Skidoo (the movie)



If you've never seen, or even heard of, this film then that alone must tell you that something, somewhere went horribly wrong!  Directed by Otto Preminger and with a cast list extra-ordinaire this had HOT written all over it.  Except it wasn't a hit...not even close!  It was mercilessly panned by critics and cinema-goers everywhere, is rarely given TV airtime and, were it not for some incredible historic links, it would probably never be shown again.

Long before I ever saw the film I read in a movie book:  "there are bad films, there are turkeys...THEN there's Skidoo", which should give you some idea of the reputation this film has gained in the passing years.  So, if you hear that the cast list included Mickey Rooney, Jackie Gleason, Cesar Romero, George Raft, Burgess Meredith, Carol Channing and, yes, GROUCHO MARX in his last ever film you might ask, 'WHY is this such a bad movie' or, perhaps more fairly, 'IS it as bad as all that?'  And the answer, taken in the light of what sort of films were being made at that time, is that it is not as bad as all that.  Is it worse than Ringo's 'Candy'?  Or 'The Magic Christian'?

From the channel-hopping start to the closing yacht Skidoo tries hard to make you like it...or at least laugh a few times but its medley of madness, mayhem and moronic melee ultimately does fail to impress.  Not that it's entirely without things in its favour:  some of the best laughs come during that opening channel-hopping sequence - smoking dogs and children with guns were daring, but hilarious, images to poke fun at even in those heady times!   And what about the toothpaste that can cure athlete's foot and smallpox?   But, too often the jokes are lame, performances contrived (or even pitiful) and the storyline itself is, at best, hard to follow with all that there is to distract.

The plot then:

Ex-hoodlum Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) is ordered by mafia-esque 'God' (Groucho) to get himself put into jail in order to kill an old colleague, Packard (Mickey Rooney) who has threatened to 'turn queen's evidence' and rat on his old pals.  He is given little choice in the matter and his friend is shot as a final warning.  In the meantime, his pretty, blonde daughter has met a group of hippies - psychedelia and spray paint abound - which gives us the chance to hear some Nilsson music.  Harry wrote all the music for the film, although it was arranged and conducted by George Tipton.  The main Nilsson song, which recurs throughout the film, is 'I Will take You There'.*

I think, if I had to pigeon-hole the film at all I'd put it with the other late-60s 'hippy films'.  And it is, certainly a hippy movie! - drugs and sex abound - where else can you see Groucho Marx smoking pot?  Or Jackie Gleason having an acid-trip in his prison cell?.  Preminger never tried to hide the drugs element; in his 'Playboy After Dark' interview (the same show in which Harry sang 'Good Old Desk' and 'Together') he smoke openly about 'pot' to Hugh Hefner & co.  Some might even go as far as to say that the movie is simply a celebration of permissive rights!

Anyway, Preminger's use of colour and costume in this film is stunning - scarlet and orange shirts, Carol Channing's bright yellow suit (making her look like Big Bird escaped from Sesame St.) and the day-glo hippy pinks make a fitting and stark contrast to the grey, black and white of Jackie Gleason's life 'inside' captivity.

Condemned to share a cell with a bible reading serial rapist (!) and a hippy draft dodger called Fred, Banks settles into prison life. His wife, Flo (Channing) finds Darlene in court with the rest of the hippies and ends up inviting the whole commune back to her house.  Flo gets somewhat seduced by the hippy lifestyle, particularly after a visit to Angie, the gangland heir, with his fabulous, remote-control apartment.

Credit has to go to Nilsson's score which, at least, keeps the film in one piece as he effortlessly glides the emotions from comic to seductive, mysterious to hallucinogenic.

Darlene and her pet hippy get taken by Angie to see 'God'.  Groucho Marx as 'God' (in his final film role - already clearly ill despite living for another 9 years) had to read his lines from boards which made interaction with the other actors almost impossible.  This is most notable in his scenes with Darlene) lived on a high-security, intercom-laden, germ-free boat with his mistress (played by Donyale Luna).

Back in jail, Tony has his first LSD trip.  Fred, the draft dodging, hippy, techno-genius had soaked all his writing paper with acid and Tony had just finished writing a letter home when he licked the envelope...On board, the hippy and Angie are both seduced by God's mistress.  Tony and his cellmates decide to escape rather than kill Packard - they do so by lacing the prison's food with Fred's entire stash of writing paper!  Chaos can only ensue as the entire prison - governor and all - goes tripping!

Harry Nilsson appears in the movie as a tripping tower guard, complete with spotlight.  Some critics say he stole the show (in a similar way to the way Ringo did by the river in 'A Hard Day's Night').  His cameo was even likened to Stan Laurel as he acted with his whole face and certainly made the most of his few, short lines.  The scene incorporated Harry's other full song, the 'Garbage Can Ballet' - a dance routine by...garbage cans illuminated by Harry's spotlight.  Tony and Fred escape in a big, yellow balloon.

When God hears about Tony's failure to kill the stool-pigeon he orders Angie to kill Darlene but a flotilla of hippies and Tony's balloon come to the rescue.  The pirates invade the boat, led by Flo who sings the film's theme tune 'Skidoo' and...well, they all have a party!

The boat's skipper (George raft) marries Angie to God's mistress, Darlene to the hippy and God makes his escape with Fred in one of the hippy yachts, smoking pot as they go!

Finally, the credits are SUNG by Harry.  Preminger's voice calls "STOP!"  Before you skidoo, we'd like to introduce the cast and crew!" a scene again re-enacted on the 'Playboy' show.

*this song set me off on a lengthy personal quest.  I saw the movie a year or so after discovering Nilsson and having just about completed a country-wide search to track down all his albums.  When I heard the song in the movie I recognized it at once as being Harry but it was not on any of the LPs I'd sought for.  Of course, the Skidoo soundtrack album was a virtually non-existent rarity in England even by the mid 1970s!  I did not own a copy of the song until I bought the 'Harry' album on CD around 1999 via the internet and the song was listed as a bonus track.


Overall, not as bad as 'they' might have you believe.  Ok, it took me about 5 viewings to fully 'get' the plot but its as harmless a piece of late 1960's psychedelia as the rest of it...and it's HEAPS better than 'Magical Mystery Tour anyway!

back to Nilsson menu