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Skidoo (DVD Review)

18 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/19/11
$24.95 DVD
Rated ‘R’ for some nudity and drug content.
Stars Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx, John Phillip Law.

Just think: With a shift of a dozen years or so, it’s conceivable that we might have seen “The Honeymooners’” iconic Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton dropping acid, turning Ralph’s minimalist apartment into a cascade of kinetic colors. You can almost hear the bellowing: “Hey, Naw-ton — let’s bag bowling tonight and put on my copy of Their Satanic Majesty’s Request” (bought, perhaps, with $3.50 filched from the bus meter).

Instead, the Jackie Gleason LSD movie we’re left with is one of those legendary mega-bombs that not many people have actually seen — or at least seen in a version that can compete with Olive Film’s correct 2.35-to-1 framing, which is packed with pretty colors itself. Even Turner Classic Movies, in its occasional middle-of-the-night Skidoo beamings, has never managed to score a Panavision print — though a famous comedy-writer friend of mine, lamenting that a recent viewing of this presumed campfest had only depressed and deflated him, added, “Somehow, Mike, I don’t think aspect ratio figures into what’s wrong with this movie.” I concede the point. The picture isn’t as much fun as you’d hope, though it inspires a certain level of awe just the same.

Despite my affection for Such Good Friends, which Olive also brought out recently on DVD, Otto Preminger never had much of a comic sensibility — or at least a comic sensibility to make him an acceptable director for a screenplay by Doran William Cannon, whose other credit of note was the script for Robert Altman’s no less whacky (but at least sporadically successful) Brewster McCloud. This venture came out earlier — almost two years to the day — and it’s a miracle Hollywood gave Cannon a second chance. Nor was this exactly the project Preminger’s career needed after the reception accorded to the previous year’s Hurry Sundown (another recent Olive release; man, you pimento people are doing the job).

Still, in a perverse I-hate-homogeny kind of way, Skidoo remains a movie that matters because it is inarguably unique down to its very last scene — and also because it’s full of people whose names (possibly Peter Lawford’s aside) are not synonymous with hallucinogens. To name just a few: Gleason (then a real-life Nixon supporter), Burgess Meredith, Richard Kiel, Fred Clark (who died two weeks before the picture came out) and even Slim Pickens — though, yes, I suppose Pickens’ character could have been on something at the end of Dr. Strangelove.

Gleason’s character is a retired mob figure married to a bleached blonde played by Carol Channing — who, just because she looks as if she’s been working out a whole lot more than he has doesn’t mean we want to see her here in a fairly advanced state of undress. The mob boss — character name “God” and played by Groucho Marx in his last screen appearance — wants Gleason to perform a prison hit on a con (Mickey Rooney). Gleason is reticent — even after the Boys rub out his associate (Arnold Stang) at one of the legit car wash establishments he owns — so the former is simply abducted to the prison where Rooney lives in fairly privileged style.

Somehow, Frankie Avalon (with a caterpillar mustache that you wouldn’t associate with anyone who once sang “Dede Dinah”) fits into all this. And so does the minesweeper John Wayne used to own in real life — borrowed by Preminger from the Duke to serve as God’s on-the-water headquarters, which are skippered by George Raft (never to a yachting cap born). The background here is that Wayne, who must have ended up just loving this movie, had given one of his best performances ever three years earlier in Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, which even shows up in a TV channel-surfing clip montage that opens Skidoo.

Gleason’s cellmate (Austin Pendleton, his screen debut) turns out to have the LSD, which he slips into a cooking pot in the prison kitchen — certainly a long way from the slammer food prep scenes in those Cagney-Bogart-Robinson melodramas of the Warner Bros. 1930s. The cons, the warden and a visiting politico are all soon seeing the world through fresh peepers — as are tower guards played by Clark and Harry Nilsson (who also composed the movie’s score). Clark prances or dances around in psychedelic euphoria (a sight to see), and the visuals include a production number involving dancing garbage cans and a field of naked football players one of the characters thinks are (with regret, erroneously) the Green Bay Packers.

Viewed simply as a concept, “the movies” have lost so many good things in the post-Star Wars era that I lost count at trillion. But one of them — as The New York Times’ A.O. Scott noted in a terrific piece that ran a while back — is the loss of the big-screen folly. Preminger (62 when he made this) had about as much flair for this material as Mitt Romney would, yet Skidoo is still the kind of “you won’t believe this” mindbender that reaps long-term benefits and enriches the form as a whole when viewed as a window into an era. (In other words, I still can’t believe both Paramount and Skidoo co-star John Phillip Law — who plays the hippie boyfriend of Gleason’s daughter — could claim this and Barbarella on their resumés in a single year.) You can gaze at this wild-ass smorgasbord cast and complain that these people have no sense being in the same movie — and especially this one. But at least everything here is provocative compared to the current alternative: driving over to my nearby multiplex and staring at its so-called marquee star power. We’re talking about you, Cameron Diaz, Shia LaBeouf, Ryan Reynolds and the voice of Larry the Cable Guy.

Skidoo was a rare movie from its day where the credits didn’t appear till the end. And in this case, every last one of them was sung, even down to the studio ownership Gulf + Western citation (so much for the film’s audio distinction). Visually speaking, the Olive print is spectacular – about as vibrant as Technicolor got in those days. Of all people, Skidoo’s cinematographer was Leon Shamroy, who had spent most of his career at 20th Century-Fox photographing its biggest projects — to the tune of four Oscars and many more nominations. When Fox launched CinemaScope, it picked Shamroy to photograph Demetrius, Caligula and all those Roman soldier draftees in The Robe. So had anyone conceived a Caligula LSD movie during Hollywood’s Golden Age, I suppose Shamroy would have been the go-to guy — though he was dead by the time Bob Guccione came pretty close a decade later.

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