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Otto Preminger’s ‘Skidoo’ a curious relic of the ‘60s

Initially known for such obsessive noirs as “Laura” and “Fallen Angel,” Otto Preminger enjoyed a long run in the 1950s and ‘60s as one of Hollywood’s most ambitious practitioners of the issue movie.

Driven to dramatize big social-political themes and the largest institutions of public life, he tackled drug addiction (“The Man With the Golden Arm”), the legal system (“Anatomy of a Murder”), the state of Israel (“Exodus”), Beltway duplicity (“Advise & Consent”), the Catholic Church (“The Cardinal”) and the U.S. Navy (“In Harm’s Way”). So it was not entirely surprising that with the counterculture in full swing, Preminger — even though he was by then in his 60s — would attempt to tap into the zeitgeist of free love and mind-altering drugs.

The resulting film, “Skidoo” (1968), is widely considered the biggest blight on his long career. With his reputation for tyranny, the larger-than-life Preminger was surely a tempting target, and this instant flop had critics clamoring to get in their jabs. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby recommended it to those “whose minds need pressing by a heavy, flat object.”

“Skidoo” has gone largely unseen in the years since, and partly as a result, its supposed terribleness has attained near-mythical status. The film makes its first appearance on DVD, in a newly restored wide-screen version, thanks to Olive Films, which recently also released two late Preminger films, the Deep South drama “Hurry Sundown” (1967) and the anti-romantic comedy “Such Good Friends” (1971).

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A cross between a mob comedy and a head movie, “Skidoo” is one of the stranger offspring of Hollywood’s brief, intense relationship with the counterculture, a fling that was responsible for a few era-defining artifacts (“Easy Rider”) and more than its share of cultish oddities (“Head” and “Myra Breckinridge,” to name just a couple of the Preminger film’s closest kin).

In a nod to the newly identified consumer demographic, the nominal baddie of “Skidoo,” a mob boss nicknamed God and played by Groucho Marx, at one point tries to enlist a clueless hippie to help him corner “the youth market.” But whatever “Skidoo” may be, it is not — or not mainly — a cynical exercise.

It’s well documented that “Skidoo” emerged from Preminger’s experiments with LSD (under Timothy Leary’s supervision). Looking for a youth-culture project, he found it in a screenplay by Doran William Cannon, who also wrote Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud.”

The setup is standard-issue crime farce: Former mobster Tough Tony (Jackie Gleason) is forced out of retirement to snuff out an imprisoned would-be informer (Mickey Rooney). While he’s bundled off to Alcatraz, Tony’s wife, Flo (Carol Channing), has her hands full with the flock of body-painted, long-haired peaceniks their daughter has invited home.

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The film turns on Tony’s accidental trip — he licks his draft-dodging cellmate’s acid-laced stationery, and the sweaty hallucination that ensues, complete with shrunken figures and swirling colors and a large, floating “loose screw,” was supposedly modeled on Preminger’s own trip — the director also got both Gleason and Marx to drop acid as preparation.

Tony’s epiphany leads him to spike the cafeteria food, causing a mass hallucination and facilitating an escape via makeshift hot-air balloon, but not before a vision of dancing trash cans set to a Harry Nilsson song. Nilsson also plays one of the guards and sings every last word of the film’s closing credits.

Weirdly sluggish even as the bedlam escalates, “Skidoo” ends with Tony crashing his balloon into God’s yacht and Flo showing up, hippie armada in tow, to sing the title song, an ambiguous and syntactically challenged endorsement of the sexual revolution (“The only thing that matters is with who you do”).

Where many of Preminger’s best films sustain an unnerving ambiguity, “Skidoo” often just seems muddled. But it’s also more fascinating than its reputation suggests — despite, or perhaps because of, how often it tips into grotesquerie.

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A common rap on “Skidoo” is that there are a conspicuous number of old-timers in the cast for a youth flick. It doesn’t help that many of these veterans don’t even seem to be acting in the same movie: Witness Marx’s cue-card line readings, Gleason’s sad-sack mournfulness and Channing’s heroic efforts, in full croak as she mugs her way through the chaos.

But the insistent emphasis on age and aging and the equation of the grown-up Establishment with the hopelessly corrupt syndicate give “Skidoo” a curious pathos. It might not amount to much as a snapshot of a generation, but it’s a poignant document of a generation gap.

calendar@latimes.com


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