Leah Churner on Skidoo
The best thing that can be said of Skidoo (1968) is that it deserves its cult status. Among Preminger’s worst-received films, it’s in a class of its own. Forever Amber may be ugly, but it’s still romantic; Hurry Sundown offers comic relief in the performance of the Muppet-faced Madeline Sherwood; and Rosebud is impossible to concentrate on, but harmless, consisting mostly of people getting in and out of vans. Skidoo is a point in Preminger’s career his partisans would rather not think about (nobody can blame New York’s Film Forum for omitting it from its sprawling retrospective in 2008), but the inconvenient truth is that Skidoo is at least as “Premingerian” as any of his other projects. It is not the result of drunkenness, absenteeism, distractedness, or apathy, but instead the disturbing consequence of Otto Preminger left too much to his own devices. Nowhere in his oeuvre are the brushstrokes more visible. In addition to producing and directing, he was heavily involved in the writing as well. It is one of his only features not based on popular novel or play. He bought the original screenplay from William Canon (who's credited as the writer), tossed out all but the barest plot, and started free-associating. Unusual for a Preminger picture, it has the stamp of his personality all over it, right down to his direct-address voiceover entreaty, which kicks off the end credits: “Wait! Before you skidoo, let us introduce our cast and crew!”
In light of his earlier institution-centered films like Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and The Cardinal, it’s understandable that Preminger would gravitate toward a project about the counterculture. But he was never a capturer of zeitgeists. His best films of the fifties and sixties are Old Hollywood to the hilt, velvety monochrome worlds of scotch-filled decanters and ice cubes tinkling in glasses. Even as the scenarios examine modern bureaucracies (Congress, the legal system, the Catholic Church) and undermine taboos of the production code, the characters are distinctly timeless. Think of Advise and Consent’s archetype of Southern decadence, the silver-tongued Senator Cooley (Charles Laughton), or Anatomy of a Murder’s Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara), whom you can picture in your rear-view mirror, tailgating you in traffic—that asshole you hear honking every day at octogenarians in crosswalks. Bunny Lake Is Missing may come closest to seizing a cultural moment, but swinging London is merely a backdrop: the ultimate effect of the carefully maneuvered Zombies appearance on a pub’s television set is spooky—they seem less like a British Invasion group and more like chimeras in a magic lantern show.
Actually, for a man in his sixties, Preminger was unusually sympathetic to antiestablishment sentiments. He was one of the original exemplars of “radical chic,” a phrase Tom Wolfe would coin in 1970 in his report on a fundraiser for the Black Panthers that Leonard Bernstein hosted at his penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. (According to Wolfe, Preminger made the first pledge: “I geeve a t’ousand dollars!”) And before he made Skidoo, he’d already tried LSD with Timothy Leary and reported an invigorating, pleasantly mind-bending experience. Preminger was connecting with hippies and LSD at roughly same time as Federico Fellini (Skidoo and Fellini’s drug-addled horror short Toby Dammit are contemporaries). While Fellini successfully transitioned into the 1970s, releasing three films especially popular with the under-25 audience—Toby Dammit, Satyricon, and Roma—Preminger did not. In some ways, the comparison is unfair because Fellini was more glamorous and more comfortable with visual abstraction and about fifteen years younger than Preminger, but I bring up the Italian director to make a point about practical casting: he started putting young people in front of the camera. Preminger handicapped Skidoo considerably by not doing so. Compare Toby Dammit’s Terence Stamp to the leading man in Skidoo, the 52-year-old Du Mont Network relic and ex- Honeymooner Jackie Gleason.
There is nothing radical or chic about Skidoo. In its astonished, square’s-eye-view perspective on the counterculture—all that dope-smoking and body-painting and living on the dole—it is faintly akin to Coogan’s Bluff (1968, recall the ridiculous “Pidgeon Toed Orange Peel” nightclub scene) and Joe (1969, which also features a horrifying dad-tries-dope sequence). Except that Coogan and Joe are vigilantes raising hell in New York City, and Skidoo’s protagonist is a sad sack in the suburbs of San Francisco resigned to whatever miseries come his way. It may also be seen as a middle-aged, bummer-trip version of Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968). Instead of a sitcom boy band, it features a random assortment of screen veterans including Groucho Marx, Mickey Rooney, Arnold Stang, Slim Pickens, and George Raft.
In 1966, Preminger had appeared in a two-part episode of TV’s Batman as Mr. Freeze, plotting to turn Batman and Robin into giant snow cones. (He explained that he took the role to humor his six-year-old twins). Three of his fellow villains show up in Skidoo: Frank Gorshin (the Riddler), Cesar Romero (the Joker), and Burgess Meredith (the Penguin). A little bit of Mr. Freeze seems to have rubbed off on Preminger, as he recreates the show’s singularly grotesque Pop Art camp. Throughout, Skidoo has the dull gaudiness of so many LBJ-era sitcoms, with a “jazzy” score of flutes, bongos, xylophones, and occasional sound effects from the Hanna Barbera library. (Stang bumps into Gleason: “BA-WOING!”).
Skidoo opens with a channel-surf montage, then pans out to reveal Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) and his wife, Flo (Carol Channing), flipping stations in a duel of two remote controls and arguing about what to watch. Tony, a retired Mafia hit man, is plagued with suspicions that he is not his daughter’s biological father. As he gripes to a pal, Flo was three months pregnant when he married her, so he’s always had his doubts. Daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) is pushing twenty and Tony thinks she looks way too good to have come from his gene pool. (Unlike Joe, Skidoo doesn’t go explicitly Freudian.) He is further distressed by Darlene’s canoodling in the driveway with a burnout named Stash (John Phillip Law). But the family’s domestic issues are placed on hold when a pair of gangsters show up to tell Tony he’s got new orders: the top boss “God” (Groucho Marx) wants him to go to Alcatraz to make a hit. To prove they’re serious, they murder Tony’s aforementioned friend.
After sneaking himself into the jail, Tony accidentally ingests LSD smuggled in by a young professor (Austin Pendleton) convicted of burning his draft card. Tony’s hallucinations inspire the professor to break into the prison’s kitchen and dose everybody’s lunch with a lot more acid, thereby creating a massive diversion that will allow him and Tony to build a hot air balloon and fly away. Back in the outside world, Flo becomes the ringleader of a hippie commune and plans to rescue her husband by ambushing God’s yacht. Darlene, trading winks and smiles for information, leads them to it. Tony and the professor are still hallucinating as they float over San Francisco Bay and land their balloon on the yacht.
Flo shows up with a flotilla of hippies on rafts, and they ambush the ship as she sings the title song by Harry Nilsson, a demented rejiggering of “All You Need Is Love.” It has all the repetitiveness of the Beatles’ 1967 song, but bears no content (“Skidoo, Skidoo, I do believe it really is the thing to do, Skidoo, Skidoo, and the world can be a better place for you.”) Carol Channing sings this—or rather belts it out Broadway style—to the accompaniment of trumpets. We see hippies strumming guitars in the background, but no sound comes out. Skidoo has sex and drugs, but little rock ‘n’ roll.
Composer Harry Nilsson is a curious mockingbird. Throughout his singing and songwriting career, he switched up his sound so much that it’s hard to recognize his voice from one period to the next. He could write and sing in the style of late-era Dion (“Everybody’s Talkin’”), Donovan (“Coconut”), or John Lennon (“Many Rivers to Cross”), and in the case of Skidoo, we smell an unmistakable whiff of Randy Newman, with whom he was hanging out at the time. (He released an album called Nilsson Sings Songs of Randy Newman in 1969.) The best song on Skidoo’s soundtrack is “I Will Take You There,” which plays over a scene of hippies idly seated in the Banks’ living room—nobody’s taking anybody anywhere, but it’s far better than the “Garbage Can Ballet,” which accompanies something horribly true to its name, eight full minutes of people dancing in costumes made of garbage cans. This recording competes in my mind with a Nilsson ditty from the soundtrack of Altman’s Popeye, “Everything Is Food,” for the distinction of Worst Song Ever in Worst Film Ever.
Watching it is like watching Green Acres or Gilligan’s Island with the laugh track turned off. So unfunny that you wish there were canned laughter just to point the way. Who knows what lines of dialogue, what images, are meant to convey humor: People dressed like garbage cans, dancing? A close-up of oven-burnt sausages? A man “meditating” in lotus pose on top of a car? Hippies singing a round of “Ten Little Indians” on a Ken Kesey–style school bus? Inscrutability is good for drama, but bad for comedy, unless you are possessed of comic genius like Andy Kaufman or Norm Macdonald. Otto Preminger was not.
According to the screenwriter, William Cannon (who also wrote Altman’s Brewster McCloud), Preminger revised the story to emphasize Tony’s paternity anxieties, arguing that the character needed more of a “realistic” psychological motivation. Yet, moving in two directions at once, he also ordered that the Mafia characters be rewritten to appear more silly and cartoonish. Cannon suggested to Preminger that if he directed Skidoo in the way he’d directed In Harm’s Way, the humor would work, but the director refused and insisted that his actors play as broad as possible. Another Preminger tweak, another comedy blunder, is Skidoo’s inversion of the Bonnie and Clyde formula: blood and guts at the beginning, followed by a light and sunny slapstick tone.
Everybody becomes a scary clown. The 78-year-old Groucho Marx, in his trademark glasses and greasepaint mustache, looks like an embalmed cadaver. The 6’2” model Donyale Luna, who plays the old man’s mistress, is up dressed like a praying mantis; in one interminably drawn-out sequence, she terrorizes Stash by chasing him all over the yacht, clawing at his sleeves and murmuring, “What’s wrong with my body? What’s wrong with my body?”
In his 2007 biography, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, Foster Hirsch observes in Preminger a “macabre fascination with the decay of the flesh.” Manifesting this, all body extremes—short, tall, flabby, skinny, old (but especially old)—are freakishly accentuated. The worst punishment is saved for Carol Channing. In the first scene, she is dressed in a red full-body jumpsuit covered with tiers of puffy red fabric like a cross between a toreador and Bozo the Clown, and her next outfit may have served as the inspiration for Big Bird. Channing’s age is always the punchline. At a gangster’s bachelor pad, she is made to lift the small hood (Frankie Avalon) off the ground, then dance with a feather boa, then strip down to her bra and panties and pose on his bed. Disgusted, he ejects her through a trap door. And to drive home the point of Flo’s unsexiness, Darlene immediately steals the scene by entering the room wearing a beige overcoat.
Children—particularly lost, wayward, or disconnected children—figure prominently in many Preminger films, like The River of No Return, Bonjour Tristesse, Bunny Lake Is Missing, and Hurry Sundown. In Skidoo, the focus is on fatherhood, specifically biological paternity. This was also a theme behind the scenes: during the production, even on the set, Preminger was trying to reconnect with his long-lost son Erik, born to Gypsy Rose Lee after a fleeting liaison in the mid-1940s. Growing up, Erik didn’t know who his biological father was because Lee refused to tell him. He met Preminger for the first time in 1967, when he was 22. In a whirlwind reconciliation, Preminger arranged the meeting, then helped Erik get out of the army, then moved him to Hollywood and hired him as an apprentice. Skidoo was the first of several films they would work on together. Otto legally adopted Erik, who changed his last name to Preminger.
It is through this backstory that Hirsch explains Skidoo. Focused on the family saga, he describes it as an “endearing flop” that,
“ . . . ends up revealing more about the hippie sensibility than any other film of its time. Preminger's goodwill toward all the characters, the mobsters as will as the hippies, and his neutrality about free love and drugs capture a sense of the film's cultural moment. Indeed, Skidoo may have the most permissive attitude toward LSD of any film in Hollywood history.”
Though too tragically old to cut the mustard, Hirsch maintains, Preminger was inspired by the peace-and-love spirit of his son’s generation and motivated by a magnanimous fatherly feeling.
But if that’s true, even accounting for Preminger’s famously hot-and-cold personality, why is Skidoo so cruel? Why, if Preminger had a positive experience with LSD, did he make Tony’s trip a bad one? Gleason looks like he’s suffering from DT, writhing and drooling and swatting invisible flies, having visions of eyeballs buried in the wall and tommy guns with drooping barrels. Flo’s visage appears garbling in the sink: “You’re my daddy waddims, dickey-boom-boom!” Then, confirming his worst fears, Tony has a vision of his murdered friend, who confesses to being Darlene’s real father. Even when Tony is reunited with his Flo and Darlene, he looks dazed and clammy.
Chris Fujiwara, author of the 2008 book The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, takes a more auteurist tactic than Hirsch, arguing that Skidoo functions by intelligent design. It is a “negative film,” a statement about the “vacuous media landscape . . . the world of American mass entertainment—a mass hallucination whose medium is television.” Also:
“An important part of the strategy of Skidoo is to show both the establishment and the hippies from each other’s point of view, as broad caricatures embodying stereotypical attitudes and values. By the very terms in which he poses the cultural and ideological conflict that underpins the narrative, Preminger forecloses the possibility of a meaningful debate between two sides. He offers instead a clash of empty signs.”
This interpretation is astute, and it holds up as a cognitive framework for watching the film. But it doesn’t hold water beyond sheer poetic license. Fujiwara is proposing that Skidoo’s vacuousness and clashing is intentional, that Skidoo is supposed to be bad. Would this sort of pure irony, the domain of underground films of the period like Robert Downey’s Babo 73 or Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, be on the agenda for a major Hollywood picture? Were the slide whistles and warbling sitars “strategies” for nihilistic social commentary? What was Preminger trying to tell us about “signs” and “the media” when he went to the considerable trouble of filming a real hot air balloon landing on top a real yacht in the real Pacific Ocean?
The biographers are obliged to make apologies, of course. But to say that the director failed to actualize his good intentions, or that he succeeded in alienating the audience by design, and just leave it at that, is to gloss over the underlying mystery here. On one hand, the director-producer explicitly took authorship (the credits, as sung by Harry Nilsson, identify the full title as “The Otto Preminger Film Skidoo-delee-doo-doo-doo”). As Hirsch points out, Preminger’s extensive emendations to the screenplay reflected his idiosyncratic approach of humor and also pieces of his personal life. On the other hand, Skidoo is weirdly lacking in self-reflexiveness. Preminger, the Tinseltown dinosaur flailing in his pursuit of hipness, doesn’t seem to identify with Tony and his pitiful fish-out-of-water predicament, or with the lonely plight of the apathetic, antiquated mob boss, “God.” It’s as if he’s steering with his subconsciousness, and the whole movie is one giant Freudian slip.
Ultimately, Skidoo is unreadable. Its self-proclaimed #1 fan, a writer/filmmaker named Christian Divine, describes it as a “celluloid Rorschach blot.” Seeing Skidoo for the first time three years ago, I couldn’t believe it: Channing yelling “CHARGE!” and clawing up the starboard hull of a yacht, throwing an arm over, then a leg, togged up in a “sexy Halloween” version of Washington crossing the Delaware, frugging and jerking and scatting singsong baby-talk, skiddle-oppen-bop-op-op-biddlely-do, eyeballs rolling back into her head, jiving inexorably forward . . . it was as if somebody had hacked into my nightmares, stolen the raw data and reverse-engineered my own subjective personal hell.
There are thrillers I’ve enjoyed over and over, like Vertigo, The Tenant, and Lost Highway, precisely because they reflect a certain nightmare mine: the horror of going lucidly insane. But Skidoo is different. It is not a film about a person going crazy. It is somehow what I imagine my own descent into madness might look like: the trite hallucinations, the red ruffly Bozo bodysuits, Carol Channing and Harry Nilsson singing a perpetual round of “Ten Little Indians.” If Skidoo is a Rorschach, I guess I’m in trouble.