|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Monday, January 07, 2008 |
( 1/07/2008 05:09:00 PM ) Bill S.
"MAN, I WISH I COULD BE NOTHING!" This weekend I was one of the proud, the adventurous, to follow Mark Evanier's recommendation by recording and viewing Otto Preminger's legendary 1968 disaster, Skidoo. A misfired Old Hollywood attempt at creating a youth picture, the movie pits gangsters (repped by retired torpedo Jackie Gleason and Howard Hughes-styled mob boss Groucho Marx, here in his final sad movie appearance) against Holywood hippies (a babbling John Phillip Law and a nerdy draft dodger earnestly played by Austin Pendleton). The results are a mess - with a musical finale that defies reason - but I was rarely bored. Unlike so many of the era's clueless attempts at tapping into the youth market (think Musical Mutiny!), there's enough story to keep things moving and the actors all seem to be having a good time. It's one of those flicks that encourage you to imagine the between-shoots parties that probably never happened.
The flick has two basic plot tracks. In the first, Gleason's Tony Banks (the pseudonymous last name was chosen for him, we're told, because "nothing's more respectable than banks!") is forced out of retirement to sneak into prison and "kiss" stool pigeon Mickey Rooney. While inside, he books up with Pendleton's Fred and inadvertently ingests some blotter acid that's been soaked into the longhair's stationary. This helps Banks transcend his ego and come to terms with a question that has long been bothering him: namely, whether daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) is biologically his or the fruit of wife Carol Channing's many trysts. (It's worth noting that this question is never definitively answered.) The second plotline revolves around Darlene's involvement with the Love Crowd and her attempts, aided by smarmy up-&-coming goodfella Angie (Frankie Avalon), to extricate her dad from the claws of Marx's mob boss, who's not-so-immodestly named God.
Gleason is fun to watch (I'd recommend his performance here over such mishaps as The Toy and Smokey Is the Bandit). His trip scene - the actor snatching at visions of a floating screw with God’s head on it - is a definite high point. But I also enjoyed his earlier moments with doomed lackey Arnold Stang (yeah, that's who you'd expect a retired hitman to have as a henchman), and his fatherly takes on the hippies who wind up invading his home. The last may be familiar Gleason material, but nobody did it better.
Still, the movie remains a major misfire: less, I suspect, because its old guard moviemaker wasn't up to the challenge of taking on the counter-culture and more because its Altman-esque improvisational style was beyond the ken of its studio-reared director. When the prison's breakfast gets spiked with LSD and both prisoners and guards begin tripping, you expect the hallucinations to top the hallucinatory silliness of Gleason’s earlier trip scene. But aside from a whimsical musical number featuring waltzing garbage cans (accompanied by a great lost Harry Nilsson number), the results are curiously flat - even a scene with visiting senator Peter Lawford and prison warden Burgess Meredith engaging in stoner prattle is flubbed. And while there are several amusing bits revolving on surveillance equipment and remote control technology, they never really lead to anything.
The movie's improbable finish - an army of hippies descends on God's boat, while Tony and the nerdy Fred land on the craft in a prison-crafted balloon - strives for Marxian anarchy but never attains it. Still, we get to hear Carol Channing crooning the movie's title tune ("Skidoo, skidoo, the only thing that matters is with who you do!") and see Groucho toking on a joint. So what more d'ya need?