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The Gist (Skidoo)
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THE GIST

When sixty-three year old film director Otto Preminger set out to make what would become the most disastrous film of his career and even more maligned than his megabomb Saint Joan (1957), he had good intentions. Preminger had read Doran William Cannon's script Skidoo about the culture clash between the Establishment (who, in this case, were represented by The Mafia) and the youth culture of the late 1960's, and enjoyed the irreverent vibe. Preminger himself had always scoffed at conservatism and was known for breaking the rules in his previous work: from tackling taboo themes such as rape and drug addiction to employing all African American casts in the 1950's to hiring blacklisted talent during the height of McCarthyism. Cannon's script was, in fact, written in earnest. (Cannon would pen another "head" film just a few years later, 1970's Brewster McCloud.) At the time, Cannon thought Skidoo, "delivered an important message of peace and love at a time when America was engaged with the war in Vietnam." Preminger's desire to take on his screenplay was also sincere. At the time he was itching to make a comedy and had grown interested in the counterculture - most importantly, with LSD. Preminger was at the time dabbling with acid himself, and in 1968, he was not alone. Acid had become the drug of choice among the nation's youth, and its popularity was beginning to make its way to the big screen. Preminger no doubt wanted to ride the wave.

1968 in fact was a big year for acid movies. Psych-Out, Wild in the Streets, Alice in Acidland, Mantis in Lace and others were released in the wake of Roger Corman's The Trip (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) was just around the corner . Preminger's unique arrangement with Paramount allowed him the freedom to tackle the modern subject material; his record of always delivering on schedule or under budget didn't hurt either. However, the always-efficient director found himself butting heads with screenwriter Cannon. The writer wanted the mafia to be depicted in a serious manner; Preminger saw them as comical cartoon figures. Preminger wanted Cannon to write in more violence; Cannon, a pacifist, refused. Soon others were brought in for rewrites (including Elliott Baker, author of A Fine Madness) and the script further deviated from Cannon's original vision. After the final and most absurd draft of the film was delivered, it was quickly cast with an equally bizarre group of old and young Hollywood talent: Jackie Gleason, Frankie Avalon, Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, John Phillip Law, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Austin Pendleton and perhaps most strangely, Groucho Marx (it was the comedian's final film role).

As filming began on Skidoo, some cast and crew members immediately sensed that the story might be too bizarre for its own good: A retired mobster named Tony (Gleason) is called upon by his former Mafia boss (Marx, simply referred to as "God") to make one last hit. His one time friend Blue Chips Packard (Rooney) was sitting pretty in solitary confinement in Alcatraz after being busted, but has since become an informer against his old gang. Tony is instructed to sneak into the jail and eliminate Packer.

Meanwhile, Tony's teenage daughter Darlene is in dubious company herself, hanging out with members of San Francisco's hippie community. She starts dating a tuned-out long hair (John Phillip Law) and espouses the ideals of peace and love. Tony's wife Flo (Channing), the more sympathetic of the couple, feels for her daughter and invites the whole psychedelic clan back to their house to live. Tony is none too happy about this new crowd, yet befriends a hippie in the clink known as "The Professor" (Austin Pendleton, the unsung hero of the film). He turns Tony onto acid accidentally one day, and during his trip, Tony begins to understand the pitfalls of his violent past. He decides to "make love, not war" against ol' Blue Chips.

With Tony now enlightened, he wishes to make his final exit from mob life. Unfortunately he must "take it up with God" and "The Professor" orchestrates a dramatic escape from the jail for the both of them, which includes spiking the kitchen soup with LSD. As the inmates and hacks are floating on Cloud Nine, Tony and Professor do a little floating themselves: namely, they fly a homemade hot air balloon, made out of bags and garbage cans up, up, and away – right out of Alcatraz and onto God's yacht, where the hippies have already made their ambush. In the end, God himself is not immune to the tenants of peace of love, and is seen on a sailboat in the distance with "The Professor," smoking a joint merrily.

Even though it looked like Skidoo was quickly turning into some strange absurdist play, Preminger stood by his new film and presented the film to Paramount with a straight face; studio heads were more than unimpressed. He had attempted a fun, topical comedy but was too removed from what he was satirizing due to his age and life experience. As a result, Skidoo appealed to no one in 1968. Older audiences found its celebration of drugs offensive and younger viewers thought it was akin to your grandfather asking to borrow your records. The film was contrived and overbearing. The hippies seem stilted and forced while the older cast members overact and ham it up, often resorting to broad slapstick. The film moved from scene to scene without any real sense of direction and sometimes relied on weird, sped-up flashback sequences. At the end of the day the critics and the cinema-going public scoffed at this sixty-three year old man's pathetic acid trip. It was in theaters a week before it was pulled, and then Skidoo was buried in film history as a bad mistake; To this day, the film has not been released on home video.

Ironically, it is the "bad mistake", the overcalculation of Skidoo that makes watching it such a fun, enjoyable experience today. Much like the accidental hilariousness of a 1950's education filmstrip, the notion of Skidoo being made in earnest, that Preminger filmed acid trip sequences the exact way he experienced them himself, gives the film a strange staying power. A simple viewing of it will make you think you're on an acid trip of your own. The LSD sequences are truly bizarre; a surreal mix of muted audio and mind-warping visuals (the movie's most trippy moment has to be what Preminger himself called "The Dance of The Garbage Cans"). Most unbelievable however, is the cast that Preminger assembled for this one-of-a-kind oddity. It's hard to believe that Jackie Gleason was ever talked into acting out an acid trip. And between seeing Carol Channing in only a bra and tights and Groucho Marx's head on a cartoon depiction of a screw, you truly feel like you've stepped into another dimension. And just when you think you've seen it all, the ending is interrupted by Preminger himself – imploring you to stay through the credits as 60's folk troubadour Nilsson actually sings the entire list of cast and crew.

While Preminger and his cast and crew may have created box office poison with Skidoo in 1968, it is simply too unique to be ignored any longer. It's become a hilarious relic of the time period. Consistent bootlegging of the film has introduced Skidoo to a new generation of viewers, who celebrate it as a garish clusterf*ck. In fact, Skidoo is the true essence of a cult film: made with love, immediately reviled and buried, and subsequently rediscovered by a new audience, basking in its strange, hypnotic allure

Producer: Otto Preminger
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Doran William Cannon
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Film Editing: George R. Rohrs
Art Direction: Robert Emmet Smith
Music: Harry Nilsson
Cast: Jackie Gleason (Tony Banks), Carol Channing (Flo Banks), Frankie Avalon (Angie), Fred Clark (Tower Guard), Michael Constantine (Leech), Frank Gorshin (The Man), John Phillip Law (Stash), Peter Lawford (The Senator), Burgess Meredith (The Warden), George Raft (Captain Garbaldo), Cesar Romero (Hechy).
BW&C-97m.

by Millie de Chirico

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