Jul 3, 2019
Skidoo (1968): the lost recap (part 1 of 14)
In the spirit of my recently unearthed recap of Never Say Never Again, here’s another lost recap, but you won’t believe just how long this one has been lost. According to the date on the original Word document I dug up, I started this one in July of 2003, just over a year after I founded the Agony Booth. (Back then, Skidoo was only available as a third or fourth generation pan-and-scan VHS bootleg; now it’s on Blu-ray.) Over the past twelve years, I would come across this recap every now and then and make an attempt to polish it up, but I was never able to actually finish it. And once you experience Skidoo, you’ll understand why I was often left at a complete and utter loss for words to describe it.
Skidoo is an alleged counterculture comedy that attempts to relate to the youth of 1968 by showing middle-aged, elderly, and just plain passé stars like Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, and Groucho Marx (in his final film role) engaging in free love, smoking pot, and dropping acid. The story, what there is of it, concerns a former gangster (Gleason) now retired and living in San Francisco, who has to sneak into Alcatraz at the behest of a mob boss named “God” (Marx) to do a hit on another gangster (Rooney) who’s turned state’s evidence, but the film clearly doesn’t care about its own plot, and sputters off in a thousand different directions, none of them funny or interesting. And it’s all brought to you by the director you would least expect to be responsible for a movie like this: Otto Preminger.
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While he may not have the name recognition today of his contemporaries like Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder or Orson Welles, Preminger was one of the premiere auteur filmmakers of the 20th Century. He rose to fame on the strength of noirs and suspense thrillers like Laura and Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends, and then turned to more issue-oriented films, tackling heroin addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm, the gay lifestyle and Washington corruption in Advise and Consent, and somehow fitting in abortion, the KKK, and Nazis into The Cardinal. While his films may appear staid and tame by today’s standards, Preminger did quite a bit to push the boundaries in his day; it’s said that the frank discussions of murder and rape in his acclaimed courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder led in no small part to the end of the Hays Code.
Preminger was also an occasional actor, with his most notable role being the Nazi commandant of a POW camp in Stalag 17 (ironic, considering Preminger was an Austrian Jew who fled to the United States before the war). Like Hitchcock, Preminger became a celebrity director, which eventually led to the one gig that most people reading this will know him from: playing Mr. Freeze on two episodes of the Batman TV show. (In a peculiar inside joke, Preminger’s fellow Batman villains Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, and Burgess Meredith also show up in our current subject in bit parts.)
Not long after Preminger played Mr. Freeze, movie studios began to put out a slew of so-called “today pictures” like The Trip, Psych-Out, Wild in the Streets, and Head, youth-oriented films where narrative cohesion and storytelling took a backseat to trippy visuals and enigmatic dialogue and frank depictions of drug use and casual sex. And at the time, Preminger was becoming fascinated by the rise of the counterculture, which was probably inspired in no small part by his sudden re-acquaintance with his son Erik, who he met for the first time at the age of 22.
Initially, Preminger wanted to adapt John Hersey’s novel Too Far to Walk, which dealt with college students experimenting with drugs (inspiring Preminger to experiment himself, taking LSD under the supervision of no less a guide than Dr. Timothy Leary). Nothing came of the project, but one of its screenwriters, Doran William Cannon, had submitted two screenplay samples to Preminger. One was Brewster McCloud, eventually directed by Robert Altman, starring Bud Cort as a shy loner who lives in a fallout shelter under the Houston Astrodome, building mechanical wings that will allow him to fly under his own power, while his guardian angel (an actual angel) brutally strangles anyone who threatens him. The other was Skidoo. And even now, it’s difficult to say which of the two is more bizarre.
When Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss published their seminal work The Fifty Worst Films of All Time in 1978, Preminger’s Hurry Sundown made the list, and indeed, it’s a terrible film (though still watchable in a trashy, soapy, guilty-pleasure sort of way), but boy, did they make the wrong call there. Skidoo is on a totally different level of awful, and the true definition of a cinematic train wreck. And yet, it’s so incredibly strange that you can’t take your eyes off it. Let’s take a closer look.
We get an animated opening credits sequence while a big brass band plays the theme from Skidoo, which was written by singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, who performs several songs in the movie (he also sings the closing credits, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). A cartoon guy appears. He’s chalk white and bald, and wearing black and white prison stripes. Hey, maybe it’s Preminger, on his way to Movie Jail!
The bald cartoon guy parachutes down the black screen, and his parachute is a flower with multicolored petals. He folds up the flower like an umbrella, and does a little soft-shoe across Preminger’s credit.
And then the camera pulls back to reveal that the cartoon credits are actually on somebody’s TV. We get what appears to be a still photo of a TV set with the opening credits superimposed onto the “screen”. Get used to this shot, because we’ll be looking at it for a while.
We then see the title of the movie, and for those wondering, “Skidoo” has literally nothing to do with anything in the film, and is just a random word the screenwriter plucked out of thin air. While Cartoon Baldy dances over the title of the movie, we hear an unmistakable voice. And by that, I mean it’s a voice that you would never mistake for something pleasant to hear. I speak, of course, of the voice of Carol Channing. And if you think this is painful, just wait for her striptease coming later. I wish I were kidding about that.
So while we’re still seeing nothing but the TV set, we hear Carol complaining to someone named “Harry” that she doesn’t want to see this. Join the club, babe. The credit “Starring” appears on the TV set, but before we actually see the names of the cast members, “Harry” changes the channel. I guess that’s supposed to be the joke. Either that, or the entire cast threatened legal action to have their names removed.
The set then flips back and forth between congressional hearings, and an ad featuring a woman dressed in white talking about how you can be “sexually desirable like me!” At the congressional hearings, a guy with a German accent pleads the Fifth. Back in the commercial, the girl in white continues: “…Instead of being that fat, disgusting, foul-breathed, slimy, wallowing sow that you are!” Hey, take that back. I do not have foul breath.
Then the channel changes to the black and white movie In Harm’s Way, featuring John Wayne as a naval officer. And this is a bit of self-referential humor, because In Harm’s Way was directed by Otto Preminger.
The channel changes again. In a commercial, a blonde woman says that “maybe we blondes do have more—” Then the channel changes to a guy in lederhosen swigging a big mug of beer. This is followed by a shot of, and I’m not making this up, a pig with beer foam around its mouth. One question: if most men turn into pigs when they get drunk, what do pigs turn into? Then it’s back to John Wayne, even though they forget to dub in the “flipping channels” sound effect here.
“No, Harry!” Carol yells, “I don’t like films on TV! They always cut them to pieces!” But in the case of some films, that could be a good thing. And keep in mind, we have yet to see anything besides this same static shot, focused on the TV set. At least there’s one good thing I can say about Skidoo: it doesn’t take long to figure out we’re in for a painful experience. At less than a minute in, this movie’s plot has ground to a halt, which is quite an accomplishment, considering it has no plot.
The TV is switched back to the pig with foam around its mouth. Carol continues to complain, causing Harry to flip the TV back and forth between the John Wayne movie and an ad for “Fat Cola”. This oh-so-clever satirical ad features three fat women in bikinis lifting cans of soda, while a jingle singer informs us, “You’ll never lose your man if you drink Fat Cola! You’ll never have to worry about losing him!”
The TV switches back to In Harm’s Way for a while. And why not? Sailors on a battleship prepare for battle, and then the TV switches to an ad for candy cigarettes, where two small cherubic kids puff away, while a jingle goes, “If you want to have a girly, you must puff, puff, puff!” Also puffing away is a dog. So, in less than a minute of screen time, we get beer-guzzling pigs and chain-smoking dogs. I never knew substance abuse was so rampant in the animal kingdom.
Carol moans, “Harry, I want the crime thing!” So the TV returns to the congressional hearings. Carol, it seems, actually recognizes the guy testifying, which is our first opaque clue to the connections that she and the unseen “Harry” have to organized crime. And here, finally, at long last, we get a shot of the characters who are watching TV in this scene.
Carol Channing is here, of course. She’s sitting on the couch in a frilly red outfit which makes it look like she’s about to dance the rumba. Jackie Gleason is also here, wearing the standard Jackie Gleason ensemble of sweater, dress shirt, and slacks pulled up to his navel. Watching TV along with them is Arnold Stang, the legendary “Harry” of “Harry, I want the crime thing” fame. Hey, it feels like it happened ten years ago, so it must be legendary by now.
Unlike Gleason and Channing, some may not know the name Arnold Stang, but he was a pretty ubiquitous character actor back in the day. You might recognize him as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s co-star from Hercules in New York, or as the voice of many a Saturday morning cartoon character, including Top Cat. Or you may recognize him as the closest thing to a human-turtle hybrid that ever existed. Gleason angrily walks over to Harry and snatches the giant, garage door opener-sized remote control out of his hand.
Over Carol’s protests, Jackie flips the channel to what I assume is an ad for guns. We see an entire family with ammo belts strapped to their chests. “Remember,” the dad says, “For family fun, get your gun!” They all shoot at the camera, obscuring everything with a big cloud of smoke.
Carol continues to gripe that she wants to see “Charlie” at the congressional hearings. She yells at Harry to change it back. Harry can’t, because “Tony took the control gizmo!” Tony (AKA Gleason) says he’s not interested in seeing Charlie, and Carol says they never watch what she wants to watch. Tony simply says, “Tough.” Well, it sure didn’t take long after remote controls were invented for men to start dominating them.
“Okay,” Carol says. “War!” To the sound of a really annoying deodorant jingle, she fetches another giant remote, and flips the channel back to the congressional hearings. Tony flips it to a commercial, and for the next thirty seconds or so, the two flip the TV back and forth from the hearings to a commercial. Whoa, freak out, man. Remote control battles totally expand my consciousness!
In the ad, a scientist-type guy claims his product can cure “dandruff, athlete’s foot, and the common cold!” He then goes through a “hilarious” litany of diseases, which we only hear bits and pieces of as the TV is flipped back and forth. This includes cancer, birth defects, ringworm, brain tumors, smallpox, syphilis, plague, and hepatitis. Have any of those? Well, you’re in luck, because all you need to do is “Pick a pack of Peter’s Perfidious Pink Pacifying Placebo Pills!” I can’t believe I typed all that. The things I do for this website.
On the other channel, someone in a wheelchair is wheeled out onto the Senate floor. Just then, the batteries in Tony’s remote wear out, so he’s stuck watching this. However, he takes notice as a senator asks Wheelchair Guy if he’s “Mario Benedict, better known as ‘Eggs’?” Cut to “Eggs” Benedict, who has his entire body wrapped in bandages. Eggs pleads the Fifth. Which is funny, because he was only asked his name. That Eggs is a real crack up!
The senator (played by Peter Lawford, with the in-joke being Lawford previously played a senator in Preminger’s Advise and Consent) asks if his pleading the Fifth has something to do with all the bandages. Eggs says, “What bandages?” The crowd in the Senate responds with gales of laughter. Oh man, this guy is killing! By which I mean, he’s probably an actual killer.
The senator holds up a hospital report which states that Eggs has “23 bullet holes” under those bandages. Eggs claims that he was “cleaning [his] gun” when it accidentally went off. The senator says incredulously, “23 times?” Wait for it… Eggs replies, “I was just as surprised as you are, Senator!” Haha, that Eggs. Now I know why they call him Eggs. His jokes suck them.
Tony and Carol (who around here we learn is named “Flo”) both laugh heartily at this. But when Tony sees Flo is laughing, he gets angry. He complains that it’s already eight and they haven’t eaten. Flo says she wants to watch the hearings first. Tony complains that watching these hearings is like a “crummy class reunion! Flo’s beaus of 1952!”
Harry gets Tony’s attention, and tells him to watch as yet another old guy pleads the Fifth on TV. Tony recognizes the guy as “Whitey Farrell”, and says he looks about “103 years old”, but Flo insists he “hasn’t aged a day”. Tony starts to get jealous, wondering if there was something going on between Flo and Whitey, but she insists there was nothing. Tony just blows this off, saying he doesn’t care and all he wants is something to eat.
Harry randomly offers to make him a “western omelet”. Perhaps it’s a whole “eggs” theme that only makes sense after eating peyote and sitting in your garage with the door closed and your car running.
Tony ignores him and ominously says, “It wasn’t Benedict, was it?” Flo says it wasn’t Benedict. Tony walks away, claiming not to be “the suspicious kind”. He says, “If I was, would I have married a dame that’s three months pregnant?” And thus begins what turns out to be one of this film’s central plot threads, where Tony wonders if he’s really the father of his and Flo’s daughter. And as with most plot threads in this movie, it will not be resolved in any meaningful way.
Harry follows Tony to the kitchen, where he starts to cook sausages. Tony says Flo is just doing this to “get [his] goat”. He rues the day that he married her, but Harry insists he’s “much better off”, because when Harry goes home at night, there’s “nothing! No kids, no yelling, nothing!”
Tony asks Harry his honest opinion about his daughter: “Darlene. Who does she look like?” Harry, not helping any, says she looks like Flo. Tony whips out his wallet and points to an (unseen by the audience) picture of Darlene. “Who does her mouth remind you of?” Harry helpfully says, “She’s got your guts, Tony!” I have no clue what that means.
The conversation is dropped when Harry hears a car pull up. He sees a “‘37 Rolls” outside and yells that it’s the “Mallow Brothers!” Tony says this is impossible. They couldn’t possibly know where he is, because they’ve “been in Puerto Rico for twenty years!” Harry portentously says, “You know where they are!”
Tony gets a Ralph Kramden-esque hummina-hummina look and cries out, “Let’s get the hardware!” Tony and Harry rush into the living room, where Flo is still watching TV. They go to a cupboard and start pulling out random knickknacks, seemingly for no reason. Well, Harry does drop something on Tony’s foot for a “laugh”, so there you go. They then rush upstairs, while a newsman on TV reports on the disappearance of a mobster named “George ‘Blue Chips’ Packard”, a character who will be important later (relatively speaking).
Upstairs, Tony pulls back a bookshelf to reveal a secret room. He runs inside, grabs a gun, and rushes out, “hilariously” slamming the bookshelf shut with Harry still inside. Harry screams and yells, and if only that seal were airtight. Tony lets him out, and the two head downstairs, now armed to the teeth.
They see the living room is filled with smoke, and Harry thinks the Mallow Brothers set off a “smoke bomb”. But no, instead, it turns out Tony’s sausages are burning. Flo holds up the pan, complaining that it’s Teflon and it’s ruined. For no real reason, we get a close-up on the burnt sausages in the pan.
Tony tells her the Mallow Brothers are outside, and they both push past her. They attempt to sneak up on the Rolls, but Harry “hilariously” trips on something, making a loud noise. Then Tony gets a false scare when Harry accidentally walks right into him. So I guess they’re covering all the comedy bases here.
Inside the Rolls is a stereotypical hippie-type guy, and a girl with long blonde hair. So either one of the Mallow Brothers had a lot of surgery down in Puerto Rico, or these are not the Mallow Brothers. You might recognize the hippie-type guy as John Phillip Law, previously seen in Preminger’s Hurry Sundown. In the same year as this movie, he also appeared in Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik, the latter of which would end up being mercilessly mocked along with Space Mutiny (where Law plays Kalgan) on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The girl asks Hippie Guy what he wants to be, and to a subtle score consisting of sitar and tabla drums, he says, “Nothin’, you dig?” Cut to Tony and Harry outside the Rolls, as Tony realizes it’s his daughter Darlene, and Harry says, “What is she doin’ with the Mallow Brothers?” Whew, they almost missed the obvious joke there. Tony shushes him as they step toward the Rolls.
Back in the car, Hippie Guy says, “Man, how I wish I could be nothin’.” You’re about to get your wish, my friend. Darlene repeats “nothing” like it’s the most amazing word ever spoken. Hippie Guy tells her, “If you can’t dig nothin’, you can’t dig anything, you dig?” Then Ralph’s pal Ed Norton pops up and says, “No, I’m the one who digs, I work in the sewer!”
Tony and Harry crouch down near the car, eavesdropping. In a total airhead voice, Darlene says, “You mean, if I could be nothing, I would be everything?” Hippie Guy is impressed. “You dig! I mean, that’s why the establishment cats are not makin’ it! They’re diggin’ the nine-to-five bag! Rush to the city! What’s happening in the news instead of what’s happening in themselves!” And you’d think a movie allegedly aimed at a young audience in the late ‘60s would know better than to include patronizing caricatures of hippies, but that’s Skidoo for you.
But Darlene suddenly gets it. “You mean, everything we need is right here inside ourselves!” The hippie guy says, “You dig! I mean, like, the vibrations are there, dewdrop!” Oh, sweet Jesus. The squareness of this cutting-edge parody of hippies, it burns.
Tony is listening and beginning to fume, and the last straw comes when Hippie Guy says, “I really think we could make it, you and I!” Tony angrily rises to his feet and pistol whips the guy through the car window. Nice. I’ll just assume that was for his stupid fake hippie lingo. Give him another sock in the jaw for me, Tony! He opens the car door and Hippie Guy tumbles to the ground.
Harry think he’s an “Indian”, due to all the leather fringe, but Darlene rushes to his aid and says, “He’s not an Indian, he’s bleeding!” Um, yeah. Harry notes he’s “one of those hippies”, and Tony says, “No lousy hippie is gonna make it with my daughter!”
The girl tries to explain to her terminally unhip father that that’s not what he meant by “make it”, but Tony is certain of what the guy wanted. The girl protests, “I don’t think even he knows what he wants!” To which Tony replies, “What is he, a faggot?” Good times. Well, if you ever wanted to hear Ralph Kramden call somebody a “faggot”, your dreams just came true.
Flo comes out and wants to know what’s going on, and Tony yells that Darlene is bringing hippies home. Meanwhile, Darlene begs and pleads for someone to help the guy, since he’s bleeding, and we all know that getting blood out of leather is just impossible.
Flo goes to help, but Tony tells her to stay out of it, implying that her parenting methods are what led to this. Tony accuses Flo of “spoil[ing] her rotten”, and as some sort of proof, he points out that Darlene “doesn’t even wear lipstick”, which would seem to indicate the opposite.
Eventually, Harry pipes up to say that maybe they should help the bleeding guy. As the four of them carry him inside, Tony again bellows that no hippie is ever going to marry his daughter. Darlene cries, “Hippies don’t even get married!” End Scene #1 of familial discord.
That’s all for now, but I think it speaks volumes that I’ve written a pretty lengthy article here, and almost all I’ve had a chance to talk about is a static shot of a TV screen. Given what we’ve seen so far, it would not be unreasonable to believe a significant part of Otto Preminger’s brain died thanks to the LSD. And we’ve got plenty more pain and nonsense to get to, so tune in next time for part two.