Out of the Past: Skidoo

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Otto Preminger’s stabs at comedy are few, and none got more lethal notices than this one. The public stayed away and even Preminger’s customary apologists avoided it. Gerald Pratley’s book on the director doesn’t actually make much of a case for it, just hints that the film is, you know, not really all that, well, bad, not really. The only person I know of who’ll concede that the film generates a certain amount of interest is Jonathan Rosenbaum, a critic who, for all his insight and scholarship, has not infrequently sent me clambering up the nearest wall. So when I saw the film recently, it was a surprise when it turned out to be an enjoyable curiosity.

It’s not exactly hilarious, I grant you; it fascinates rather than convulses. The screenwriter of record is Doran William Cannon, later of the even more bizarre, but absolutely splendid, Brewster McCloud. That film was, we have since learned, rewritten top-to-tail by the uncredited Brian McKay and, according to Pratley, this one had some last-minute rewrites from Elliot Baker, author of the highly enjoyable novel A Fine Madness and a few less enjoyable films. Cannon doesn’t seem to have much luck. The only other movie I know him to have worked on is one I haven’t seen, an odd-sounding 1973 item called Hex, from a story by Cannon and Vernon Zimmerman (director of The Unholy Rollers). It could be, quite simply, that Cannon is a terrible writer who occasionally has grabby ideas. Certainly Skidoo is far more intriguing on a level of mise-en-scene than on levels of dialogue, jokes or plot. But Preminger’s direction is pretty interesting and also uncharacteristically flamboyant. As a result, I prefer this weirdo movie, for all its clear faults, to other, generally more-discussed Preminger efforts; amongst his critical flops, it’s less interesting than the excellent Saint Joan, but ahead of The Human Factor or Hurry Sundown or The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. I also prefer it to at least one of his critical successes, the initially absorbing but finally very disappointing Bunny Lake Is Missing.

The best joke in Skidoo is at the very start, a prolonged montage of grotesque fragments flitting across a colour TV screen as downtown Frisco householders Tony and Flo Banks (Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing) furiously compete, with a constantly clicking remote-control device, over who watches which channel. The equivalent sequence in Midnight Cowboy pales by comparison. Lunatic commercial follows lunatic commercial. At one point we witness two children and a shaggy dog smoking cigarettes almost bigger than they are themselves; at another, a dazzling blonde talks about how she keeps looking “sexually desirable” whereas other women tend to feel “like an old sow”; a third commercial, which just keeps unreeling, has an authoritative type in a white coat outlining a wonder cure for at least a hundred different afflictions, including cancer, syphilis, and dandruff. Punctuating these and numerous other glimpses are bits of an old John Wayne movie (actually, Preminger’s own In Harm’s Way) and – here the story really begins – extracts from a current Senatorial investigation into organized crime. Flo is mad keen to watch “the crime thing,” but Tony and his pal Harry (Arnold Stang), partners in a flourishing car-wash business, are none too agog. For a good reason: they’re retired hoods, and too many old buddies are testifying for comfort.

Skidoo: the Saul Bass poster
Skidoo: the Saul Bass poster

All part of the crazy suburban scene; the reality of the Mafia is just as much TV entertainment for the unthinking as those cretinous ads. The America that forces everything to become part of the tube’s bourgeois fodder is a visually scarifying place. Tony and Flo are identically clad in glaring red for evening relaxation, and the great slash of lipstick that emphasizes Carol Channing’s enormous and unnaturally white (almost snowblinding) teeth ties in with this dominant tone. A buzz at the door signals the arrival of one Hechy, another hood still in the game, and his son Angie, a couple of business executive types whose smooth black suits are offset by two shrieking-orange shirts. Uniformity goes hand in hand with vulgarity; everything’s showbiz in the crudest way. Like the commercials, Hechy and Angie (Cesar Romero and Frankie Avalon, the latter in a lounge-lizard lipline moustache) tend to talk in euphemistic terms: Tony is required, they tell him, to emerge from retirement to “kiss” an old friend in the Mob – meaning the Kiss of Death. The unwilling kissee is Blue Chips Packard (Mickey Rooney), about to do a Joe Valachi number for that dashing TV Senator (Peter Lawford). Blue Chips Packard – the very name combines capitalism and obsolescence. And the only name we’re given for the Mob chief who ordains his slaying is nothing less than “God.”

The God who rules the underworld in the topsy-turvy universe of Skidoo is a jealous God indeed, but also a God whose godlike status is about to crumble. Playing God (the most dangerous game) is Groucho Marx, and, though one welcomes the return of that godlike comedian, one notes he is less than wholly Grouchian. In fact, God is more like Howard Hughes, hiding from the world on a remote yacht and screening all entrants via the all-seeing eye of an elaborate TV monitor system. It’s clearly no fun being God; Groucho, 78 when the film was made, has discernibly dyed hair, never seems quite to get around to his voluptuous mistress, and even finds a quiet game of pool tough work on the choppy seas. The elaborate identification of crime with money and money with religion gets a lot of visual reinforcement: God’s network is called “The Tree” and, as Angie says, it’s the Tree that keeps America going – as long as you don’t taste the forbidden fruit. Hence, organized crime, far from being anti-social, is the Society of Skidoo‘s conformist/reactionary America, a murderous land where violent death is described in amatory terms and sexuality itself, as exemplified by God’s predatory mistress (Donyale Luna) or the eye-bruisingly strident Flo, is merely another way of getting at the essence of God’s universe, which is the Almighty Dollar.

With Tony snuck onto Alcatraz (actually empty by the time the film was made) and Flo trying to find him, and poor old Harry dead at the car wash, on come the forces of rebellion, the tasters of the forbidden fruit: a bunch of hippies whose seemingly wealthy chieftain, Stash (John Phillip Law), is paying court to the schoolgirl daughter of Tony and Flo. This girl, Darlene (Alexandra Hay), has her own ideas about finding Dad, which mainly centre on seducing Angie. Like God, to whose throne he plainly aspires, Angie finds he needs mechanical aid to help him through life. His pad, a gaudy wonderland of mobile furniture, revolving props, and items (notably the bed) that come up out of the floor, is a monument to Playboy crassness. Preminger’s well-known fondness for shooting everything on location causes a terrifying thought to surface: does this nightmare apartment really exist somewhere? (Actually, it’s a set; Preminger did just three days in a studio). Anyway, Darlene and Stash get kidnapped by God, and held prisoner on the yacht, and God foolishly lets Stash send a message to his tribe. This is an elaborate code – involving a truly ghoulish pun about the Lindbergh kidnapping – and, when deciphered, it allows the hippies and Flo, a convert to their lifestyle, to arrive for a last-minute rescue.

But what of Tony? Ah, here’s the core of the movie. Sharing a cell with a rapist named Leech and a hippie intellectual named The Professor, Tony accidentally gets a mouthful of the latter’s secret horde of LSD, trips out on a grand scale, and comes out of it convinced of the wrongness of violence and the acquisitive life. The “forbidden fruit” of individual freedom has already been indirectly alluded to by one of Stash’s tribe, who puffs inquisitively on a proffered joint and queries, “Pumpkin?”; the acid absorbed by Tony cleans out the garbage from his intelligence, and evangelically he determines to overthrow the Old Testament-style God of vengeance and inaugurate a new era of sweetness and light. The remainder of the LSD is plonked in the food fed the inmates (and guards), and soon the whole of Alcatraz is flying high, with nary a bummer experienced amidst the entire crowd. The warden amiably plans a course in costume jewelry making; Leech decides to give up raping people; and the guards begin to dance.

... and Groucho Marx playing God
... and Groucho Marx playing "God"

Well, yes; all the same, I’ll stick to warm milk and cookies, thank you. Preminger is at pains to make clear that this tripping out is only a first exit from the idiot repressed society God dominates, and that one can’t escape the world with an acid cube. The Professor and Tony flee Alcatraz in a homemade balloon rigged from empty food bags salvaged out of the prison garbage; their theft is observed by one stoned guard as a psychedelic ballet of living garbage cans. The Harry Nilsson song accompanying this scene asserts that such refuse containers constitute perhaps the last bastion of American democracy, because “everything’s equal in a garbage can”; yet the film, to this point, has contradicted that, having suggested that what’s important if you live in garbage is to get to the top of the heap. Thus, its finale, where hippies overturn God’s yacht-temple to the strains of a song called “Skidoo”, which word appears to be a synonym for coitus, is not entirely a revolution on the part of anarchy/love versus capitalist/exploitative/criminal straight society. After all, the hippies are depicted as a pretty dim lot, Tony and Flo’s conjugal reunion does take place in a toilet (another can!), and God does escape retribution.

We last see God sailing off across the ocean in disguise, albeit accompanied by The Professor (Austin Pendleton), who is lecturing him on the delights of hippiedom. Is this forgiveness being exercised by the Love Generation, or Christianity taking over from the Old Testament? Or is it a hint of future nastiness, a prediction of the inevitable demise of the hippie age, which was indeed already on the way out as the film appeared? God takes a puff on the Prof’s joint; the spectacle of Groucho Marx, of all people, smoking a cigarette is a humiliating one, and his reiteration of another’s query – “Pumpkin?” – is a handy reminder that dreams end when you wake up, and the ball ends at midnight for everyone, not just Cinderella. As the film came out at the end of that annus horribilis, 1968, the American people, having bidden farewell to the Age of Camelot (here evoked, but also sneered at, via the presence of Peter Lawford as, more or less, his erstwhile brother-in-law, Bobby Kennedy), also said goodbye to the hippies and welcomed in a new saviour. As Skidoo played to near-empty cinemas, the Age of Richard Nixon had already begun.

© 1980 Pierre Greenfield

SKIDOO (1968)
Direction: Otto Preminger. Screenplay: Doran William Cannon. Cinematography: Leon Shamroy; Art direction: Robert E. Smith. Editing: George Rohrs. Music and lyrics: Nilsson. Production: Preminger.
The players: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, John Phillip Law, Alexandra Hay, Austin Pendleton, Groucho Marx, Peter Lawford, Donyale Luna, Frankie Avalon, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Michael Constantine, Fred Clark, Arnold Stang, George Raft, Doro Merande, Richard Kiel, Philip Wohlstetter.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.