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If you can’t dig nothin’, you can’t dig anything. You dig?

Skidoo
(1968)

(SPOILERS) You could at least discern that someone involved had some degree of awareness or first-hand knowledge of the scene with most of the counter-culture cash-ins Hollywood attempted during the ’60s, regardless of how shipwrecked the results were. No such luck befalls Skidoo, frequently cited as one of the biggest dodos ever made and with which director Otto Preminger evidences to anyone interested why he had not, hitherto, explored the comedy genre. The result is a grimly unfunny satire, as well as being woefully square, but it’s nevertheless so wrongfooted at every turn, unfolding with all the narrative sophistication of one of those live-action Disneys of the period, only R-rated, that it’s kind of fascinating.

Stash: Man, how I wish I could be nothin’.
Darlene: What?
Stash: Nothin’.

Groucho Marx, who plays God in the movie – a mob boss with that moniker rather than the real deal; they missed a trick there – called both his performance and the picture as a whole “God-awful”. He wasn’t far wrong on both counts. A couple of years shy of eighty, he plastered on the greasepaint and hair piece to suggest a semblance of classic-era Groucho – at Preminger’s insistence – but delivers nary a funny line in the shebang (he can’t even muster convincing lechery after Alexandra Hay).

Apparently, Groucho dropped acid in preparation for the role. Preminger did too, having snapped up the screenplay after become fascinated with the lifestyle of newfound son and Greenwich Village dropout Erik. This didn’t happen immediately, however. He was originally attached to Too Far to Walk, abandoning it at Doran William Cannon’s behest – Cannon thought it was unadaptable – and selecting the screenwriter’s original work Skidoo as more his bag instead. Neither Preminger nor Grouch appears discernibly attuned to the intended vibes, though.

Darlene: Where do you get your dialogue? From old Valentines?

Cannon was a Coppola associate who previously wrote and directed the little seen and roundly forgotten The Square Root of Zeroabout two hippies going to Maine”. He’d go on to bona-fide screenwriting success with Brewster McCloud (now, Robert Altman might have at least made Skidoo weirdly interesting) but this was stuck dishearteningly between the two. Cannon admitted, with regard to his progressive credentials, “I had a passion to make films in a way that could affect society itself, and I wanted to change the way Hollywood thought”. He was under no illusions what would happen once Preminger came on board, though (“I never expected it to be a good movie in the hands of Otto Preminger”).

It’s notable that, while Hollywood was desperate to cash in on hippie dollars, even they weren’t convinced the project would fly (“A Paramount vice-president wrote Otto a letter begging him not to make it”). It was the unlikeliest mash up of material and director (as noted above, Preminger was not a comedy guy, but he also had carte blanche to make whatever he liked at Paramount at that time). The screenplay traded conspicuously on the scene from its title on down. “Skidoo” had a long history of usage, believed to have derived from “skedaddle” and first noted in common parlance during the early twentieth century. It’s also often married to 23, both 23 and skidoo meaning same thing (being force to leave). As to 23’s origins, it has been variously suggested to come from A Tale of Two Cities – Sidney Carton is the 23rd prisoner in line for the guillotine – and British race tracks – 23 as the limit on the number of horses allowed to start in a race.

Timothy Leary: I think this movie’s going to turn on the country.

Flash forward to the sixties, and 23 was being popularised by Timothy Leary’s buddy Robert Anton Wilson, who first heard William Burroughs discussing the enigma. That would be CIA stooge Leary, who appeared in the ad for Skidoo and was never less than a shameless self-promoter (also appearing: renowned Hollywood Satanist Sammy Davis Jr). Cannon tells it that “Otto took acid under the personal guidance of Timothy Leary, who I knew, and he told me: (imitates Preminger) "I saw things, but I did not see myself".

23, “considered lucky, unlucky, sinister, strange, sacred to the goddess Eris, or sacred to the unholy gods of the Cthulhu Mythos”, became a big part of Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, and from thence a cornerstone of the KLF’s occult musings. Wilson also mused on 23 in depth in probably his best work, Cosmic Trigger. It can be found as a dedicated poem by Aleister Crowley, with whom Wilson was abidingly fascinated.

23 barely gets a look in in Preminger’s film; it comes up in the channel-hopping duel of an opening between Tony (Jackie Gleason) and Flo Banks (Carol Channing). This sequence is (perhaps) designed to say something or other about TV-addicted middle America oblivious to the real juice going down with the youth, conditioned as they are into becoming couch potatoes. In a Senate Committee hearing, the bandaged victim admits to having 23 bullet holes; “Well, I was cleaning my gun when it went off. 23 times, senator”. It’s also in the lyrics to Harry Nilsson’s Skidoo/Goodnight Mr. Banks (“As the colour slowly changes from fourteen to 23”). And I dare say, if one studies it closely enough, it can be seen in the mob tree chart flourished by Angie (Frankie Avalon) that has Groucho’s God at Number One.

Stash: It’s okay. Violence is the sign language of the inarticulate.

Cannon had the idea that the mob side should be played straight and the hippies for laughs, resulting in a delirious tension between the two. He opined “Comedy is subtle; comedy is timing. Otto's Germanic persona just couldn't do it”. Indeed. You’ll frequently find references to how wacky the movie is, even from those who don’t take to it, but it really isn’t. The main issue preventing Skidoo from indulging uncontrolled mayhem is that there’s no sense of uncontrolled mayhem. No sense of being really “demented” or “zany” or “crazy”. The average episode of I Dream of Jeannie is more hallucinogenic. The hand at the tiller is reserved and buttoned down, his approach to drugs and free love that off the mystified man in his sixties trying to get on board but bereft as to quite how. Some defenders will have you believe “It’s supposed to be shit” (with regard to the trip visuals, or the depiction of hippies), but that doesn’t really wash. Skidoo is supposed to be funny, and it isn’t.

The movie is structured around two distinct plotlines converging, one in which ex-hitman Tony is called upon by God to “kiss” (kill) old pal Packard (Mickey Rooney), which will entail him entering prison to complete the job. The other finds his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) falling in with hippie Stash (John Phillip Law). In prison, Tony prevails upon the skills of draft dodger Fred the Professor (Austin Pendleton), manages to get spiked with acid, has a trip, refuses to kill Packard and escapes in a hot air balloon after he and his cellmates have dosed the entire staff and inmates with LSD. Meanwhile, Flo has allowed a commune’s worth of hippies to rock up at her house, and she and Darlene have separately thrown themselves at Angie in the hope of gaining an audience with God. Proceedings culminate in an “assault” on God’s yacht and peace and love vibes prevailing for all.

Fred: If you ride with the waves, it will be a good trip.

These culture clashes could work – The President’s Analyst continues to dazzle as a tip-top satire. Unfortunately, nigh-on everything is off here. There are fey attempts at shocking square adults with free-living values, be it towards money or sexual preference or mockery of authority, but they are all incredibly lightweight. The trip scenes are barrel-scrapingly dull or inept, including as they do treasures like Groucho on the head of a screw and a garbage can song. There’s an attempt to contrast an obsession with gadgetry (Angie’s chick-magnet pad) and hippie back to basics (including copious body painting, albeit in illustration of how prudish Preminger really is, most of those painted retain their underwear). The hippies’ free thinking is lightly mocked, but it’s also generally approved of, while the mob is victim to superstition (“God is a germaphobe”) and the system itself is easily duped (with “Lithuanian measles”).

Where Skidoo does manage to muster a modicum of goodwill, it’s entirely down to the performers. Gleason (“He was Otto's fifth choice”) wanders through the proceedings apparently oblivious to the less than fine mess he’s got himself into. Which might be the intention, but serves to underline the vibe, and which side of the generational fence it derives from (The Honeymooners, rather than The Monkees). It’s said neither Gleason nor Channing were speaking to Otto by end, but the difference between them is that Channing is really good as the randy, would-be-with-it wife, throwing herself at Angie and striking a tone that is, admittedly, low-rent bedroom farce but has some gusto (I’m less appreciative of her singing Skidoo at the end, but it’s a dreadful earworm no one could salvage).

God: And what does a hippy want from God?
Stash: A world where people can do their thing and not be hassled.

There are different stories about Groucho’s behaviour, some positive on his part, some negative, but Cannon has it that “Preminger would scream at Groucho. You don't yell at somebody like Groucho Marx! So one day Otto yelled at him, and with perfect timing, Groucho turned to him and said, "Are you drunk?" Even then, everyone on the set was afraid to laugh, but it was reported in Variety”. Three Batman villains feature (Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero), of whom Gorshin makes the strongest impression. Actually, four Batman villains, if you count Preminger. And in that regard, Frankie Avalon comes on like he’s been cast as the lead in The Burt Ward Story.

Fred: I’ve renounced all science and technocracy.

John Philip Law, meanwhile, looks a shoe-in for Jesus of Nazareth, if only it hadn’t been made a decade later. Alexandra Hay is radiant – a few years later, she’d be played by Beverly D’Angelo in Hair. Luna too is an arresting sight – until she opens her mouth and reveals she can’t act. Mickey Rooney entirely nails the tone – assuming there ever was one – but then, he knows his comedy, even if sometimes he erred enormously (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Austin Pendleton (a friend of Cannon) also seems to know exactly what he’s doing (he did, and would follow this with another strong turn in Catch-22). Richard Kiel shows up (“You ain’t Loretta!”)

Tower Guard: No, it’s a great, big, beautiful blob of nothing.

Harry Nilsson furnished the score at a point when he’d already recorded Everybody’s Talkin’ and contributed to The Monkees’ genuinely demented Head. I can’t say it’s a good score, but his decision to sing the entirety of the end credits isimpressive. From a certain perspective. Wiki, doubtless at the prompting of a self-appointed curator of the movie’s page, attests “in the years since it has seen a rise in appreciation by film critics”. And it’s true; there are a few full marks on IMDB. But that’s true of almost any movie or TV show. Unfortunately, there’s little to save Skidoo from the verdict that it’s an old man looking foolish as he tries to get down with the kids.


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