Skidoo (***)

Posted on August 11th, 2008 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

There have been a handful of movies that have changed me, meaning that they were so impactful that after I watched them I was a different person.  Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead, Full Metal Jacket – films like that.  Now add to the list an unexpected entry – Skidoo.

Skidoo is not like the other films on the list – they are dark, brooding, and profound.  Skidoo is…well, it’s….kind of…hm…like…well…indescribable.  It’s not really dark or brooding.  Any profundity is tongue-in-cheek.  It’s funny, both intentionally and unintentionally.  It has a bizarre story line.

That’s the word for it – bizarre.  If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of this movie.  I hadn’t either until it popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies one late-night/early-morning.  I consider myself a sort of film dilletante – not really a student of film, but a bit more well-informed than the average American filmgoer.  And I didn’t have a glimmer about the existence of this film, which is surprising, in retrospect.

If you are of a certain age and someone were to describe to you a film that starred Groucho Marx, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Michael Constantine, Frank Gorshin, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney, Cesar Romero, Slim Pickens, and George Raft, you might take that cast list, factor in the year it was made (1968), and think you could make an educated guess as to what the film would be like – maybe an undiscovered cousin of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or something. 

Well, you’d be wrong. 

Skidoo is…overwhelmingly unexpected.  I hesitate to describe it because watching it without any preface is a delicious experience, but I’m more concerned with doing whatever I can to help get a broader audience for this soon-to-be-cult film.  If you don’t want to know the basic plot then blur your eyes and scroll down until the following indented purple text is off the screen:

The basic storyline is that Groucho Marx plays a gangster nicknamed “God”.  He heads up a nationwide protection racket that controls just about all the criminals in the country.  He is a germophobe and lives in hermitic seclusion aboard his yacht, sealed off behind steel doors, communicating with the outside world via teleconferencing (in 1968!!?!?), and spending his time playing bumper-pool with his scantily clad, Amazon-like, willowy, nubian-ish, right-hand girl.

Jackie Gleason is “Tough Tony”, a former hit-man for God who has long-since retired from the biz.  But God reaches out and strong-arms Tony into doing one last hit, or “kiss” as they call it in this film.  Tony is reformed and doesn’t want to “kiss” anybody for God, but he’s backed into a corner.

Carol Channing plays Tough Tony’s wife, and she spends the film sleeping her way up the chain of command to get to God and find out where her husband is and what he’s doing.

Frankie Avalon plays a mid-level mobster who eventually leads Mrs. Tough Tony and her daughter out to God’s yacht.  God’s yacht is captained by mobster-film-legend George Raft.

Burgess Meredith is the warden of the penitentiary where Tough Tony gets himself sent to so that he can “kiss” one of the other inmates, played by Mickey Rooney.  Tough Tony’s cellmates are played by Michael Constantine and Austin Pendleton.  Pendleton’s character actually sends Tough Tony (plus, eventually, the entire prison population) on an LSD trip, complete with surreal imagery including a Rockette-like dancing number by a bunch of trash cans (really).

There are many other familiar faces, as well.  Roman Gabriel (former QB of the Rams), Harry Nilsson, and Slim Pickens play prison guards, Peter Lawford is a senator with presidential ambitions, Frank Gorshin is God’s man on the inside at the prison, and Richard Kiel (“Jaws” from the Bond films) is his muscle. 

For added strange-itude there are also film clips of Kirk Douglas and John Wayne.  And the whole thing was directed by Otto Preminger.  The finale of the film is a huge song-and-dance number involving Carol Channing leading a hippie invasion of God’s yacht, the denouement is God sailing off in a Hobiecat with Austin Pendleton while they share a joint (yes, Groucho with a joint), and the cherry on top is that the end credits are sung…even the boring ones, like Director of Photography.

 

Put that all together and Skidoo is one long, strange trip.  And it’s a trip worth taking, if for no other reason than the curiosity value.  As the film progresses, your eyes can’t believe what they’re seeing.  The images and actions of the characters are so unexpected and strange that you end up having to expand your mind to be able to take in what you are experiencing.  And that’s where the change comes from.  You have to open your mind, throw out a metric butt-load of preconceptions that you didn’t even know you had, and make room for the existence of something utterly unique and unexpected.

Not that Skidoo is without flaws.  It’s not really “great” in any one area, except maybe for its concept.  The acting, directing, screenplay, effects, and music are all good, but not remarkable in and of themselves.  It’s the combination of inspiration and execution that make Skidoo a film that should be seen by anyone with even the slightest interest in movies.

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