Monday, November 10, 2008

TV Diary: SKIDOO (1968)

As viewing for a Sunday night, Otto Preminger's all-star gangsters-vs.-hippies comedy Skidoo had three strikes against it. First, it would be shown cropped rather than letterboxed. Second, it was being shown as an episode of Off-Beat Cinema, the 14-year old Buffalo TV phenomenon that I see on Retro TV. That meant Skidoo would be cut for commercials as well as edited down so the three beatnik-wannabe hosts could cut their intros and include their various vignettes all within a two-hour time slot. Finally, Skidoo is probably one of the worst movies ever made.

Think about it: the worst films would have to be comedies or attempted comedies, since the worst possible moviegoing experience, one imagines, is one in which you can't even laugh. Since the worst efforts of all other genres are at least likely to make you laugh, that leaves the worst comedies as the films most likely to be the least entertaining. Other bad films may at least unintentionally amuse you, but something like Skidoo can only leave you bored to oblivion or open-mouthed in awe of its awfulness.

Otto Preminger was one of the most successful A-list directors of his time. His successes included The Man With the Golden Arm, Anatomy of A Murder, Exodus, Advise & Consent, and In Harm's Way. Nothing in any of these films prepared audiences for a Preminger comedy. Nothing could. To sum up: Jackie Gleason is a retired gangster who gets sent to prison so he can whack a potential stool pigeon. His daughter is dating a hippie, and his cellmate in the prison (where they all wear cartoonish striped uniforms) has stationery laced with LSD. Gleason gets to act out an acid trip, and Preminger gets to visualize one: a bad idea both ways. Later, he gets the entire prison tripping so he can escape. This frees the cast of prisoners and guards apparently to improvise or simply act out. None of it counts as comedy. Gleason has done all this at the behest of "God," the head gangster incarnated by Groucho Marx.

Mr. Marx was 78 years old at the time. Even though audiences had grown familiar with Groucho's real hair and moustache from the You Bet Your Life show, Preminger decided that the great man should look like himself from the 1930s by darkening his moustache and wearing a toupee. There isn't anything automatically wrong with this idea, but the fact that Preminger didn't give Groucho anything funny to say, and Groucho's bored readings from cue cards, reduce the great comedian to a sort of animatronic Disneyland version of himself. Groucho wasn't senile yet -- he had some good talk-show appearances and a one-man show still to come at this point -- and the idea of Groucho as a Godfather type ought to have inspired some comedy. But such was Skidoo that the opportunity was hideously wasted in favor of Carol Channing singing the title song -- bad for bad -- in a British Admiralty uniform that reminded me of David Lee Roth in the Van Halen "Pretty Woman" video.

You will now hear part of the song as part of a theatrical trailer that enlisted no less a cultural authority than Dr. Timothy Leary to recommend Skidoo to young audiences. If you did not think already that Leary was a charlatan, what say you now?

Watching it on TV, Skidoo cut for length is of course even less coherent, but the cropping of the image was something it probably deserved. But since the beatniks on Off-Beat Cinema were only recylcing vignettes I'd seen from them before, they may as well have subjected their viewers to the full ordeal of Skidoo. It would give them something to boast about to their grandkids.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

The fault lies with the jabroni(es) that wrote the script. Groucho could've improvised if given the chance. Ditto Gleason. As if "You're in the Picture" wasn't enough of a stain on "The Great One"'s resume, this seems like another.

You know the line from "Mission: Impossible" about the Secretary disavowing any knowledge of the IMF's missions? I think Mssrs. Preminger, Gleason, & Marx probably disavowed any link to this before they all passed on.