Mods And Rockers Festival: Skidoo Does Hollywood...


The festival presented the first 35mm screening in Los Angeles in over 25 years of Otto Preminger's 1968 acid-comedy Skidoo. Gregory Weinkauf reprts on the film -- which has a reprise screening at the festival in Santa Monica on Sunday July 29.

Although for several years I have considered myself a Professional Cinéma Critic, even the best of us struggle to be comprehensive, and I hereby admit my previous ignorance of Otto Preminger's utterly whacked 1968 ... erm ... thing? ... called Skidoo. Reflecting upon a London press screening he had infiltrated as a teenager in early 1969 prior to the film's (practically non-existent) UK release, Mods & Rockers festival producer Martin Lewis commented that, "when the lights came up, I was the only person still in the theatre." Lewis also recalled the review that subsequently appeared in The Times (of London) poetic and to-the-point: "Skidoo... Ski-DON'T!"; plus the fact that Paramount has never made the film available on home video, it's hardly a wonder that the project (and I'm sure many in attendance at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre could say this) never really grazed my consciousness until the screening at the Festival.

Well, I've got something to tell you: Until you've witnessed Jackie Gleason experiencing an acid trip in a prison cell -- with one of his cellmates commenting that he has "a screw loose," prompting a vision of a giant, levitating screw out of which eerily pops the head of the actual Groucho Marx (who co-stars as mob-boss "God") -- you may not be fully aware of the potential of the art form known as Motion Pictures.

Plotwise ... uh ... yeah. Let us keep it simple: Gleason plays ex-mobster Tony Banks (there's a Genesis joke in there somewhere, but let's not ...), who ends up in the slammer whilst his pretty daughter Alexandra Hay gets all hippie with John Phillip Law and Thomas Law, and his wife Carol Channing canoodles with Frankie Avalon en route to a show-stopping, jaw-dropping eponymous musical finale involving several boats and a Napoleon costume. There simply is no way to do this movie justice in prose, but if one of the weirdest and most amusing studio films of all time interests you -- one boasting an ensemble of Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Richard Kiel, Burgess Meredith and Mickey Rooney, no less (all of whom end up on a prison-wide acid trip) -- then perhaps my cry of "Refreshingly Bewildering!" will not be in vain. Nilsson provides song-snippets throughout, then literally sings the closing credits (very nicely, in fact; I'd like a soundtrack CD!)

Following a lead-in video clip from "Playboy Late Night" featuring Hugh Hefner gamely joshing with Preminger and Nilsson, a slightly apologetic tone infiltrated the house -- but why? Skidoo is undeniably entertaining, and this time, when the lights came up, everybody was still present and seemed soothed by its giddy absurdity.

Afterwards, Lewis conducted a fun Q&A with boldly self-appointed "Skidoo-ologist" Christian Divine, who said of his forehead-slappingly great pet movie, "It's passing the torch -- culturally, it's a really interesting place in film history." Indeed, although he could cite even the generous reviews (Andrew Sarris dubbed it, "a spectacular stylistic failure"), over at Paramount, Bob Evans vocally hated the project, and it pretty much capsized Preminger's career. More's the pity. If studios today could squeeze a tenth of this imagination and fun into their current projects, we'd have a whole new Hollywood on our hands.

Prior to the screening, I encountered a very enjoyable gentleman who turned out to be an extra in the film (a term I assured him has been upgraded to Background Artist). Veteran performer David Lebrun is a writer-director-visual effects artist whose Hog Farm performance collective was enlisted by the producers to fill out the flotilla for the ... um ... climax of Skidoo. David hadn't seen the film since its release (or, in its entirety, ever), and during the Q&A he jovially reflected upon his big scene, shot in the choppy waves of Long Beach Harbor, partly aboard John Wayne's yacht, partly with Jackie Gleason aloft in a homemade balloon, surrounded by boats filled with hippies, all as mere background to Carol Channing swanning about, crooning the you'll-never-get-it-out-of-your-head title song. Quoth David, "The eyes just glaze over and they feel like they can't absorb anything further!"

But absorb we did. The silliness of the movie tumbled over into the joyful Mods & Rockers Clubhouse located next-door at the Hollywood landmark "Pig 'n' Whistle" bar, where David and his splendid cinematographer-USC professor partner Amy Halpern shared more of their experiences in the business -- and I learned afterwards that they are both possessed of gentle modesty, for neither mentioned their brand new documentary, Breaking the Maya Code based on Michael Coe's acclaimed book. How we got to that from a bewigged John Phillip Law declaring, "If you can't be interested in nothing, you can't be interested in anything!" is anybody's guess -- but that's the thing about this Mods & Rockers Fest: You don't have to play with any chemicals to take the trip.