Of the films I’ve written about in this column, I would whole-heartedly recommend each without reservation, to not only watch, but to spend good money on. With 1968′s Skidoo, out now on a new Olive Films Blu-ray, I’m breaking that tradition. I wouldn’t suggest anyone purchase this film, though everyone should see it. This is a most unusual, absolutely indefinable, wholly unique motion picture.
I initially viewed Skidoo on the sole basis of its starring Alexandra Hay, who I’ve been smitten with since first seeing her in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, released the following year. On this point, Skidoo succeeds. Hay is a delightful beauty, charming in a way that is very much of the era. Admittedly unfamiliar with her biography, I can’t imagine why she didn’t have more of a career. Though she worked until 1978, perhaps she was, in fact, too synonymous with the late ’60s to transcend later generations? In any case, she is perfect here, even if Skidoo doesn’t have nearly enough of her.
Not that there’s much room. Skidoo crams in a good deal, starting with the cast, an eclectic and impressive roster of famous personalities in starring, supporting, or cameo roles: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Groucho Marx, Arnold Stang, and Slim Pickens, to name just a few. This is one remarkable line-up of legendary entertainers, and while some play into their famed personas (namely Marx, Gleason, and Channing), the genuine talents of nearly all are squandered in the insanity of the film’s plot and what they are subsequently required to do.
So what exactly is the film about? Its story, broken up by bizarre antics and individuals, is the stuff of classic gangsterdom. Tough Tony Banks (Gleason) has hung up his spurs as a hit man for mobster kingpin God (Marx), but when a former acquaintance, George “Blue Chips” Packard (Rooney), threatens to turn state’s evidence, God asks the “torpedo” to get back in the game and take out the snitch. To do so, he needs to go to prison, where Packard is securely waiting his day in court. In familiar fashion, Tony is reluctant to begin with, not wanting to be pulled back into the life, but threats to his family and friends sway his decision. In jail, however, an acid trip leaves him even more turned off by the prospect of the hit. He shirks on his duties and God demands the kidnapping of his daughter, Darlene (Hay). Meanwhile, Darlene investigates her father’s “disappearance,” while her mother, Flo (Channing, who is shockingly nearly nude at one point…), accompanied by a horde of hippies, likewise explores the whereabouts of her husband. As relatively commonplace as this scenario is, there is nothing common about the way any of it transpires.
Skidoo opens with an assortment of television commercials, shows, and movies (including a snippet from director Otto Preminger’s own In Harm’s Way (1965)). It’s a rapid-fire montage of “Fat Cola,” kids smoking, and advertisements declaring, “For family fun, get your gun.” It’s an incongruous hodgepodge that nonetheless seems appropriate for the madcap film that follows. Among the topical issues broached in one way or another (usually nutty either way), is the generational divide of the time, with anti-establishment hippies on one side and the old-school authority figures on the other. Darlene’s hippy boyfriend goes on a tangent about wishing he could be nothing (“You mean if I could be nothing, I would be everything?” clarifies Darlene) and end of sentence punctuations such as “You dig?” are prevalent. Having it both ways, Skidoo makes these young people look as foolish as it does the older characters look absurdly reactionary: Flo is initially part of an “anti-ugliness campaign” aimed at cleaning up perceived affronts to acceptable society, and the “long-hairs” are frequently mistaken for (or purposely mocked as) Indians. While Tony is representative of the more conservative line of thought, Flo becomes an understanding figure who eventually ingratiates herself with the young people as they seek to stick it to the oppressiveness of “The Man” while dreaming of a world safe for butterflies and organic supermarkets.
The culture clash of the characters reflects the genre-bending nature of the film itself. The gangster elements are clear, but the film is undeniably a comedy, and there are a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure, with some great songs by Harry Nilsson and a rather catchy garbage can dance routine. Even with this odd formal union, Preminger maintains roughly the same stylistic approach throughout, with only a brief split screen sequence and black and white photography and some color manipulation during drug-induced hallucinations.
What else…? There’s an intricate mafia family tree, which includes the slimy playboy Avalon; Gleason licking acid-laced stationary; lots of body paint; a germaphobic and paranoid (and 78-year-old) Marx holed away aboard a massive ship with his trademark greasepaint mustache and slinky, seductive mistress (played by groundbreaking African American supermodel Donyale Luna); and everyone coming together in the end for a hysterical conclusion that features Channing singing the title song before the credits roll … which are also sung. I wish I could say all of this is seamlessly and logically stitched together, but it isn’t. Not even close.
Skidoo was written by Doran William Cannon, who would also pen Robert Altman’s quirky Brewster McCloud, which makes sense. It was directed by the legendary Otto Preminger, which doesn’t. Flying in the face of auteurist theory, there is nothing about this chaotic and irrational film that would suggest it was helmed by the same the man behind Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face, The Moon Is Blue, River of No Return, The Man with the Golden Arm, Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder, Advise & Consent, and Bunny Lake Is Missing, all of which are better films.
With all of the above, then, why should one watch Skidoo? Well, precisely because of all the above. As crazy, inconsistent, occasionally shoddy, and terribly corny as the film is, it is also amusing, fascinating in its own way, and, more than anything else, completely unlike anything else. It’s chock-full of talent (even if you’d never know it from this film) and it perfectly captures the LSD-infused sensibilities of its time, for better or worse. Don’t bother buying it, but it’s at least worth one watch.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT