Carol Channing (singing the title song) and Jackie Gleason in Otto Preminger’s drug comedy Skidoo (1968), a film that would pair nicely with Myra Breckinridge (dir. Michael Sarne, 1970) for a double feature of ill-fated attempts by Hollywood studio filmmaking to tap into the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Skidoo isn’t as mean-spirited and ugly a film as Myra Breckinridge, but it’s a travesty in its own right. Apparently inspired by Preminger’s own LSD trip, it’s a laboriously plotted mixture of crime farce (with retired hit man Gleason going back to prison to try and rub out an old associate, played by Mickey Rooney) and hippie satire (Gleason’s flower-child daughter and all of her friends come to stay at their house). Somehow it manages to make Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx un-funny and Carol Channing boring.
This was one of the last films made by Preminger, who ranks among the great Hollywood directors (he started out in the ’40s making classic noir films like Laura, then transitioned to star-studded blockbusters like Exodus and Anatomy of a Murder in the late ’50s). His best films were dark, hard-hitting, and elegantly made; comedy was never his strong suit. So Skidoo doesn’t event feel like a bad Preminger film, because it doesn’t feel like Preminger at all. It feels like a master of a bygone era trying desperately—and failing spectacularly—to change his style to suit the times.
The film is thus enjoyable as a kind of historical oddity, a big-budget Hollywood flop that, like Myra Breckinridge, wants so badly to be hip that it becomes noxious. The laughable LSD sequences consist of Gleason bugging out his eyes and moaning as various colors—and Groucho Marx’s head on a floating screw—swim by.
There are also hallucinatory dancing garbage cans, a lengthy opening sequence that satirizes television (and overstays its welcome by about five minutes), and various peppy songs written by Harry Nilsson which, having once entered your head, refuse to leave. The thing that most doomed a film like Skidoo to failure was perhaps that its glossy, studio-financed antics couldn’t compete with the truly mind-bending cinema that was beginning to play in grindhouse theaters and drive-ins. Next to exploitation fare from the same period, Skidoo feels quaint at best and hopelessly square at worst—your parents’ drug comedy. (It’s telling that the film is in part about middle-aged people inspired by their daughter’s generation to “turn on.” The intended audience for this film, it seems clear, is middlebrow folks open-minded enough to want to see a movie “about counter-culture” but not so open-minded that they already know about it.)
As a famously terrible movie, it’s worth a look; it’s newly available on DVD from Olive Films. Also check out the trailer, which features an endorsement by Timothy Leary himself: