Acid Reign

07.15.11

Otto Preminger, Skidoo, 1968, color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes.


THE SQUAREST HEAD MOVIE EVER MADE, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) is a lunatic combination of gray hairs and longhairs—an unhinged misfire about youth culture starring actors who were teenagers during the FDR administration. Its hippest cast member is unquestionably Carol Channing, then forty-seven, who wildly frugs, sports oddly structured geometric clothes in brash primary colors, and sings the title song wearing an outfit best described as Revolutionary War chorine and a wig that presages the hairdo of The Muppet Show’s Janice.

Preminger, the director of classics such as Laura (1944), Carmen Jones (1954), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Exodus (1960), approached the film, the biggest flop of his nearly fifty-year career, with absolute sincerity. The director admired the script by Doran William Cannon, essentially a depiction of the clash between the Man—here represented by the Mafia—and hippies. The screenwriter, according to the Turner Classic Movies website, thought the film “delivered an important message of peace and love at a time when America was engaged in the war with Vietnam.”

In his early sixties, when Skidoo began production, Preminger had recently experimented with LSD and was eager to let the kids know that he dug their psychedelics. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is Jackie Gleason, starring as a retired mobster named Tough Tony, who’s summoned by God to carry out one last hit, a germophobic syndicate boss played by Groucho Marx. (The comedian also reportedly tried acid to prepare for Skidoo, which would be his last film.) Tony must pose as a prisoner at Alcatraz, where his target, “Blue Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney), sits in luxe solitary confinement. But before the kill, Tony—obsessed that his wife (Channing) has been two-timing him, leading him to doubt that he’s really the father of his Vassar-bound daughter, who has just taken up with a bunch of freaks and peaceniks—is introduced to LSD by the Professor (Austin Pendleton), his draft card–burning cell mate.

“I see mathematics!” the sweat-soaked, chortling Tony announces during his altered state as bodies shrink and searing magentas and electric blues fill the screen. Soon the entire penitentiary is hallucinating after the Professor spikes the prison mess, culminating in Skidoo’s looniest scene: Two guards envision bare-assed football players, an image that morphs into solarized trash bins dancing to “Living in a Garbage Can,” sung by Harry Nilsson (who plays one of the sentries and who later sings the closing credits in their entirety, including the copyright information).

Released in December 1968, the film was a commercial and critical disaster; in his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Skidoo [. . .] is something only for Preminger-watchers, or for people whose minds need pressing by a heavy, flat object.” The director himself admitted, with great understatement during an interview with Peter Bogdanovich collected in Who the Devil Made It, “I don’t think it was altogether successful in projecting what I wanted to project.”

But just what was Preminger trying to project? Tweaking the tone of Cannon’s script, Preminger tries to send up hippie-speak, having the chief flower child say things like “So we can all groove and do our own thing.” Yet the parody is about as biting as a Laugh-In skit. And though Preminger did succeed in casting one sort of outré star—the model Donyale Luna, who plays God’s girlfriend and was briefly a Factory habitué—most of his actors look as though they’d much rather be working the stage at Caesars Palace and pitch their performances so that everyone in the borscht belt can hear them. There’s no redeeming Skidoo. I suggest you see it immediately.

Melissa Anderson

Skidoo is available on DVD beginning July 19 from Olive Films.