Among the maudit-est of films maudit, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo has since its disastrous 1968 premiere been not so much maligned as simply ignored, periodically resurfacing in faded-bootleg incarnations and cult screenings, but for the most part kept out of sight and out of mind as one of its decade’s most embarrassing cinematic indiscretions. Seen today, this fabulously gaudy counterculture freak-out feels both absurd and visionary, suggesting at times a purposely excruciating motel hook-up between Damon Runyon and Frank Zappa, and at others a rough draft of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Though plainly the fruit of a time when crumbling studios scrambled for survival by reaching out to a new generation they didn’t understand, it has richer and stranger things in mind; any film that casts ersatz adolescence emblem Frankie Avalon as a wannabe playboy-hoodlum with a painted-on mustache is clearly not settling for simple youth-pandering.
In an America populated exclusively by Hollywood relics, puffy TV stars, Broadway troupers, and furry young troubadours, retired gangland torpedo Tough Tony (Jackie Gleason) experiences the generation gap firsthand when his daughter (Alexandra Hay) brings home flower-child beau Stash (John Phillip Law), who’s prone to such Aquarian koans as “If ya can’t dig nothing, ya can’t dig anything, ya dig?” Before he can contemplate this collision of establishment and hippiedom, however, Tony is forced back into the crime business and dispatched to Alcatraz for one last kill. While behind bars, this boulder of bourgeois prejudices gets a taste of LSD from a Timothy Leary stand-in (Austin Pendleton) and, after arguably the goofiest head trip in the medium’s history (levitating screws! Machine-gun mathematics! Pirouetting Mickey Rooney!), awakens with no more use for violence. The acid-soaked conversion is but one step in the spiritual trajectory behind the outlandish cameos and psychedelic hallucinations of this all-encompassing satire, a wonky search for grace amid chaos that culminates, somehow fittingly, in the overthrow of an insular kingpin known as “God” and played by an enfeebled vaudevillian (the elderly Groucho Marx, dyed and grease-painted into an effigy of his 1930s self).
Having immersed himself into the counterculture scene (complete, notoriously, with Leary-assisted LSD sessions), Preminger was accused of cynically ditching his usual sober style for spurious, “with-it” flash. Yet under its sheen of magnified zaniness, Skidoo follows the template employed by the filmmaker’s big-message 1960s epics, accommodating contrasting viewpoints within a democratic widescreen frame even as Preminger displays his unabashed sympathies for the body-painting, sitar-strumming youngsters over the capitalist blur of religion and gangsterism that is the old order. While the camerawork retains a classical fluidity, the material (courtesy of Brewster McCloud scribe Doran William Cannon) sprawls in all sorts of directions, hitting everything from bubbling Dadaesque visions (a Harry Nilsson number enacted by dancing trash cans) to downright Godardian dismantling (where Made in U.S.A named characters after tough-guy actors, Preminger here goes one better and actually summons forth the sagging George Raft himself for the modernist gag). Far from a lost masterpiece, Skidoo nonetheless exudes a legitimately anarchic euphoria, envisioning a cheery revolution that briefly had freaks and squares sailing away on the same boat—with the Nixonian iceberg lurking just ahead.
Given Olive Films's overall threadbare packaging, the film's saturated Technicolor palette—from Carol Channing's platinum wigs to the rainbow ensembles of the hippie extras—comes comes through with pleasing pungency. The passable mono audio gets a mild workout during Harry Nilsson's wacky musical numbers.
Have some of what Groucho's having and discover Preminger's lovably batshit-crazy paean to changing times.