Running Time: 97 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Otto Preminger
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Michael Constantine, Frank Gorshin, John Phillip Law, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Groucho Marx, Arnold Stang, Slim Pickens, Richard Kiel, Harry Nilsson, Austin Pendleton, Fred Clark
Just As Bad As You Heard, But…
More than just another cheesy exploitation flick, more than just another old man ego trip, more than just another dumb-ass the-kids-will eat-this-crap-up Sixties movie, this is the official OTTO PREMINGER take on the times.
Preminger had a massive inferiority complex because he knew he wasn’t really a good director. Even he could tell this when he was forced to finish a picture Lubitsch had started, THAT LADY IN ERMINE, to resounding jeers. Preminger was no Lubitsch. He had no talent and he knew it. He covered this by being an absolutely miserable person.
Lubitsch was a smart little Berlin street kid who started as a clown and Preminger was the son of some big Viennese macher who used connections to get in with Max Reinhardt. Lubitsch knew how to entertain an audience. Preminger knew how to boss people around. He was a director not because he had any artistic interest but because the director is the boss’ job. Very early on he became his own producer. Nobody can boss a boss.
He didn’t care so much what a film was about as long as he was making it. In later years (but before the Alzheimers) he couldn’t recall making his early films at Fox and watched FALLEN ANGEL (on tv as he was dressing to go out) as if it had been directed by someone else. Later when he produced for his own company he became more selective of the properties he made, choosing sure-fire stage hits and best sellers. He made sure he hired good crafts people and top writers.
He covered his artistic illiteracy with aggression, intimidation and bullying. Friend Billy Wilder cast him as the Nazi POW camp commandant in STALAG 17 for a reason. Typecasting.
If Preminger were a painter, he’d use a brush for house paints. Broad strokes please and nothing too fancy. When he shows a woman “going wrong” she runs off with an oily Flamenco dancer. Preminger is in the direct, bombastic line of C. B. DeMille. Even so, if Preminger had been Philo Farnsworth we’d all be watching potatoes instead of tv today. Preminger has his moments. ANATOMY OF MURDER has a Joseph H. Lewis low budget induced sense of mundane realism. The vinegar of location shooting absorbs the slightly sweet, hammy but underplayed acting. But, Otto was just beginning his run of super productions beginning with EXODUS and crashing down with badly botched HURRY SUNDOWN. Preminger resides in the pantheon of an obscure French cineaste cult known as the MacMahonists.
Right after that Preminger let his hair down (figuratively, of course), slapped on the love beads, dropped acid and decided to tell the world. From somewhere he became aware of a script by one Doran William Cannon. What was in the original script would be interesting. Apparently Mr. Cannon’s work was malleable enough to become whatever a director wanted it to be. He also wrote BREWSTER McCLOUD and that is, for better or ill, a Robert Altman film. Maybe Cannon articulated the gestalt but couldn’t dramatize or the other way around or maybe his message was just too subversive for directors working in the system called “the movie industry” who defanged a project by merely adding their egos to the mix. Sort of like symbolic Holocaust Memorials, more representative of a designer’s cleverness than what they’re supposed to be about.
In this instance we have a parade of moronic of-the times conceits, and also timelessly and ill-timed corny schtick. Jackie Gleason is a retired gangster married to Carol Channing reprising her Lorelei Lee bit from the Fifties. They have an impossibly beautiful blonde daughter (Alexandra Hay) and straight as she is she’s in love with impossibly beautiful movie hippie John Philip Law, who, in real life, was the mover behind a high class celebrity commune in the desert. Gleason is pulled back into the organization because as the organization’s leading hit man, he is ordered to break into Alcatraz to “kiss” a big time informant (Mickey Rooney). It’s remarkable the number of old pros Preminger recruited for a days’ work. The head of the organization – GOD is Groucho Marx with an ironically bad dye job on his hair and mustache, living on a yacht. I mean George Raft appears as the yacht captain, but why?
Then suddenly, strangely, bursting out of the crap celluloid like the alien spawn emerging from John Hurt, there is a real movie. Gleason is sent to a cell and joined by draft protester Austin Pendleton. The only things worth watching in Skidoo are the scenes with Pendleton in them. Gleason writes a letter to his wife on Pendleton’s stationery that has been impregnated with LSD. Pendleton then acts as a guide for Gleason’s trip. If this had been the whole movie SKIDOO would now, today, be hailed as a classic of Sixties filmmaking, instead of lame garbage most notable for it difficult availability. It makes me wonder if this trip, or even if the entire prison scenario was the core of Cannon’s original concept, sort of a hip rip-off of A NOUS LA LIBERTE.
Kiss is used as the euphemism for kill throughout the picture even on Austin Pendleton’s poster, which reads, “Kiss for Peace”. It’s the sensitivity to death borne of an acid trip.
There are some strange bits as Gleason and Pendleton escape from prison by spiking everyone’s food with LSD. Fred Clark who was sort of the straight man’s straight man, not that he was the best, but after George Burns was finished working straight for Gracie, he would work with Fred Clark with Clark working straight for him. He does a six-minute solo of acid vaudeville silliness.
Whatever is taking place outside of the world of Gleason (who is excellent and note perfect) and Pendleton (a really magnificent performance under the most difficult conditions) is worthless drivel.
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