Saturday, July 12, 2008


I discovered a cure for insomnia last night…the only trouble is, had I allowed myself to fall asleep I wouldn’t have a post for today, so I couldn’t take full advantage of its effectiveness. Suffice it to say, you can achieve instant slumber by sitting down and watching Skidoo (1968), a WTF bit of counterculture vs. gangsters wackiness directed by Otto Preminger (who should have known better) and featuring a cast of thousands (who also should have known better).

Here’s the plot…as best as I can remember it because I’m still not convinced I didn’t dream this entire picture: Jackie Gleason plays a retired mobster who’s been recruited by his colleagues (Cesar Romero, Frankie Avalon) to silence another hood (Mickey Rooney) before he turns state’s evidence to a congressional committee headed up by Senator Peter Lawford. Gleason is smuggled into the prison where Rooney resides, and accidentally takes an LSD trip courtesy of some stationery belonging to genius professor Austin Pendleton, who’s dropped out of society and fully immersed his shaven-headed self into the counterculture. After coming down from his dosage, Gleason disavows violence and refuses to carry out the hit, so he, Pendleton and Michael Constantine slip some acid into the soup being served at lunch in the prison that day…the result being that the prisoners, guards, warden (Burgess Meredith) and visiting Senator Lawford become stoned out of their collective gourds. Gleason and Pendleton escape via a hot-air balloon made from plastic bags, oxygen and a trash can, and go after the head mobster who gave Gleason his assignment—none other than Groucho Marx himself, who plays “God.” (Note: while I’ve always thought of Groucho as a god…he’s not THE God.)

Let me start off by saying that anyone can make a bad movie. If you took all the aspiring filmmakers who were hampered by low budgets, shitty scripting, atrocious acting, etc. and placed them end to end you could go back and forth to the moon an infinite number of times. But when you have a director who made some not-too-shabby films in his long career (Laura, Carmen Jones, Anatomy of a Murder, etc.) and he’s turned loose to make a steaming pile of dog crap like this…well, that must be why Hollywood is so magical. The saddest thing about this movie is that it starts off in a fairly funny vein (some of the commercials being watched by Gleason and Carol Channing [who plays Gleason’s wife] at the beginning are pretty hilarious; I like the one where two young kids and a dog are smoking cigarettes) and then the WTF factor kicks in, becoming not only no longer funny but completely incoherent to boot. (Preminger apparently brought in some new writers at the film’s halfway point in an attempt to fix what was clearly a sinking ship—but because he refused to let them alter what was already in the can the replacement scribes just ended up making it worse.) Skidoo also commits one of the cardinal sins of moviemaking (this is my cardinal sin, by the way—your mileage may vary) by including a clip from Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965) at the beginning: because even though Preminger was trying to make a joke about the disgraceful way his movies are treated when shown on television, halfway through Skidoo I found myself wishing I had watched In Harm’s Way instead. (And I don’t even like Harm’s Way.)

Here are some of the other highlights (and lowlights) of Skidoo:

1) In addition to the actors/actresses I’ve already mentioned, the movie features cameos and performances from Fred Clark (when I saw Clark, Avalon, Rooney, etc. I kept wondering if I had walked into an AIP production by mistake), Frank Gorshin, John Phillip Law, George Raft, Arnold Stang, Doro Merande (did Stang and Merande’s work on The Man with the Golden Arm get them these roles? If this is true, Hollywood is far crueler than I could have imagined), Slim Pickens, Robert Donner, Richard “Eegah” Kiel and introducing Alexandra Hay as Gleason’s daughter. (The IMDb says Hay worked in several other movies and an episode of The Monkees before this—was it really necessary to introduce her?)

2) Gleason’s LSD trip (“Mathematics! I see mathematics!”). Man, if they could have worked Art Carney into that, then they might really have had something.

3) Channing’s striptease for Avalon. (I hope I’m not alone here when I say…eww.)

4) The Green Bay Packers…naked. (Maybe winning isn’t the only thing.)

5) A musical number featuring dancing trash cans. (I’ll bet Stanley Donen never thought of that one.)

6) Groucho toking up on a reefer at the film’s end. (Groucho was already pretty wasted during this movie…why encourage him?)

7) Harry Nilsson (who wrote the musical numbers and plays a prison guard) singing the end credits. (Hey—it could have been worse…Preminger tried to get Bob Dylan for this film, and I think we know how unintelligible Dylan can be.)

Skidoo has a good many fans on the Internets (Vince Keenan weighed in on it after I finished my post yesterday, otherwise I would have included him) but in reading up on what folks had to say, I have to admit that it was Roger Ebert’s observation that made me laugh the hardest: “Otto Preminger’s Skidoo fails mostly because it lacks spirit.” (“No, no, spiwit…bwavado…a touch of dewwing-do…”) I have to be honest, though…I’m not going to recommend this movie the next time it’s on (it’s not letterboxed, for one thing—which detracts a bit from enjoying it; Stacia says Preminger’s estate is reluctant to release a better print, and I can’t say I blame them) because I can think of better things you can do with an hour and thirty-minutes. But if you’re game, go for it. It’s…as Preminger used to say as Mr. Freeze on the old Batman TV series…wiiiiiillllld


Stacia said...

I love what everyone else hates, and I am not ashamed to admit it!

The naked Green Bay Packers are funny. I like the song "Living in a Garbage Can" and I think George Raft's delivery of the line where he tells God which way the wind is blowing is the funniest thing that came out of 1968.

The plot makes me sad, because it COULD have been extremely well done. The mobster angle in the film has such potential, and getting old school mobsters entangled with hippies -- with broadminded Carol Channing as the bridge between them -- should have worked as broad farce. It's too bad Preminger schmutzed it up.

I honestly don't find Preminger to be the genius many others feel he is, which is why "Skidoo" doesn't surprise me. Apparently "Rosebud" is infinitely worse than "Skidoo", and Frank on ramp-f mentioned that the estate is even more tight-fisted with it.

Sam said...

Great, I DVR'ed it when it came on because I wasn't going to be home when it it aired, and now I find out out how much it truly sucks. Now I'll really have to wsatch it like a moose needs a hat rack.

See? It works now.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Great, I DVR'ed it when it came on because I wasn't going to be home when it it aired, and now I find out out how much it truly sucks.

Well, just because it's not my particular cup of iced tea and lemonade doesn't mean you won't enjoy it. Shucks, your Johnsonship, I sometimes get the impression that you think my opinion is the end-all and be-all. (That would be nice, by the would save us a lot of feuds. But then the act would suffer as a result.) Stacia adores the film--so who's to say she's not right and I'm horribly, horribly wrong?

Anonymous said...

Good heavens, how could you NOT like a movie featuring the Riddler, the Penguin and the Joker, directed by Mr. Freeze?