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Friday, 26 February 2016

Skidoo (1968)

Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Fred Clark, Michael Constantine, Frank Gorshin, John Phillip Law, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney and Groucho Marx
When I started my centennial project, half of the point was to celebrate the contributions to film of people who were born a hundred years ago; the other was to be able to watch and review interesting films. They don’t get much more interesting than this one, a 1968 feature from Paramount Pictures and director Otto Preminger, a massively important director in the fifties for taboo-busting films like The Moon is Blue, The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder; he also made earlier classics, like Laura. Skidoo can be interpreted as a late entry in that taboo-busting output, but I don’t buy it. It’s just a chaotic LSD movie that might well have been written on the drug it uses as a plot device. The scriptwriter was Doran William Cannon, who also wrote another odd feature, Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud; he had assistance here from Rob Reiner, at this point just a bit part actor and writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, who claims that Preminger fired and rehired him every day. I wish I knew what they thought they were doing.

To me, it works best as a trainwreck, a movie that we just can’t look away from, even as we wonder what could possibly have happened to create such a mess. Groucho Marx, appearing in his last film as a crime lord called God, described both his performance and the film as ‘God-awful!’ I wouldn’t go quite that far, but he has a point. The film has certainly become a guilty pleasure for some fans of offbeat cinema, but mostly it’s regarded poorly by fans and critics alike. Those who choose to watch the film are less likely to be doing so for the picture itself and more for its incredible cast of stars who, like Preminger, were most prominent a decade earlier. Jonathan Rosenbaum describes them as ‘a legion of Fifties TV corpses’, with the film itself an ‘endlessly fascinating aberration’. I share that opinion because I found that I was unable to look away from the screen, even though I was clearly watching a disaster unfold and I had no stake in the cast of legends because I didn’t grow up knowing who most of them were.
The first one we meet is Jackie Gleason, the star of the film, who would have been one hundred years old on 26th February. He’s one of the few actors here that I did grow up watching, albeit for Smokey and the Bandit movies rather than for The Jackie Gleason Show or The Honeymooners. I knew him as a film actor rather than a television actor, let alone a recording artist. Let’s not forget that each of his first ten albums sold a million copies and his first, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the most weeks spent in the Billboard top ten with an amazing 153. He began the sixties on a high note, deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for playing Minnesota Fats in The Hustler; he lost out to George Chakiris in West Side Story. Sadly, ended it on a lesser note, returning to the big screen after five years away for three poorly received comedies: Skidoo, How to Commit Marriage and Don’t Drink the Water. This is clearly the worst of them and, frankly, the idea of watching Minnesota Fats go on an acid trip is still freaking me out, man.

He’s ‘Tough’ Tony Banks. No, not the keyboardist from Genesis, this Banks is a renowned hitman who had enough clout to successfully retire and remain so for seventeen years but not quite enough to avoid God pulling him right back in the moment he thinks Tough Tony is the right man for a particular job. We can’t quite buy him as a tough guy here, because he spends an apparently endless opening scene struggling with his wife, Flo, played by Carol Channing, over which TV channel they should watch. I enjoyed the odd set of clips and commercials far more than the so-called comedy, which is how I caught that one channel is broadcasting a bunch of gangsters appearing before a senate committee. ‘Eggs’ Benedict appears in a swathe of bandages that hide 23 bullet holes; he explains that, ‘I was cleaning my gun and it went off.’ It would seem that Tony can’t get away from the life he’s left behind. Hechy and Angie show up out of the past and surely the ’37 Rolls outside can only be the Puerto Rican mob.
Well, it isn’t, but it begins the onslaught of famous faces. The Rolls contains a hippie called Stash, played by a very different John Phillip Law to the one I know from Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik, both released the same year as Skidoo; he’s here to bring Tony’s daughter Darlene home because she’s defected to the counterculture. He can’t grasp the world of her parents: ‘Violence is the sign language of the inarticulate’, he says. Hechy and Angie are a father and son pair of gangsters in the wild combination of Cesar Romero and Frankie Avalon. Romero was an established and versatile actor, but at this point easily best known as the Joker on Batman; we’ll meet two of his fellow villains here too and should note that a third, Mr Freeze, was played by this fim’s director, Otto Preminger. Avalon was coming to the end of his run of Frankie and Annette beach movies. They’re here on a mission from God: to summon him to take care of a job, surely tied to the news on the TV, that George ‘Blue Chips’ Packard, Tough Tony’s best friend, is missing.

So far, the film has been interesting. Gleason seems eager to be flustered as Tough Tony, Channing has a wide collection of the worst outfits I’ve ever seen and we’re starting to see a flood of recognisable names and faces. Yet the film was supposed to have been sparked by Preminger’s fascination with his son Erik’s life as a hippie dropout in Greenwich Village; when a sample of writing by Doran William Cannon showed up on his desk, featuring hippies tripping out on LSD, he leapt at the chance to film just that sample. This film never really focuses on that and, when the trips begin, they’re not being taken by the counterculture characters who steal all the early scenes. I needed to avert my eyes from Flo’s wardrobe choices and the topless chicks getting bodypainted were easy targets. Law is consistently entertaining and there’s a cool, if overdone, section in wild split screen that recounts a flashback in the style of an old silent movie, right down to the outrageous facial hair. But the film’s about to lose focus.
I was never quite sure if it was supposed to satirise the old guard playing old guard characters or the new folk playing new characters. Maybe it was supposed to do both, exploring the obsolescence of gangsters (a year before Mario Puzo published The Godfather and four before Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation did insane box office) and highlighting how ridiculous modern life had become, whether through the hippies or a reliance on the ‘Age of Electronics’ that Avalon demonstrates through his remote controlled bachelor pad that would make Quagmire jealous. The problem is that none of this fits at all well together, with the eventual collision of subplots feeling like precisely that: a collision caused by nobody having the faintest clue where they’re going. Late in the film, Harry Nilsson and Fred Clark play a pair of tower guards, laced with LSD, who look out over their domain and disbelieve everything they see. I felt like that just watching the movie and wonder how many actors shared that feeling while making it.

And there are plenty of them. The one who gets away with his reputation most intact is probably Mickey Rooney, playing Packard, whose nickname of ‘Blue Chips’ is explained by the ticker tape machine to help him manage his stock portfolio from his private prison cell in Alcatraz. He’s turning states evidence in an attempt to take down God, who believes that Tough Tony is the only man who can get to him, given that Packard is his best friend and his daughter’s godfather, with those seventeen years of retirement as icing on the cake. So into Alcatraz goes Banks. He’s bunked with an old con, soon to be Emmy-winning Michael Constantine as Leech, and new guy Austin Pendleton as a draught dodger called Fred the Professor, who turns out to be the spark behind the only thing that this film really achieves. It was never really going to be about Packard challenging God or Tony taking down Packard or Flo taking in a hippie collective. It was always going to come down to the LSD the Professor smuggled into Alcatraz as envelope glue.
We find this out when Tony finds it out, namely right after he’s licked one of those envelopes to contain a letter to Flo. ‘I’m on a trip!’ he mutters and the Professor guides him through it. If there’s any structure to this film at all, I think that it’s here that we find it and I can see three directions. The first has Tony strung out on acid, which is an excuse for Preminger to call in his 1968 effects team to conjure up a wild journey. Tony’s cellmates shrink and talk to him from purple pyramids; numbers proliferate, punctuated in dots; a screw flies around the room with God’s head on it, cigar and all; and Rooney does a musical number in a striped convict suit. Does it mean anything? No, but it looks suitably out there for mainstream Hollywood in 1968. The second was hinted at by the earlier flashback scene crafted as a silent movie reel. This is a stereotypical Keystone farce comedy, with a bunch of gags that sound funny in isolation thrown together and mixed with improvisation until everything turns into a chase. It’s just feature length and in colour.

The last is the one that might resonate as the point of the picture. While Tony initially resisted the call of God, capitulating only when his friend, Harry, played by Arnold Stang, is murdered as a warning, he goes on to do everything that God asks up to this point. After he comes down from the acid trip, though, that’s all over. He’s not going to ‘kiss’ (ie kill) Packard any more and he’s not going to rot in Alcatraz either. He’s going to put a plan together to get out of there and take care of God. This is Otto Preminger, through his scriptwriters, telling us that acid is better than therapy and it’ll help us focus our lives to discover what’s really happening, man. Does he need half a movie to build up to that? Not in the slightest. Does he need the other half to bring it all home? He can’t be bothered. All I believe he had in mind for this picture was an effects-ridden acid trip, a subsequent reinvention and a madcap rush to the end credits. We lost the opening ones when Tony changed the channel, but the end ones are sung, in entirety, by Harry Nilsson.
And so we focus on the stars, most of whom are dosed with LSD when Tony’s escape plan gets going. I’d argue that Burgess Meredith, the Penguin in the Batman TV show, was born to play someone unwittingly dosed with acid. He’s the Warden of Alcatraz, showing up with Senator Peter Lawford, formerly of the Rat Pack, who probably owned a bachelor pad in real life like the one Frankie Avalon has here. LSD finds his ambition. ‘There are only three great Americans,' he memorably orates, ‘Washington. Lincoln. And me!’ Frank Gorshin, the Riddler in Batman, is the Man here, God’s right hand inside Alcatraz. Richard Kiel, just as easy to recognise as ever, is a dim-witted prisoner called Beany who gets a memorable scene on acid where he grabs every prisoner in turn to see which is Loretta. Slim Pickens sings Home on the Range as a switchboard operator so high that he puts God through to Packard to explain the hit on him. None have a lot of screen time, but they’re more entertaining than the odd scenes back at Tony’s with Flo and Darlene and the hippie contingent. Only Geronimo’s wild translation of a cryptic message is worthwhile there.

Meanwhile, on God’s yacht, which had been loaned to Preminger for the shoot by John Wayne, the faces keep on coming. Groucho Marx, wrapping up a legendary career at 77 years of age, is so awful here that we feel that he’s unable to play himself. Preminger wanted him to be his old self but he just isn’t up to it. He’s more like a caricature played by another comedian, but not so well that I could figure out which. He isn’t as fast and he isn’t as funny as we remember. Madcap comedians shouldn’t age. The only part that he really nails from God’s character is his confusion, as he’s firmly at the top of the Tree, the hierarchy of the protection racket, but is so wanted that he can’t even leave his boat. He’s stuck playing bumper pool with a giraffe of a supermodel and hurling orders at his captain. The former is Luna, the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue and the latter is George Raft, almost unrecognisable from his heyday as a real mob-connected actor playing believable gangsters in thirties Warner Brothers pictures.
The underlying impression of the film is that everything’s wrong. What are all these fifties legends doing in a 1968 movie about acid? Why is Jackie Gleason tripping? Was Carol Channing high as a kite when she shot her scenes and was her character likewise when she bought her wardrobe? How come Groucho Marx can’t even play himself? What are the villains from Adam West’s Batman all doing inside Alcatraz? Who in the film hasn’t slept with Flo? Who’s Darlene’s father, really? And did the scriptwriter really lose track of writing that subplot? Where did Stash land himself a ’37 Rolls and if possessions are like, yesterday, man, can he sign the title over to me? Why does the most striking female presence in the film have less boobs than I do? Why do the Green Bay Packers play naked? And who thought it would be a great idea for Harry Nilsson to sing the end credits, right down to such unmelodic sections as ‘Copyright MCMLXVII by Sigma Productions, Incorporated’? Well, the answer to all these has to be LSD. It’s the only answer, it seems.

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