DAY 15. PICK YOUR POISON: One with some drugs in it. Turn on, tune in…and freak out!
Otto Preminger was the king of the issue movie. To wit: The Man With the Golden Arm (drug addiction), Advise & Consent (homosexuality), Anatomy of a Murder (rape), Hurry Sundown (racial and sexual taboos) and The Cardinal (which touches on everything from interfaith marriage, pre-marital sex, abortion, racial bigotry, the rise of fascism and war, all heady subjects for many movies much less just one). And with 1960’s Exodus, Preminger struck back against the Hollywood blacklist by acknowledging banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
However, as his career went on, he was criticized for two things: his heavy-handed nature and his reputation for bullying actors.
This may have started when Laurence Oliver stated that notion about Preminger in his autobiography Confessions of an Actor. Joan Crawford, who was a fan of his work, said that he was “Sort of a Jewish Nazi.” On the set of Angel Face, Angel Face” (1952), he demanded so many versions of a scene where Robert Mitchum slapped Jean Simmons across the face that Mitchum finally turned around and cuffed Preminger.
“I do not welcome advice from actors,” said Preminger, once said. “They are here to act.” The set was his dictatorship and he was given to violent outbursts. Supposedly, the great director once directed a group of child actors during Exodus by shouting, “Cry, you little monsters! You see, your mothers have been taken away! You are never going to see them again – never!” as assistants led their stage mothers from their sight.
Preminger’s treatment of a young Tom Tryon — who would leave acting to instead write the books that would become The Other and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home — and Jean Sebring led to them suffering nervous breakdowns. He’d harangue them to the point of tears on the set. Once, he abused Tryon so badly in front of his family that he nearly quit The Cardinal, a movie that he would earn a Golden Globe nomination for. That night, after a workday filled with hatred, Preminger would follow classic abuser behavior by taking them to the finest dinners and treating them like human beings. The next day? The cycle would continue. For his part, Tryon sought to always be in the position to fire the director for the rest of his career.
He was an iconoclast, fighting against the world — studio heads, producers, actors, censors. It’d take an entire website for me to share the stories of Preminger’s life, from him guesting on the Batman TV show as Mr. Freeze to his secret son with dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, his fight with Darryl F. Zanuck that led to him being told ”you’ll never work in Hollywood again” before doing just that and making the classic film Laura and the fact that he was primarily known as an actor for playing Nazis, despite working with Tallulah Bankhead to held them escape Germany during the war, in movies like The Pied Piper, Margin for Error, They Got Me Covered Stalag 17.
So how did Otto Preminger come to direct a movie about LSD?
Because Hollywood in 1968 was a mess.
The counter-culture had taken full root. Hollywood was on the cusp of becoming what Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood essayed this year: out was the clean-cut man’s man who had a firm resolve. In was the sensitive bearded unsure of his place in the world.
Preminger was aware of this. That’s why he sought out Timothy Leary, the guru of LSD, and took the drug under his supervision. While Leary would say, “I consider Otto Preminger one of our failures,” he would also divulge “I was fooled by Otto Preminger. He was much hipper than I was.”
For his part, the director yearned to understand the youth culture that was revolutionizing the world. He went from the film being an anti-LSD movie to whatever it ended up becoming. And as he took acid himself, he said, “I saw things; I did not see myself.” What he did see was his wife in miniature form, which ended up in the movie. And his mindset changed after spending time with Tom and John Phillip Law, whose home The Castle was a legendary 1960’s mecca. Seriously, if you can name your home, you know that it’s going to be awesome. Rooms there were rented to young artists and musicians, among them the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan. A young Harrison Ford was the carpenter. It was a totally different world for the Old Hollywood director to inhabit.
I first discover Skidoo in the Medved Brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards books. For years, it had been a cultural touchstone for what made a bad movie. I’ve learned over the years that what many see as trash, I discover as treasure. And when I watched the trailer for the film, I was astounded: this was a movie I wanted to see.
So why did I wait so long to see it?
Two reasons. One an excuse and the other reality.
The excuse? The film was incredibly difficult to find for years. But now, thanks to the cloud, we can call down any movie virtually at any time.
The real reason? The film that I built up inside my head had to be better than the actual reality. There’s no way any movie could live up to that insane trailer, where Old Hollywood mixes with Dr. Timothy Leary and a cliche-spouting Sammy Davis Jr. to cajole you into not only seeing Skidoo with mom and dad, but potentially dosing their Sprite before they view it in their local cinema.
The film begins with a cartoon Jackie Gleason dancing as a peace-logo flower descends and the logo of the movie fills the screen. Nilsson’s theme plays — he would also appear in the film in a minor role and sing the astounding end credits, covering every person down to the copyright info — as we pill back to a TV screen flashing through channels.
We hear the voices of stars Carol Channing and Arnold Stang over images from space, then Peter Lawford in a mock U.S. Senate hearing about organized crime, then scenes of Preminger’s In Harm’s Way in between each story beat and mock ad. Of note, Channing says that she hates how they chop up movies for TV. At one point, Preminger sued ABC for editing his film, after all.
More commercials follow, including one where an attractive woman promises you the viewer that “Now, you too can be beautiful and sexually desirable like me, instead of being that fat, disgusting, foul-breathed, slimy, wallowing sow that you are!” before another ad with an even more attractive blonde and then a man drinks beer while belching and being intercut with images of a swine in mud as an announcer happily intones, “Feel big! Drink Pig!”
This strange blend of footage — feeling like cut and paste Burroughs technique — continues with the jingle for Fat Cola (“You’ll never lose your man if you drink Fat Cola!”), kids made up like Our Gang complete with Pete the Pup all smoking cigarettes and then more kids being given guns as gifts and then an ad for New Daisy Chain Deodorant, which battles “dandruff, athlete’s foot and the common cold, cancer, birth defects, mental illness, ringworm, poison ivy, tooth decay, acne, measles, brain tumor, smallpox, syphilis, plague, influenza, hepatitis and St. Vitus Dance.”
We move back from the TV to reveal the cause of all this flipping: Gleason and Channing each have a gigantic remote control. One of them wants to see the Senate hearing; the other anything but. We then see Joe Pyne, a TV host who pioneered the confrontational style of today’s TV journalism, launch into a diatribe.
Welcome to Skidoo, chum.
Gleason is Tony Banks, a retired hitman who has settled down with Flo (Channing) and the girl who may or may not be his daughter — one wonders if any of Preminger’s relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee and the son he had to avoid claiming Erik figures into this — Darlene (Alexandra Hay, who is stunning and sadly died at the age of 46 from heart disease).
There are two big issues: Darlene has fallen for a hippy named Stash (John Phillip Law, forever Diabolik in my heart) and that the mob wants Tony back. Hechy (Cesar Romero!) and Angie (Frankie Avalon!) — a father and son duo in matching Halloween-tone suits — want him to rub out “Blud Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney) before he can rat them all out to the U.S. Senate. Tony refuses the word of God, the top mobster, and pays for it when his best friend Harry (Arnold Stang, who is really the god of movies people decry as bad, appearing in this film as well as Dondi and Hercules In New York) shows up dead. Tony’s fingered for the crime and goes up the river, exactly as God intended.
We move to Alcatraz, a high-tech prison where Packard is being protected before he can testify. One of Tony’s cellmates is draft dodger Fred the Professor (Firesign Theater co-founder Austin Pendleton), who is a wizard with technology but refuses to use it. Of course, Tony talks him into creating a way of communicating with Packard. They renew their friendship and our protagonist — well, if this movie even has a hero — decides not to kill the man.
Meanwhile, Stash and his friends have moved into Tony’s house (their dialogue was written by Rob Reiner) while Flo does a striptease for Angie — she’s dressed in neon hues throughout the film and at times, appears as if she’s a real-life Big Bird — in the hopes of finding her husband. Darlene also shows up and nearly leaves Stash for the suave killer. He agrees to take her to see God and Stash hitches a ride.
When they arrive, we learn that God is Groucho Marx and has been trapped on his yacht for years, afraid that he could be killed at any time. Intriguingly, the ship used for this movie is John Wayne’s yacht the Wild Goose, which was once a U.S. Navy minesweeper named USS YMS-328. Given Wayne’s feelings about the counter-culture, I kind of adore that his ship became the setting for what follows.
God and his mistress (Luna, who somehow connects all the worlds of film, from Warhol’s Factory to Fellini Satyricon and dating Klaus Kinski, who worried that they did so many drugs together that they could ruin his career; the fact that the famous madman was worried about Luna’s behavior speaks volumes) fall for Darlene and Stash, who go on the run from them.
Tony realizes that because he can’t kill Packard, so he’ll never leave the prison. He writes to her on some of Fred’s stationery, licks the envelope when he shouldn’t and we now enter into a seven-minute sequence of Jackie Gleason tripping balls. “I see mathematics!” shouts Tony, as he begins sweating profusely as the world becomes packed with color and he learns that his dead friend Harry was the father of his daughter, but none of that matters anymore. All is one and all is love and acid conquers all, setting a conflicted mobster’s life right.
Real life did not imitate art, as Gleason would go on to endorse Nixon. Then again, maybe he just did that because he was obsessed with seeing an alien first-hand. No, really.
Cellmate Leach (Michael Constantine, yes the very same Portokalos paterfamilias of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding films) watches all this and says, “Hey, maybe if I take some of that stuff, I wouldn’t have to rape anybody anymore.”
The hippies mount a rescue attempt as Tony and Fred dose everyone in the prison, leading to the guards seeing a football game with the Green Bay Packers (played by the Orange County Ramblers) discard their clothes and play naked. The twosome fly away from the prison and end up on God’s yacht, where Channing warbles the theme song as Tony and Flo consummate their love, God reads Gabriel Vahanian’s The Death of God and then Angie and God’s mistress get married before the new bride makes out with her father-in-law. As all this happens, Geronimo (Tom Law) marries Stash and Darlene.
To top all that off, God and Fred — now with shaved heads and Hare Krishna robes — sail off in a sailboat and smoke a joint. Groucho laughs and surprisingly says, “Mmm…pumpkin!”
An ordinary extraordinary movie would stop here.
But not Skidoo.
Preminger’s voice intrudes, as the voice of God almost, saying “Stop!, we are not through yet, and before you skidoo, we’d like to introduce our cast and crew…”
As stated earlier Nilsson sings everything along with asides, like “Luna as God’s Mistress, well you know-oh what I mean” and asking how your popcorn tastes.
Skidoo is awash with cameos, from character actors Fred Clark and Phil Arnold; Batman villains Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith; gangster star George Raft as the skipper; Doro Merande (who somehow survived working with Preminger multiple times); Slim Pickens and Robert Donner (Exidor from Mork & Mindy) as switchboard operators; Richard “Jaws” Kiel as a prisoner, Roman Gabriel (the first NFL quarterback of Filipino descent) as a prison guard.
Did the kids get it? Well, no. The film was not only a critical flop, it died in theaters too. It’s hard to say who the movie is for, as its themes are rooted in the counter-culture while the stars are firmly bound to the chains of Old Hollywood. You practically expect them to feed you tannis root and steal your baby, not turn you on and help drop you out.
Maybe Preminger was trying to connect with his aforementioned hidden progeny, who at the time of filming was living as a hippy in New York’s Greenwich Village. Or maybe he was making the kind of movie that would take a half-century to be appreciated.
That said, I love that Groucho did this movie, which was his last film. He also tripped on LSD with Paul Krassner to get ready for the film. Preminger browbeat the 78-year-old Marx Brother into bringing back his old greasepaint-mustache for this role and continually treated him like you’d expect Otto Preminger to treat an actor on set. This led to Jackie Gleason physically threatening Preminger’s life if he tried the same antics with him.
I spent more time writing about this film than I did watching it, but if my efforts lead to you watching it for yourself, I feel that I’ve properly done my job. You can get this movie for yourself from Olive FIlms.
NOTE: The New York Times obituary of Preminger, a Paul Krassner article about tripping with Groucho Marx and the New Yorker article “Balance of Terror” were used as references for this article.