I grew up watching reruns of a lot of classic TV in the 70’s and 80’s. Weekday nights at 9:00 on channel 32 in Chicago was when we caught Jackie Gleason and company in “The Honeymooners.” That was must-see-TV for us back then. Also in that category were the reruns of the “Batman” TV series, those usually ran weekday afternoons in the summer time. Well, today’s movie has Jackie Gleason with a huge cast which includes three of the most famous villains from “Batman,” Caesar Romero (The Joker), Frank Gorshin (The Riddler), and Burgess Meredith (The Penguin). Plus, they’re all under the direction of Otto Preminger…one of several performers who played Mr. Freeze on that show. It’s a bizarre psychedelic comedy from 1968…”Skidoo.”
Gleason plays Tony Banks…not the keyboardist from Genesis, but a former mob hitman now living a legit life since marrying his wife, Flo (Carol Channing). His biggest problems seem to be deciding what to watch on television and trying to keep his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) from becoming a hippie. But one night, Tony receives a visit from one of his old mob buddies, Hechy (Caesar Romero), and his son Angie (Frankie Avalon). They inform Tony that the big mob boss known as “God” (later revealed to be Groucho Marx) has one last job for Tony. It involves being sent to prison so he can “kiss” a former pal, “Blue Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney), before he can testify in court. At first Tony refuses, but when he find his buddy Harry (Arnold Stang) dead, he realizes he has no choice in the matter.
Tony heads to prison without his wife and daughter knowing. When he arrives, he immediately makes contact with some of God’s other inside men, including “The Man” (Frank Gorshin). He also ends up in a cell with a hippie draft-dodger called “The Professor” (Austin Pendleton). This hippie also happens to be a technical genius and will assist Tony with being able to speak to Blue Chips via radio from his cell.
Meanwhile, strange things are happening at Tony’s house. Since all of Darlene’s hippie pals were about to be kicked out of town, Flo has allowed them all to camp out at their home. But at the same time, the two ladies have begun wondering what happened to Tony. Both go to visit Angie, independently, to try and find out. Flo even tries to make Angie answer her questions by pretending to be at his place for a rendezvous, thus spoiling his chances with a young lady he has invited over. Seeing Carol Channing strip down to her underwear and wriggle around in front of Frankie Avalon is an image I could’ve definitely done without.
Back in Prison, Tony begins to realize that “Blue Chips” is not going to cooperate, and since he won’t knock him off either, he figures he’s going to be stuck in prison for a long time. He begins to write a letter to Flo to explain, using an envelope belonging to the Professor that has been laced with LSD. This leads to a very weird scene of Tony tripping out with wild hallucinations.
The whole movie then starts to move towards a madcap conclusion as Angie takes Flo and Darlene to visit “God,” with all the hippies on their tail. At the same time, Tony and the Professor hatch an escape plan which involves dumping LSD into the prison food and building a makeshift hot air balloon. Even the prison warden (Burgess Meredith) ends up tripping out.
I think the film was intended as a satire of the whole hippie culture, and the idea of putting a former mob hitman into that world is a clever one, but the end result is not very funny. Preminger has assembled a hugely talented cast, unfortunately, he never allows them to do what they excel at. The idea of having Jackie Gleason interact with hippies and accidentally trip out on LSD should’ve made for some great comedy. But Gleason isn’t allowed to be Gleason! He seems to be sleepwalking through many scenes.
Even worse is the wasted opportunity that is Grouch Marx’s performance. There are so many moments when the rest of the cast seem like they are setting Marx up to deliver the classic kind of zingers that defined his persona. And then, each time, the script completely fizzles, as if the screenwriters had no idea how to use the comic genius. Had Marx been allowed to improvise the end result would’ve been a million times better. The only performance that was successful at being somewhat funny was Gorshin’s…he speaks most of his lines with teeth clenched, trying not to move his lips, as he is sure that the warden employs lip readers to spy on them.
Over and over again with this film, just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, something happens. Carol Channing does a striptease…Jackie Gleason hallucinates Groucho Marx’s head on a screw…AND THEN we have songs!! Mind-numbingly bad songs courtesy of Harry Nilsson. When Channing parades onto “God’s” yacht, singing the ridiculous theme song, you’ll think you’re at the breaking point. Then, the euphoria you experience when the film ends a few minutes later comes to a screeching halt when you realize that Nilsson is going to SING every name in the credits!! Yikes!
Essentially what we have here is Hollywood’s old guard trying desperately to be hip and with-it…and failing miserably. It’s a painful curiosity to experience, and I’m sure many movie completists will feel the need to do so.