Skidoo is one of those pictures that a lot of people don’t believe exist. Having seen it, I can testify that it does, and it must be the oddest thing Otto Preminger ever made. It’s hard to credit that a crowd-pleasing director like Preminger could have made Skidoo, but then a lot of strange things happened in 1968.
We open with car-wash owner Tony (Jackie Gleason) and his wife Flo (Carol Channing), who argue over the remote, burn the dinner and worry about their daughter hanging out with hippies. So far, so Honeymooners. Then two figures from Tony’s past come to the door, gangsters in rather arresting orange shirts (Cesar Romero as the father, Frankie Avalon the son). It turns out that Tony is a retired mob hitman, and mob boss “God” (Groucho Marx) wants him to come back for one last job. This involves infiltrating a maximum-security prison and knocking off a dangerous informer (Mickey Rooney – yes, everybody is in this).
All right, you may think. This is an old-fashioned Hollywood gangster movie, albeit one with a cast more suited to It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. But don’t forget that this is the late sixties. Tony having got himself locked up, his cellmate (Austin Pendleton) introduces him to the joys of LSD. Yes, you get to see Jackie Gleason having an acid freakout. “Tough Tony,” intones Pendleton, “your time has come wherein all things are as the void and cloudless sky.” You’ll never watch Smokey and the Bandit the same way again.
Things go downhill from there. Carol Channing does a striptease – trust me, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Groucho wanders about God’s floating fortress (skippered by George Raft) looking about like he belongs in an old folks’ home. The entire prison gets dosed with acid. Gleason and Pendleton take to the air in a balloon. The hippies take to the sea. The whole movie descends into an orgy of silliness.
But none of these features is the strangest thing about Skidoo. That comes at the end, when the entire credits are sung by Harry Nilsson, right down to the set decorator and the MCMLXVIII. (Although the film is nearly impossible to obtain now, the CD soundtrack was reissued a few years back, along with Nilsson’s The Point!) As critic Leonard Maltin observed, about one person in a thousand has the temperament to enjoy this picture; everybody else would just sit with their mouths hanging open.
Preminger himself, of course, famously partook of mind-altering substances while making Skidoo. This led to the exchange:
Channing: “Someone should shoot Otto shooting this picture.”
Groucho: “Someone should just shoot Otto.”
It’s all a long way from Exodus.