Let's imagine Tony Soprano in one of his 3 am near-comas. Rich food and stress is keeping him awake, as the rest of his family sleeps soundly in their Jersey mini-mansion. Having just loaded an extra-extra large hot fudge sundae into his gut, he's half-awake on the sofa, watching television. This is a scene that happened repeatedly during The Sopranos, when Tony would sometimes see an old movie that would cut him to the quick, or else plant a seed of doubt in him, tipping him off to some unsuspected treachery in his world. Tonight's screening is a weird, weird film from 1968...so damned weird that the next day, Tony wouldn't be sure if he didn't doze off during it, adding plot details from his own dream-life.
Skidoo by Otto Preminger--a resounding, loathed failure in its time--has a cult, like almost all failures do. It includes the first appearance by the reliable character actor and acting teacher Austin Pendleton. Also making her debut was the famed pioneer African-American model and Warhol star Donyale Luna
(memorable from this photograph you've seen in every beauty salon, in which Luna's leanness and sinew is visually contrasted with a line of elephants). (here's a famous photo of her) Unique casting compliments a really one-of-a-kind musical/satire that shows how beyond "good" and "bad" some films are.
Skidoo is a mob parody featuring an over-the-hill cast. Retired assassin Tough Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) is suffering through his life in San Francisco, with his wife Flo (Carol Channing). The film begins with a war over the television remote. The couple squabble over a parade of repulsive images. cigarette commercials for children, beer-drinking hogs, and obese swim-suit models, along with clips from Otto Preminger's earlier film In Harm's Way. Perhaps Tony should have paid more attention to one of the programs, the broadcast of Senate hearings on organized crime. In the dock, one of his former associates is trying to lie his way out of a racketeering charge. Outside, a car arrives: it's Tony and Flo's wayward daughter, who is about to join the hippies. She has one hippie (John Phillip Law) in tow, listening raptly to him: "Man, how I wish I could be nothing. If you can't dig nothing, you can't dig anything."
Soon more guests arrive. Hechy, a lieutenant in the Mafia shows up; he's played by Cesar Romero, the only mobster who could be taken seriously in this film. He orders Tony back to active duty. Hechy is accompanied by the up and comer Angie, played by former teen-star Frankie Avalon in a really disagreeable pencil thin mustache. Under pressure of being killed himself, Tony is sent to Alcatraz--presented as a new model prison, run by computer--to carry out a hit on a stool pigeon (Mickey Rooney) about to testify in court. While Tony is waiting for his chance, he befriends his cellmate is a pacifist draft dodger (Pendleton) who has smuggled in a large quantity of LSD in blotter form. By accident, Tony takes it. The trip gives him a revulsion against violence that will keep him from killing ever again.
Meanwhile Flo does some detective work, trying to use her body to seduce the various players into finding out where her husband has gone. With the help of the hippies, she storms the yacht where the ultimate head of the organized crime racket is hiding himself: he's played by Groucho Marx and he's known as "God."
While "God" watches everything on television from remote cameras, his technology is used against him. The same kind of TVs that were dictating reality at the opening of Skidoo are destroyed, and the film ends with a marriage ceremony. It's conducted by a minister carrying a copy of theologian Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God.
Hallucinatory outline aside, the images here are what really make you doubt your eyes: the strangely staged hippie rallies, or the closeups of Jackie Gleason--the most miserably unhappy looking comedic actor imaginable. Observe, denizens of 2008, the futuristic costumes by Rudi Gernreich, including the famous backless gown Luna wears, foretelling a world in which a new kind of cleavage would be displayed in public. (It was a world that never really came to pass. Except, of course, when the plumber comes over.) Also weirdly enchanting is Channing's canary-yellow feather-trimmed dress, held together with a spiral zipper. Was she the living model for Big Bird?
This movie goes strange in 17 ways: God and Tony are played by famous television actors as well known for their wit on the tube as they were famous for their orneriness off camera. As Pendleton says in Foster Hirsch's new biography Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, Gleason's pilot light was out, and Marx couldn't get a grip on what kind of character he was supposed to be. Incompatibility among comedians has sunk movies more ambitious than this one.
Skidoo was part of a fascinating wave of neo-psychedelic works released by the studios, such as the original Casino Royale,The Phynx and Petulia. Imagine the feelings of an entertainment industry, certain it had cornered the market on cool, only to discover that they were being undersold by a bunch of stoned-out hairballs loitering in Golden Gate Park. Naturally, they'd want to play catch up fast. Preminger--who prided himself on being the most cutting-edge producer director in the business--here tries to take on the subject of youth rebellion. Preminger certainly understood camp. Skidoo is like an Adam West-era Batman reunion with Frank Gorshin, Romero, and Burgess Meredith all aboard. (Gernreich himself was a Batman guest-star, as the above link mentions.) Preminger himself once assayed the role of Mr. Freeze. But hippies took themselves seriously, and this eluded Preminger.
What they might have respected, if they saw the movie, was an LSD trip sequence that was an unqualified endorsement of the drug. The LSD heals Tony. After some paranoid moments, he's able to address the fears in his life. He understands the pettiness of this mafia God who holds it over on him, and he connects with his deep anxieties about whether Flo was faithful to him when he was young. And the later stage of the trip gets more slapstick. Tony and his new gang dose the prison with LSD, the inmates and their keepers experience giddiness and light shows. One guard hallucinates a happy chorus line of dancing trashcans, scored to a Harry Nilsson tune about the pleasures of dumpster diving.
As Jeffery M. Anderson notes, Skidoo is a grey-market film that can be found here and there. It was broadcast on Turner Classics in January and no doubt Tivoed extensively. But Skidoo demands a proper DVD release on the merits of its wide-screen Leon Shamroy photography alone. And there is no movie remotely like it. Its concerns are the same as The Sopranos in some ways. One can imagine James Gandofini's Tony seeing a little of himself in Gleason's Tony. Here would be the same family anxieties, the same terrors of not being tough enough, the same instincts to flee the life of crime. Skidoo shows what artistic failures are for: they provide structure for later artistic successes.