Friday, July 11, 2008

You're In the Picture

Recently, I briefly mentioned Jackie Gleason as the host of the disastrous game show You're In the Picture. I must admit that I have never seen its one episode, so I am not fit to comment on how bad it was, although I have read reviews claiming it's not quite as bad as the legend makes it out to be. What truly is bad, however, is Gleason's 1968 movie Skidoo, airing at 2:00 AM ET on July 12 as part of TCM Underground.

The quick plot summary doesn't sound so bad: Gleason plays a retired gangster who is brought out of retirement by his boss (nicknamed God and played by Groucho Marx in his final film) in order to carry out a hit on a stool pigeon (Mickey Rooney). Unfortunately, director Otto Preminger looked at the story on which the film was to be based, and wanted to make the story about the Establishment (represented here by the Mob) and the counterculture, which in 1968 was represented by the hippies. So, we get a movie that tries to play to the young, hip audiences of 1968, but made by a bunch of old squares -- and the result is predictably disastrous, albeit in a way that, forty years on, is wildly funny.

First up amongst the hilarity is Gleason's wife, played by Carol Channing. She was in her late forties when the movie was made, but because of her raspy voice and her hair having gone prematurely white, she looked more as though she was in her mid-sixties. Their daughter has taken up with the hippies, and she clearly has more sympathy for them than does Gleason. Indeed, when Gleason is taken away to perform the hit on Rooney, Channing responds by going to the mobster responsible (played by Frankie Avalon, who might have appealed to the hipsters of 1960, but would have been passé by 1968) and doing a striptease, ending up in just yellow tights and a translucent bra. Yikes. Channing later gets to perform the final musical number, dressed up in a Napoleon outfit, which is almost as frightening as her striptease. As for the aforementioned Avalon, he and his screen father (Cesar Romero) wear a pumpkin decor, of a black blazer over a bright orange shirt. (Actually, Romero is worse, wearing not a shirt, but a turtleneck, making the fashion faux pas even worse.)

The hippies of the late 1960s are known for dropping acid, and the comprises a significant portion of the plot of Skidoo, as well as the back story. Director Preminger and cast member Groucho Marx are amongst those who, as legend has it, actually experimented with LSD for the making of this movie. Jackie Gleason, on the other hand, was entirely opposed to it, and his acid trip scene is funny (although I have no idea how realistic it is, as I've never used illicit drugs other than alcohol before I hit the legal drinking age). Indeed, Gleason's trip sets off the second half of the plot, and some of Skidoo's funniest sequences. Gleason and Mickey Rooney are both in prison; Rooney for his own safety in solitary confinement, and Gleason there for the hit. After Gleason's acid trip, he decides to turn to the side of peace and love, which requires escape from prison. The escape plot entails spiking the prison's food supply with LSD, while Gleason and the man who unwittingly introduced him to acid (played by John Philip Law). Amongst the acid trip scenes we get to see here are naked football players, and a balloon made from burlap sacks that the prison guards (including singer Harry Nilsson, who claimed to be playing drunk instead of stoned) mistake for a big flower. Also in the prison is warden Burgess Meredith and grandstanding politician Peter Lawford (who was probably drunk for shooting, and not just playing drunk) there to observe prison conditions.

The final scene takes place on God's boat, anchored just outside US territorial waters. The captain of the ship is played by George Raft, in one of his final roles; fortunately for Raft, he doesn't have much to do here. The scene involves, as I mentioned earlier, Channing singing the title number, with the hippies "fighting" the ship's crew in what looks more like kabuki than real fighting. Also on the ship is actress Luna, playing "God's Mistress", wearning a dress that's so backless that you can see her butt crack. After all this, we get the closing credits -- sung by Harry Nilsson.

Skidoo was such a failure at the time it was released that it faded into obscurity, rarely if ever being shown. Indeed, the heirs to the Preminger estate supposedly wanted it destroyed, that's how bad it is. Needless to say, if they wanted it destroyed, it's obviously never made it to any form of home video, so your only chance to watch is the TCM Underground showing.

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