Directed by Otto Preminger
The United States of America
The year was 1968 and the writing was on the wall. Vietnam was burning, students were rioting, hippies were dancing, and Hollywood was failing. As ticket prices dropped, studios began selling their backlots and props just to make ends meet. The legendary stars of the past were shoved aside to make room for teenage heartthrobs like James Dean and Elvis Presley. Hollywood just couldn’t comprehend these bizarre Baby Boomers who craved sex and violence, rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll. The first faint glimmers of the Hollywood New Wave could be seen on the horizon, heralding the birth of a new generation of filmmakers and actors at the expense of the old. It was from this environment that Otto Preminger’s Skidoo seemed to burst into existence both fully-formed and irrevocably apathetic. With nothing left to lose, the film saw a mixture of the Hollywood old guard and a pantheon of 50s television stars throwing up their hands towards the future and saying with one voice, “Screw it. We give up.”
In a quiet, picturesque neighborhood nestled somewhere in the American suburban wasteland of the late 1960s, retired hit-man Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) is suddenly ordered back to active duty by his old mob boss “God.” At first Tony refuses, having grown quite comfortable with his new life of Teflon frying pans, tacky furniture, and color television. But when one of his close friends is soon discovered in a car wash with a bullet in his brain, Tony reluctantly agrees.
His target is his old pal “Blue Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney), a crook with a date with the US Senate’s Crime Commission. In order to “silence” Packard before he gets a chance to testify, Tony gets sent to Alcatraz Island where he is being held in an impervious prison cell of the future. To get to Packard, he must team up with Fred the Professor, a draft-dodging, brown rice eating electronics genius who just happens to be one of his cellmates, so they can modify a television set to communicate with him inside his cell. But after making contact, Tony realizes that he can’t go through with it. Knowing that “God” will never rescue him from Alcatraz if he doesn’t perform the hit, Tony begins to plot one of the strangest prison breaks in history.
But while Tony languishes in Alcatraz, his wanna-be hippie daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) and her spaced-out boyfriend Stash (John Phillip Law) decide to confront “God” on his yacht located deep (and permanently) within international waters. They find “God” (played by Groucho Marx in his final film appearance) unwilling to change his mind despite having long since grown tired of his self-imposed exile. When her mother Flo (Carol Channing) discovers that “God” has effectively taken her prisoner, she rallies a massive group of hippies and storms his yacht like pirates.
To make matters even worse, at that moment Tony and Fred arrive at the yacht in a massive hot air balloon made of freezer bags and garbage cans that they used to escape Alcatraz after spiking the prison’s food supply with LSD. In a sequence that seems oddly reminiscent of Groucho’s earlier film Duck Soup (1933), the characters scurry around like madmen in a bacchanalian frenzy of outrageous costumes, music, and crowded sets as a couple are married, a family is reunited, and an old mob boss suddenly dressed as a Hare Krishna smokes a joint and slips away.
For a film by Preminger, a director most known for his legendary output as part of the Hollywood studio system during the 1940s and 1950s, Skidoo displays an unusually vicious contempt for the entertainment industry, American society, and new technological advancements. It’s very easy to miss considering the film’s music and tone, but it is definitely there. Take the virtuoso sequence that occurs during the film’s first five minutes, for example. An animated title sequence featuring a dancing caricature of Preminger zooms out to reveal a television set. Suddenly, the television rapidly changes channels through a kaleidoscope of bizarre programming. First a Senate hearing. Then a skinny blonde woman with a pink pearl necklace, “Now you, too, can be beautiful and sexually desirable like me.” Back to the hearing. Now back to the woman, “Instead of that fat, disgusting, foul-breathed, slimy, wallowing sow that you are...” Now John Wayne on a battleship. Now a fat Bavarian drinking foamy beer. John Wayne. A noisy pig. “You’ll never lose your man if you drink ‘Fat’ Cola.” John Wayne. Two children and a dog smoking cigarettes. The hearing. “Get a gun for everyone in your family. Remember, for family fun, get your gun!” And all the while Flo can be heard complaining, at one point even chiming: “No, Harry, I don’t like films on TV. They always cut them to pieces.”
Skidoo’s America is one of artificial people trying, and failing, to put up a better front around others. Gleason’s Tony is a bloated, short-tempered grouch. Stash and the hippies are ignorant, easily manipulated morons. The local mayor occupies himself with “anti-ugliness” campaigns. Fred claims to despise technology while neck-deep in circuitry. Even the futuristic, technological creature comforts that dominate the film’s interiors fail to work properly. Take one scene where Flo tries to seduce a gangster in order to gain information on Frank’s whereabouts. His “pad” is an automated No Man’s Land of malfunctioning gadgets and gizmos: the remote-controlled lights and stereo go haywire, a liquor cabinet sputters open and closed, and a mechanical bed that rises from the floor accidentally drags her underground.
And then there are the drugs. LSD, marijuana, birth control pills...the film is a cornucopia of chemical delights. During the prison-wide LSD-fueled freak-out, garbage cans dance, guards collapse in laughter, and visiting government officials...*ahem*...lose their composure. In an earlier scene, Tony unwittingly licks an LSD-laced envelope, resulting in one of the best drug-trip sequences of the 1960s (“Mathematics! I see mathematics!”). Preminger seems to condemn them one moment as the playthings of the stupid and unmotivated and then at other moments praise them as the means through which individuals can escape the conformist nightmare of Vietnam-era America.
So what’s the point of the film? Perhaps there isn’t one. Perhaps Preminger merely wanted to air out a career’s worth of dirty laundry within the confines of a film that his producers would overlook and the critics would casually dismiss. Perhaps the film finally gave voice to Preminger’s long-held frustrations with his adopted culture. But perhaps we’re over-thinking it. Whatever the case, Skidoo is a technicolor enigma of pop culture detritus. It must be seen to be believed. But don’t expect to understand it instantly. As some are wont to point out, you never get high your first time.