Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Between The One And Three There Is A Two

So I bailed on much of the pre-SKIDOO discussion with John Phillip Law and SKIDOO-ologist Christian Divine to go pay my respects to Blake Edwards. Hey, priorities. I did make it back to catch the last few minutes which included some talk about the later response to the film and a brief DANGER DIABOLIK mention by Law which got some applause from the crowd. But I never got to learn much about the creation of the movie or what Law had to say about working with Groucho Marx or really any other mysteries the movie brings up. Which I suppose is for the best. Perhaps SKIDOO is meant to be a mystery wrapped up in a riddle smothered in secret sauce. Because if any element of SKIDOO ever begins to make sense, what hope is there for any of us?

A satire of LSD, hippies and I suppose America at large in 1968, the plot of Otto Preminger’s SKIDOO is about retired hitman Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) living a life of domesticity with his wife Flo (Carol Channing) as he worries about the hippie (John Phillip Law) his teenage daughter is dating. His life is disrupted when a few mob bosses from his past appear and send him away to prison so he can pull off one last contract, by murdering an old friend of his. Once there, he—ok, I’m realizing that simply writing out a synopsis of this film doesn’t even come close to indicating anything about the immensely bizarre tone it maintains in one way or another through its entire running time. It never really actually starts—in fact, the opening credits are interrupted by the first scene and never return until the end—when the movie is again interrupted in similar fashion by end credits that turn out to be as memorable and unique as possible. In fact, nothing much in the way of plot or story seems to take place though the entire movie and at a certain point everything just kind of stops.

One film SKIDOO brought to mind on Sunday night was actually IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD—both are helmed by directors not known for comedies (Stanley Kramer in the case of WORLD), both feel very sixties, both seem to be making a statement about American society at large and both are cameo-laden with familiar faces—they even share Mickey Rooney. The difference is that WORLD is a very traditionally-presented story done as a tribute to old-style comedy. SKIDOO is its own beast entirely, making an attempt at addressing the differences between the old guard and the youth culture, perhaps taking a stab at what was to come in the future. And there’s a little bit of social satire, with fake TV commercials seen at the beginning that would go just fine with the one used at the very end of Robert Aldrich’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLAIRE, which also came out in 1968. There must have been something going around in the air. Like MAD WORLD, SKIDOO could possibly also be used as great example of how the Scope frame can be used and probably looks terrible on the pan and scan bootlegs that float around out there. Never officially released on video in any form, the title is presumably a very low priority for Paramount. This print seems to have come all the way from England, if the British Board of Censors approval card that preceded it is any indication.

It’s perhaps best known today for the acid trip that Jackie Gleason’s character accidentally goes on and it is a memorably bizarre scene, but it also goes on forever. SKIDOO might be a comedy and many of the actors are certainly playing it in such a style but it’s tough to tell where exactly the comedy within is. Groucho Marx plays “God”, the mob kingpin who is the center of everything. In his late 70s at the time of filming, he’s done up as classic-era Groucho and acts that way too, but seems deliberately not given anything funny to say or do. The only way to read this is as some very bizarre joke on a joke about something, but I don’t know what. Groucho also seems rather feeble and in one long dialogue scene is clearly looking offscreen at cue cards instead of who he’s playing the scene with.

Other actors present include Frankie Avalon, George Raft, Peter Lawford, Slim Pickens, Richard Kiel, Arnold Stang and the triumvirate of Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin—maybe they never actually appear together, but the main Batman villains are all present and accounted for. Possibly the best performance in the film is from Austin Pendleton as Fred the Professor, one of several people here who get an “and introducing” credit and acts as Gleason’s guide through his LSD trip. Not required to be the expected presence that the others are, Pendleton actually gets to create a real character, even within the screwed-up universe this movie presents, and earns the right to share the fade-out with Groucho Marx, sharing a joint with the legend in the final scene he would ever play. I’ve always been a big fan of Austin Pendleton. The very cute Alexandra Hay, who later co-starred with Law again in THE LOVE MACHINE and turned up in Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP, also makes a favorable impression as Gleason’s daughter.

Carol Channing also strips down to her bra and panties, if you’re looking for something else this movie has that no other does. And I may be mistaken but I’m pretty sure that familiar character actor Fred Clark (Mr. Sheldrake in SUNSET BOULEVARD) plays two different roles. I can’t imagine many other films where this would be the case.

As a party movie, I’m not sure how SKIDOO would go over. It doesn’t seem like the natural crowd-pleaser that something like BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is and by a certain point it felt like the audience at the Aero was kind of being pummeled into submission. Maybe it was the late hour as well. But near the end as Carol Channing storms God’s yacht with several boatloads of hippies and bursts into the title song (it would take too long to explain) the whole thing takes on a sort of joyful apocalyptic fervor that is tough to shake. And the end credits, entirely sung by Harry Nilsson (responsible for all the songs here, with “I Will Take You There” particularly good) is in all honesty, my favorite part of the whole movie. And when I say the credits are sung, I mean they’re all sung, down to the key grip and copyright notice. I swear, if the average summer movie that came out this year displayed a small amount of the creativity shown in these credits the multiplex would be a much more fun place these days. For better and also for worse there’s never been another film like SKIDOO. My biggest worry is that I haven't made the movie seem as strange and memorable as it truly is.


Anonymous said...

I've wanted to see Skidoo for awhile and I enjoyed reading your thoughts about it.

There's a lot of great stuff playing at the Mods & Rockers fest this year and many interesting guests. It seems like you're enjoying some of the best stuff at the festival.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks for writing Kimberly. I think I missed a few things this year, like the MONTEREY POP screening, but I was able to see a few of what I thought were the most important screenings to me. The Mods & Rockers fest has been an enjoyable mainstay at the Cinematheque for several years now and there's always another year to look forward to.

hockey24hrs said...

The coda to Skidoo is the rumor that one or both of Jackie & Groucho (Preminger, too?) actually tried LSD before or during filming.

Would be curious to confirm or debunk this story (which is probably just urban legend).

I saw Skidoo at the Egyptian in the summer of 2007, and hope to see it again someday.