[From time to time I’ll report my fresh impressions of a cult classic I’m the last to know about — just in case I’m the first-to-last.]
So, when he found it conspicuous by its absence from my capsule psychohistory of anchor star Jackie Gleason, my editor at HiLobrow.com set me a strict assignment to finally watch Skidoo, a bizarre transitional countercultural artifact from 1968, directed by would-be trailblazer of golden-age Hollywood Otto Preminger and featuring anarchist-for-all-seasons Groucho Marx’s last film role.
I’d been vaguely aware of the movie through a library copy of its soundtrack LP that stayed with us very briefly ’cuz my mom was a fan of Nilsson, who scored Skidoo along with motivational cartoon-fable The Point! and other background-music to my Vietnam-era childhood. A few endurance-test minutes occasionally caught on MeTV or TCM were the extent of my other exposure. But it was time to open my mind to the full experience, maaan.
The basic plot (as opposed to meta peace & love subtext) of Skidoo is that a retired mob enforcer, played by Gleason, is asked in unrefusable terms by his former boss, a kingpin known as God (Groucho), to whack a rival (Mickey Rooney) who’s in prison about to turn state’s evidence against them. Gleason breaks into prison to do the deed, but accidentally ingests the LSD stash of a draft-resisting celly and renounces violence; meanwhile, Gleason’s daughter is courting a hippie (cult action-hero John Phillip Law) and his entire nomadic community, who are invited to camp out at the family’s mafia mansion by Gleason’s wife, played by Carol Channing. That cast is less than half the story, as the presence of other pop warhorses from gangster-movie legend George Raft to beachsploitation boy-bander Frankie Avalon to three Batman villains (Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith) will make you think you’re hallucinating this yourself after some bad Taco Bell and too much marathon on MeTV or TCM.
In the early scenes Preminger and screenwriter Doran William Cannon spoof consumer culture in ways that illuminatingly show what Sterling Cooper was already up against, and simultaneously manage the least stereotypical reading of hippie ethics put to mainstream film at that time, even while lampooning the movement’s pronouncements in a not-unfair way (for someone involved seems to understand it from the inside). And in the earliest scenes Preminger seems to be burlesquing the Warhol Factory multiple-screen technique, and burlesquing a Hollywood that would actually let him spend money to do so.
It gets more conventional as it goes along, as Gleason’s attempts to break back out of jail descend into standard caper parody and the irritating neo-Tin Pan Alley whimsy of Nilsson takes increasing control of the narrative in a string of stoned song-and-dance show-stoppages. It’s not a gamechanging redefinition of Gleason’s crowdpleasing catalogue either; he is nothing if not, erm, game, but goes through his familiar repertoire of mugging and hysteria and threats and bathos; his ambition was wide, but his abilities pretty much in one track with high walls.
Everything but when it will end has gotten pretty predictable and tedious by the time Channing leads a flotilla of hippies to overwhelm the offshore yacht where God is hiding (loooong story), and rescues the movie as well as her daughter, who’s been kinda kidnapped there. Everyone else is teetering on a career cliff between classic entertainment and pioneering performance art (spoiler: they all fall straight down), but Channing cuts through time, indomitably unselfconscious, otherworldly, at almost-50 even then going from dayglo-Jackie O couture to seminude Rabelaisian setpiece to proto-glam carnival outfit to deliver a benedictory anthem of being yourself, standing like some Yggdrasil of pop liberation and self-aware theatricality that stretches from Mardi Gras to Weimar cabaret and midcentury gay camp to Lady Gaga and stuff we haven’t thought of yet. She, like Jimi, had her own world to live through, and getting returned to mine this way made the whole trip worth it.