Otto Preminger, the Austrian born director, was well respected in Hollywood (and quite the household name in terms of filmmakers) having helmed such well-received dramas as LAURA, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, SAINT JOAN and EXODUS. But as times change, sometimes careers fall short, and 1968’s SKIDOO couldn’t fit the better description of occupational decline as well as being a total misfire. The major all-star studio epic which aimed to be a mobster comedy, but more importantly, to embrace the then dominant counterculture, has mostly been viewed in recent years as black market dupes, but Olive Films now steps up to the plate to rescue another Paramount cult item from festering in total obscurity.
The incoherence that is SKIDOO goes something like this: Tough Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) is an ex gangster now gone “legit” and living luxuriously with wife Flo (Carol Channing). By the request of top mob boss “God” (Groucho Marx), Tony is coaxed by Hechy (Cesar Romero) and baby-faced Angie (Frankie Avalon) to get himself into prison and act out a hit on George "Blue Chips" Packard (Mickey Rooney), a squealer about to testify before a senator. One night in his cell after writing a letter to Flo, Tony licks an envelope laced with LSD, has a bad (or is it good?) trip and concludes that crime is wrong. Making sure the entire prison is high (in a scene which might have inspired one in REVENGE OF THE CHEERLEADERS some years later), Tony plants the LSD-laced stationary in everyone’s food, and escapes in a garbage can held up by helium-filled yellow plastic bags.
I’m not making this up, and if you think there’s more to the cinematic convolution (as well as an array of familiar stars), you’d be correct. Tony’s young pretty daughter (Alexandra Hay) falls for a longhaired flower child named Stash (John Phillip Law), and Mom Flo accepts him and his large hippy entourage into their home while daddy Tony is in prison. Flo later tries to seduce Angie, which means that Channing does a semi striptease (she later sings “Skidoo” aboard God’s yacht while wearing a Napoleon outfit and a long platinum wig). Lovable Arnold Stang is Tony’s lackey (and is killed off way too early), Michael Constantine and Austin Pendleton are his cell mates, the latter who helps him escape and is responsible for introducing him to hallucinogens. Frank Gorshin and Richard Kiel are prisoners, Burgess Meredith is the warden, Peter Lawford is the senator, George Raft is the yacht captain, and Slim Pickens, Robert Donner, Fred Clark and Harry Nilsson all play prison guards (all get high on screen except for Raft).
Starting off with Jackie Gleason channel surfing, the opening credits are cut short and interrupted by a TV set showing old movie clips and satires of modern advertising (including a commercial with children smoking cigarettes), setting the film up to be something in the madcap tradition of Bob Rafelson’s delightful HEAD. But what develops is unfunny dialog, hateful characters and the most extreme waste of star talent ever committed to celluloid. SKIDOO plays out like a far less enjoyable imitation of a 1960s AIP beach romp (with the mustached Avalon switching up his usual goody goody role), and its stabs at depicting the drug culture fail to amuse on almost all levels. As silly as it comes off, the acid trip of Jackie Gleason’s character (at times it’s like watching Ralph Kramden in a very misguided late 1960s color Miami “Honeymooners” sketch) is probably the best scene, with Gleason’s familiar physical comedy in check, and the Great One reacting to such imagery as Groucho’s head on a floating, turning screw! Groucho (in his last screen appearance and sporting a jet black toupee) phones it in (his final scene has him dressed like a guru and smoking a joint on a lifeboat) and Rooney overacts, not sharing any scenes with any of his famous co-stars. After a voice-over announcement by Preminger, Nilsson sings the entire credits before the movie closes, and he performs a number of the catchy soundtrack jingles within (which are accompanied by such spectacles as dancing garbage cans and the naked rear ends of a string of footballers). Yikes.
Paramount did a fine job of keeping SKIDOO silenced over the years (much how Warner doesn’t want to acknowledge its star-studded late 1960s disaster, THE PHYNX), never giving it a video release, and it’s mostly been circulated as bootlegs, with the occasional revival screening here and there. Olive Films satisfies bad movie lovers with another great DVD release, presenting the film in its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. With only an occasional dust speck, the image looks quite nice with the expected vivid colors you no longer see in today’s bland world of digital cinema. Skin tones look proper, there are good black levels and detail is excellent. The mono audio also offers a decent rendering of the film’s dialog and soundtrack. There are no extras on the disc, except for a chapter menu. (George R. Reis)
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