Several months ago, a patron returned a DVD to the library that set off a bell deep in the recesses of my mind. The film in question was called Skidoo, and years ago I’d read something about director Otto Preminger’s technique of having his actors do their lines over and over again so many times that they were physically and emotionally exhausted by the time they reached their final take. I don’t remember where I first read that about Preminger, but apparently it was true that he did exactly that on the set of Skidoo.
The other reason I was curious about seeing this movie was that I’d heard it was bad, and Lord knows I’m a fan of bad movies. Skidoo, however, provided a good example of the difference between a bad movie that is a lot of fun to watch (like Plan 9 From Outer Space, for example) and a bad movie that is just tragically, jaw-droppingly bad.
Skidoo looks great on paper. If you combine the skills of talented people like Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, and Groucho Marx, the resulting movie SHOULD be a resounding success. And according to the trailer, the flm was so cool and wonderful that even Timothy Leary and Sammy Davis Jr. thought that everyone should see it. But talented actors could only be as good as the script, and the script was pretty awful.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Tough Tony Banks, played by Jackie Gleason, who is going to jail for ridiculous reasons. His wife Flo (Carol Channing) is trying to find him, while his daughter is more interested in getting involved in the hippie culture. Which brings me to my first complaint about this movie. Okay, I can’t pretend to say that I’m an expert on what 1968 was like since I wasn’t even alive back then, but I can say that the portrayal of hippie culture in this film FELT awkward and FELT fake.
Then there were quite a few scenes that were obviously supposed to be funny but fell flat instead. I could only imagine what it would have been like watching this film in a theater surrounded by an audience that was silent or stirring restlessly in the places where the filmmakers were expecting laughter. I mean, I’m guessing that the scene where Carol Channing starts (God help me) stripping in front of Frankie Avalon was supposed to make the audience laugh.
But the reality was more like watching a car wreck in slow motion, and I felt like my eyeballs and my brain were being assaulted.
I think I felt most sorry for Jackie Gleason. Most people today remember him fondly from The Honeymooners or from the Smokey and the Bandit movies, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for his performances in The Jackie Gleason Show. In Skidoo, he spends most of his time bugging out his eyes in anger / frustration / confusion / surprise. I mean, that’s like his main character trait.
Okay, to be fair, I would also be confused if I saw Carol Channing in that getup. But still, he doesn’t play a character you empathize with. This is a character who makes you say, “Okay, I GET IT. You’re angry / frustrated / confused / surprised. Now, could you just dial it back a bit? Or maybe a lot?”
There were also a number of scenes that were supposed to be … you know … “cool” and “far out.” There are lots of scenes of hippies being hippies, which felt like actors stiltedly reading scripts about the kinds of things that hippies are supposed to say. There was the scene in which Tough Tony’s daughter hangs out with the hippies and gets her body painted, which felt … I dunno. Awkward and uncomfortable? And then there was the famous (infamous?) scene in which Jackie Gleason goes on a “trip” after accidentally ingesting his cellmate’s drugs.
Okay … now, does everyone remember the scenes in Now, Voyager when Paul Henreid would put two cigarettes in his mouth, light them both, and then hand one to Bette Davis?
Well, I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, but OMG those scenes made me want to smoke! That movie made smoking look soooooo romantic, and I used to think that it would be really cool if a man ever lit a cigarette for me that way. In spite of, you know, all the cancer and emphysema and stuff.
Well, the drug scene in Skidoo has the opposite effect on me. After seeing this movie, I never ever EVER want to try LSD. Because apparently the effects are … what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh, right. INTENSELY STUPID. Well, that’s two words, but you get the idea.
Apparently, if you go on an acid trip, people start looking too big or too small. They sound weird. And instead of your life flashing before your eyes in chronological order, everything overlaps in a very confusing way.
Oh, and you might end up seeing Groucho Marx’s head attached to a giant screw, floating around in what looks like a lava lamp.
Because yes, Groucho Marx is in this film, too. And the fact that he plays a character named God does not make him exempt from the ridiculousness that is this movie.
Because frankly, there is a LOT of ridiculousness here.
Honestly, I can only really recommend watching this movie for bad-movie completists like me. Or film scholars. Or maybe masochists. For most normal people with a passing curiosity about this film, you can go to Youtube and check out some clips, and then thank your lucky stars that you got away mostly unscathed.