diabolik, John Philip Law spouts appropriate hippie jargon and meditates in a yoga position atop his Rolls-Royce, but nothing particularly funny comes of it. Skidoo features a couple of scenes with nude body painting, just the kind of baloney the media decided was standard hippie behavior. The show also openly endorses experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs. Jackie Gleason's LSD trip is fairly unique in Hollywood history, a succession of bizarre visions rendered via oddball special effects. Groucho Marx's disembodied head floats and spins as the cap of a screw, an image both stupid and revelatory at the same time (see below). A scrimmage line of naked pro football players is a gratuitous throwaway visual gag. A feeble hallucinatory 'garbage can ballet' may be the least inspired fantasy scene ever filmed.
Skidoo was filmed by a huge studio crew at great expense. Stash's battered Rolls plays a game of tug o' war with a tow truck in front of a fancy upscale San Francisco apartment building, a location shoot that can't have been cheap. Frankie Avalon's Playboy apartment is one of those automated make-out pads with a bed that sinks into a hole in the floor. Preminger rigs a giant balloon and does quite a bit of filming out on the water. The hallucination scenes involve elaborate optical work that must have cost a pretty penny.
Preminger's star cast makes Skidoo resemble It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in miniature. The all-pro lineup looks ready for anything but the script has them bumbling around in unfocused skit humor. Groucho Marx and Mickey Rooney are almost entirely isolated from the rest of the cast, and do much of their acting by talking to people on the phone or through TV screens. Most of the cameo casting only gets in the way of the story -- Burgess Meredith, Fred Clark, Peter Lawford, Slim Pickens and George Raft don't even interact with the main players. "Main player" John Philip Law is in plenty of scenes but projects little personality.
Atop the summit of the comic pyramid is Groucho Marx's God, pulling the mob strings from his yacht-hideout. Not only are the jokes not there, Groucho's concentration seems to be on reading his cue cards. His attention seems to be somewhere else, even when "God's" oversexed playgirl companion (Luna) is writhing in his lap. Jackie Gleason pulls some funny faces but is basically a melancholy character. Undernourished and under-motivated, Skidoo is full of manic action but never builds to a comic high. Unlike other unheralded comedy epics (The Hallelujah Trail, Casino Royale (1967), 1941) we really can't see what attracted Otto Preminger to the project in the first place. Then again, asking "What was he thinking?" is a rewarding way to approach this unique comedy. When something funny or clever does happen, we notice it right away.
The bravest and brightest performer on view is Carol Channing, a trouper who goes for broke in all of her scenes. She's amusing when dealing with the hippies but her wildest material comes when she storm's Frankie Avalon's bachelor pad, stripping down to some fairly revealing undies and throwing herself onto his bed. Channing lost her two Broadway triumphs to other actresses when Hollywood made the movie versions, and she seems intent on showing that there's nothing she won't do. The other standout is young comic actor Austin Pendleton. Pendleton's anti-war 'professor' is a perfect sidekick for Jackie Gleason, and his various inventions keep the picture moving forward. On a slightly lesser plane, Frank Gorshin and Richard Kiel flesh out the "big house" prison roster with some good turns. Again, locking Mickey Rooney up in a single jail cell and letting him share only one short scene with Gleason, seems a waste. According to Preminger's Biographer Foster Hirsch, the director did not have the confidence of his actors. Jackie Gleason was depressed and Carol Channing felt unhappy but did her best. Young stage actor Austin Pendleton wished he could quit after one day on the job.
With the entire prison population including the guards high on LSD, Tough Tony makes good his escape via hot-air balloon. The corpulent Tough Tony pushes a relatively thin inmate out of the balloon's basket, with the breezy line, "You weigh too much!" Preminger then throws away what might have been a socko finish, by muffing the concluding musical number. Dressed like George Washington crossing the Delaware, Carol Channing leads the hippie assault on God's yacht. Harry Nilsson's novelty title song is a bouncy trifle but Channing gives it everything she's got. Just as this musical surprise is developing into a winner, Preminger cuts it up into little pieces, pulling the rug out from under the enthusiastic Ms. Channing. She alone attains the Al Capp-like cartoon silliness the show needs, but Preminger keeps insisting on dragging the movie down with his unfocused direction.
When compared to the cynical gross-out humor of many of today's comedies the notorious bomb Skidoo now seems fresh and endearing. Otto Preminger doesn't have a clue as to how to direct this kind of comedy, but it's fun to watch some of our favorite comic actors struggling to make it all work. The roster of smaller cameo parts is less rewarding -- George Raft, Slim Pickens. But the glorious Miss Channing and the talented Austin Pendleton shine. It's Pendleton's first movie and Groucho's last, and they're last seen in a little sailboat together smoking dope. Our main reaction to this eccentric circus of dubious taste is to marvel that it exists at all. Think of it -- the film ends with the entire cast high on LSD, partying on a yacht rented from John Wayne!
Olive Films' DVD of Skidoo will thrill the cult film vultures that have waited for years for this ultimate 'Bad Movie'. The clean and colorful enhanced widescreen transfer shows off Otto Preminger's expensive locations and painful flower power art direction -- hippies like primary colors, see? The disc is an excellent opportunity to separate viewers with a legitimate claim to sanity from those that think the film is a misunderstood masterpiece. To add to Skidoo's inexhaustible supply of quirks, Harry Nilsson sings the entire closing title sequence, including all the technical credits. That puts Nilsson on a par with Domenico Modugno, who two years before sang the entire title sequence for Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Hawks and the Sparrows (Uccellacci e uccellini). It's not easy to fit a credit for "production manager" into a song lyric!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.