Psychedelic Film Criticism for the legally insane

Monday, June 06, 2011

In the Windmills of SKIDOO (1968)

"it is part of you - you are part of it.
Remember the final reality - 
the all good, the all peaceful, the light, the radiant - 
let mind and body separate." 

Dig, man. Dig.

Jackie Gleason took acid. It's common knowledge, not that his acting gives you much indication. But thanks to a lifelong interest in aliens and a friendship with Nixon, he maybe saw some things so harrowing that the worst acid could dish out was as rum raisin instead of whiskey a-cocoa. By which I mean genuinely alien dead bodies. UFO author Jim Mars has the story:
According to Gleason's second wife, Beverly McKittrick, (Jackie) returned home visibly shaken one night in 1973. Gleason, who was known to have an avid interest in UFOs, said his friend President Richard Nixon had arranged for him to visit Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, where he viewed the remains of small alien beings under tight security. This story was confirmed by Larry Warren. who said Gleason met with him in May 1986 to hear Warren's account of a UFO experience in England [i.e. Rendlesham - EK]. During their conversation, Gleason related the Nixon aliens story and said the experience traumatized him for weeks. "You could tell he was very sincere," said Warren. "He took the whole affair very seriously and I could that he wanted to get the matter of his chest, and this was why he was telling me all this." Before his death in 1987, Gleason was asked about the incident but declined to comment, a most interesting circumstance, since it was an opportunity to refute the story if it was false. (1) 

SKIDOO was made five years prior to this alleged event and Gleason's character doesn't get to take his big LSD trip until halfway through at least, and then he mainly hallucinates twisting machine guns and overlapping bullet numbers ("I see mathematics!" he roars).

But that doesn't mean the aliens and the LSD are not connected. Why else would I have mentioned it? Traumatizing as it must be to actually see dead aliens and learn the shocking truth about the alien reality, spectral hallucinations of Mickey Rooney dancing and waving cartoon-style sacks of spondoolicks (his next hallucination, alongside Groucho's head on a screw) are worse. Of course paranoia is going to result when you trip in prison, man! All he has to groove on is the confines of his cell, leading to Gleason's wondering if his daughter is his 'own' as he looks into the cracked, dirty mirror. "She's got my ears! She's got my ears!" He claps hands to his head as if wondering if she'll ever them give them back - hey, we've all been there.

This scene is fairly great once Gleason finds his footing, but SKIDDOO starts real rough. The beginning is a drawn-out joyless critique of televisual advertising, as a remote control war erupts between Gleason's retired gangster (named, heaven's preserve us Tough Tony) and wife Carol Channing (wearing so much mascara her lashes stick together). But this uneventful domestic retiree misery is interrupted when Cesar Romero shows up at the dock and orders Tony to get himself arrested and hauled into jail in order to 'kiss' (kill) "Blue Chips" (Mickey Rooney) who's about to turn state's evidence.

If you say 'screwball' once more I swear I shall SCREAM!
Nothing goes according to plan, of course. Tony licks the "wrong" envelope while prison pen palling, gets a conscience ("Gimme a flower") and hallucinates various smoky images most notably mob kingpin "God's" (aka Groucho Marx's) head on a turning screw.

Meanwhile Gleason's lovely daughter and her hippy boyfriend (John Phillip Law) head off to God's yacht for some reason, and Carol inherits the rest of the hippies and starts washing their hair in her kitchen, which is--I guess--better than their feet.

The plot after that involves a plan to bust out of jail by putting all the remaining blotter pages in a vat of mashed potatoes, thus drugging the prison population so they can sail past the prison walls in a balloon of their hopes and aspirations (first hypnotizing the guards with an electric rainbow colored trash can dance, set to unbearably trite Nilsson music). Carol Channing follows her daughter out to God's yacht meanwhile, hippies in tow, singing an even worse song. When Gleason fails to kiss Blue Chips, God orders her daughter's death but by then everyone is tripping way too hard to load a gun without hallucinating smiley faces on the bullets. Channing boards the yacht like a British admiral and sings the drecky/catchy theme song. What was the name of it? I had the lyric sheep here somewhere... whoa, leer -ick sheep... that... sounds.... right.


I can imagine how unpleasant tripping while locked in a jail cell would be but having to endure listening to Nilsson singing all of the closing credits in his precious little high voice is surely worse. Tripping at the theater back in 1968 would, I imagine, have been different. Worse, I mean. No offense to Nilsson overall, but he always gave me the impression he hadn't been beaten up enough as a child.

Nilsson also plays a guard at the jail alongside Fred "Slow Burn" Clark.

Some aspects of this film are less cool than others, but one thing that is cool? Groucho Marx... on acid!
"... I was hanging around with friends from the Hog Farm, who were extras in the movie. Skidoo was pro-acid propaganda thinly disguised as a comedy adventure ... One of the characters in Skidoo was a Mafia chieftain named God. Screenwriter Bill Cannon had suggested Groucho Marx for the part ... [Groucho] was concerned about the script of Skidoo because it pretty much advocated LSD which he had never tried, but he was curious. Moreover, he felt a certain responsibility to his young audience not to steer them wrong, so could I possibly get him some pure stuff and would I care to accompany him on a trip. I did not play hard to get. We arranged to ingest those little white tablets one afternoon at the home of an actress in Beverly Hills ...

... Groucho was holding on to his cigar for a long time, but he never smoked it, he only sniffed it occasionally. 'Everybody has their own Laurel and Hardy,' he mused. 'A miniature Laurel and Hardy, one on each shoulder. Your little Oliver Hardy bawls you out - he says, 'Well this is a fine mess you've gotten us into.' And your little Stan Laurel gets all weepy - 'Oh, Ollie. I couldn't help it. I'm sorry, I did the best I could ...'
... Later, when Groucho started chuckling to himself, I hesitated to interrupt his reverie, but I had to ask, 'What struck you funny?' 'I was thinking about this movie, Skidoo,' he said. 'I mean some of it is just plain ridiculous. This kid puts his stationery, which is soaked in LSD, into the water supply of the prison, and suddenly everybody gets completely reformed. There's a prisoner who says, 'Oh, gosh, now I don't have to be a rapist anymore!' ... But I'm getting a big kick out of playing somebody named God like a dirty old man. You wanna know why ... it's because - do you realize that irreverence and reverence are the same thing?'
... He recalled Otto Preminger telling him about his own response to taking LSD and then he mimicked Preminger's accent: "I saw tings, bot I did not zee myself.' Groucho was looking in a mirror on the dining room wall, and he said, 'Well, I can see myself but I still don't understand what the hell I'm doing here." A week later, Groucho told me that the Hog Farm had turned him on with marijuana on the set of Skidoo. When Skidoo was released, Tim Leary saw it, and he cheerfully admitted, 'I was fooled by Otto Preminger. He's much hipper than me ...'  
Gut Gott! If I didn't know from cinema history that Preminger did acid I never would have believed it because SKIDOO is mighty square. The harder it tries not to be the harder it is, like quicksand. I've never taken LSD on a film set (that I know of, man) but one thing I do know of: drugs can make things seem a lot funnier than they 'really' are. The thought of Groucho as a mobster named God sounds so appetizing I longed to see this film for decades during its long and deserved obscurity. I couldn't believe it could be as half as bad as those who had seen it claimed. Right there you have an inkling: what looks good on paper. lest said viewer drops blotter aforehand but then again nearly anything can be rolled and, well, HEAD it ain't....

HEAD (above), which came out the same year

But I also know from way, way too much personal experience, that after awhile the awesome visuals of LSD can get redundant, like being thrown up against the same glass barrier time and time again, able to see paradise in passing, on a Disney ride that can neither be slowed nor speeded up, nor exited. The paranoia gradually lessens as you get the hang of not fighting it, but the surrealism ends too soon and the paradise where you long to stay is still--and always will be--just a stop on the ride, and you end up forced to confront the fact that all was revealed to you years ago, the first time you tripped, and you haven't used those revelations to do much of anything. You were bestowed with the will and energy to make those changes, and no, you never even tried. When you had the will you were too fucked up, or burned out, and then you lost the will again. Coming down off of the acid that showed you what to do once you were no longer on it, or going back onto it to try and remember, becomes the whole show. Now the list of things you must do to be free from ego's headlock has doubled and that goal is so far away it's no brighter than the candle at the far end of the room, dancing like a cigarette tip in the hand of the night.

And this all happens over the course of four hours. Endlessly.


Like so many comedies of the era, SKIDOO is packed with old timers from the 30s-40s looking for a few days work, and they mirror in their confusion an audience far too easily amused and passive due to their own smuggled-into-the-theater chemical stash. In Hollywood, I guess, if word gets out you're making a big-budget boondoggle your set fills to overflowing weird old character actors looking for a walk-on and free craft services. Look at all the old fogey greats racing around the AIP beach party movies: Boris Karloff, Don Rickles, Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre--that's just off the top of my head. None of those cats made it to SKIDOO, but there is Slim ""Major Kong" Pickens as a radio operator, George Raft as a sea captain, Peter Lawford as a senator, Frank Gorshin as a hipster capo in on the Rooney job...


Surprisingly, Frank Gorshin looks the worst as the inside capo. Prison disagrees with him. but factoring the presence Cesar "the Joker" Romero and Burgess "Penguin" Meredith (as the warden) there are no less than three villains from the Batman TV show in here! John Phillips Law is the beautiful white hippy version of Sidney Poitier in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, i.e. tall, and engaged to Alexandra Hay--she who us born to knock your socks off in a mod miniskirt, and bound to unnerve her father whomever she marries. In the end, SKIDOO is really the addled fantasy of the middle-aged dude who gets reborn by smoking government-grown marijuana. Proving this is a very expensive major studio version of an AIP beach movie, Frankie Avalon even plays Romero's playboy son. He's the reminder that 'youth' can still be square, the last gasp reminder of pre-hippie cool. Hippies is stolen yo girls, Frank! Frank you old! Stop hawkin'...


It's worth noting how genuinely revolutionary, relative to today's inclement times, it is that Groucho Marx and Otto Preminger did LSD as preparation for making the movie. The former, as we've learned, did it expressly so he could be sure he wasn't leading the kids down a wrong path, as the movie was considered an advocation of LSD use (which may have something to do with its being so hard to see until lately); Preminger took it because he was originally scheduled to direct an anti-LSD movie and decided contempt prior to investigation was wrong! That a 78 year-old man like Groucho and a 63 year-old man like Otto would decide to take LSD before either advocating or condemning it is so rare! Today's demonizers wouldn't dare touch any of that stuff. It affirms my theory that everyone who thinks drugs should be illegal have never tried any, or probably been offered any. Has lack of investigation prior to contempt EVER stopped our lawmakers and neo-conservative knee-jerk hysterics? As Preminger might say, People.... zey used to be so awesome.

One of SKID's biggest promoters is Christian Divine, who lays out some backstory:
Based on a more satirical, whimsical script by rebel scribe Doran William Cannon (Brewster McCloud; Hex), Skidoo was to be Preminger's first real comedy since 1954's The Moon Is Blue, which caused a scandal by using the verboten word, "virgin" and led to the destruction of the prohibitive Production Code. Preminger invited controversy all through his career, often battling the forces of political censorship to tackle now issues in his films. Par for the course, he had originally planned to direct John Hersey's LSD cautionary novel, Too Far To Walk, but after meeting with counter-culture impressario Tom Law -- whose brother John Phillip Law had appeared in Preminger's Hurry Sundown (1966) -- the director had a change of heart. Tom Law explained, "When I met Otto, he told me he was making an anti-LSD film. I asked him why and tried to explain he wasn't being truthful to the subject, that I knew many people who had positive experiences and he was contributing to stereotypes. He listened and agreed. He was cool."

Although Bill Cannon had been brought in to adapt Too Far To Walk, Preminger impulsively decided to buy his sample script Skidoo. Francis Ford Coppola urged the wary Cannon to sell his screenplay, advising him that this would be a perfect entry into Hollywood. He sold it for 75,000 dollars and Otto Preminger immersed himself in the world of the hippies with a paisley vengeance. As a genuinely progressive soul, he hung out with Tom and John Phillip Law, who owned the legendary 60s rock mansion, The Castle, high in the Hollywood Hills. Bob Dylan composed on a typewriter while Nico lounged and Harrison Ford did carpentry. (Christian Divine, Six Degrees of Skidoo - Huffington Post)
I'm very happy this film has a champion in Christian Divine. I don't think SKIDOO's anywhere near as engaging as some of the best acid musicals like HEAD, YELLOW SUBMARINE and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, but it holds its own against the similar bloated spectacles of the old and young trying to trip together and meet halfway (ala CASINO ROYALE, any Bob Hope movie of the approx. same time); it imagines a bright, truly deranged future for all concerned, outside the limitations of cultural difference like the differences between inside jail and out, crime and the law, straight and zonked or alien and human. While AIP movies like THE TRIP had to show Peter Fonda's head crack open in the final freeze frame and run disclaimers to appease nervous producers, SKIDOO sets sail with God on a candy-colored sailboat tab on tongue... pro-LSD down to its prison-striped socks.


Yeah but then Nilsson sings those credits and suddenly even the squarest cats shudder with douche chills. So you get a little and you pay a little - two for five, ten for twenty. At least this movie's out of the mothballs and ready to be discovered, at home, where no one will see your jet-black alien  dilated pupils.
---
1. Mars, Jim - Alien Agenda, p. 122 (Harper, NY, 1997)

6 comments:

  1. You description of SKIDOO reminds me of "CHAPPAQUA" (a movie I'm sure you've probably already reviewed on this site, if only I would look).

    A lot of the psychedelic movies (especially from the sixties) sound fantastic - but it's tough to pull off the non-linear thing. It's tough to do it well. Sometimes, you just end up with "INLAND EMPIRE."

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  2. Thanks Katy - I've never reviewed Chappaqua, but have sample chunks online and it seems pretty tough slogging. Skidoo at least has decent camera work and acting. I agree about Inland Empire though, good god.

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  3. Great piece, but one small bit of radial trouble: a 360 is a complete circle, which means Otto would have stayed anti-LSD. I think you want to say he did a 180 - an exact half-circle.

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  4. Make that four out of five Batman villains -- but who's keeping score? -- if you count the man behind the camera. "Vild!"

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  5. Good lord, you're right Marc! Thanks for clearing that up - I was never much for radials. And Samuel I totally forgot about Mr. Freeze! Gott in Himmel, no wonder all the other Batman villains were there, oh man, if Julie Newmar had shown up this might have been my favorite movie.

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  6. Kevin Higgins06 February, 2012

    The guy on the right of Carol Channing looks like Chevy Chase

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