These are the movies that are so strange, so deliriously out of whack that they stop even our hard-bitten writers in their tracks. These are the films that are weird beyond belief, the ones that stick with you whether you want them to or not. Spectrum Culture is pleased to present a new Film Feature: WTF?

There are few stretches of American cinema more fascinating than the years in the 1960s when the staid propriety imposed by the Hays Code–the mandate for content control issued by the MPAA over three decades earlier–started to flake and crumble away. Suddenly the rules that had been as stiff as Clark Gable’s posture were gone, and filmmakers had immense new freedoms. There was a fleet of relatively young directors ready to rush in and take advantage of this with high wire works of art, but there was another, incredibly bizarre side to this revolution. How did the old guard handle the change?

Many of them responded with completely whacked out, wildly confused films, such as Otto Preminger’s Skidoo. Preminger had worked steadily since the 1930s with an abundance of sturdy, respectable features to his credit. Even as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, he was making upstanding fare like Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent. This 1968 comedy, though, is a bizarre satire of American classism and the emerging counterculture. Few things demonstrate the misguided nature of a certain subset of the era’s cinema than an Austrian-born director in his sixties trying to make sense of hippies.

The film casts Jackie Gleason as a retired mob boss who may think he’s out, but gets pulled back in. He lands himself in prison so he can assassinate a snitch who is about to testify about the whole underworld operation. Meanwhile, his wife Flo (Carol Channing) has allowed her daughter’s boyfriend Stash (John Phillip Law) to come stay in the family mansion along with a whole troop of collegial hippies, a group that becomes especially useful to have around when Flo launches into a big musical number.

Channing cavorting around a soundstage with bounding free love disciples is fairly representative of the parade of lunacy that marches through the film. The mob boss has a revelatory acid trip after licking a laced envelope among the personal belongings of his cellmate, Fred the Professor (Austin Pendleton), an experience that helps him eventually determine that the best way to escape prison is by dropping LSD into the food supply and fleeing in the confusion. Admittedly, the plan is sound. It’s going to be hard for a prison guard to do his job when he’s having hallucinations of the Green Bay Packers playing football naked. That’s not something I made up. That happens in the movie.

Preminger gives the whole film the unfortunate feel of an overlit soundstage, as if he decided to adopt the aesthetic he observed while playing Mr. Freeze on the “Batman” TV series. That experience clearly informed the making of Skidoo quite a bit, as it includes no fewer than three actors who also menaced the caped crusader on the campy show. Burgess Meredith (who played The Penguin) appears as the prison warden, Cesar Romero (The Joker) plays a mob boss and Frank Gorshin (The Riddler) is a character billed only as “The Man.” All that casting seems positively unremarkable next to the inclusion of Groucho Marx, in his last film role, playing God, a version of God that hangs out on a yacht with his foxy mistress, of course. Marx spends all of his screen time clearly reading all of his dialogue off of cue cards, and is generally one of the most disinterested individuals I’ve ever seen in a movie. Maybe he was just waiting for the big finish of the movie, which puts him in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean smoking a joint that tastes like pumpkin.

At that point the closing credits begin, but it’s not some boring crawl of names. No, that wouldn’t do for Skidoo. Instead, Harry Nilsson, composer of all the film’s music and songs, sings the credits. It’s a lot of information to get through, but that doesn’t stop the ever-cordial Nilsson from asking, “How’s your popcorn?” in between crediting Pacific Title and spelling out of the roman numeral version of the copyright date.

Skidoo makes no sense whatsoever. It also bears no marks of anyone trying to rectify that. It progresses from one goofball idea to another, and appears to be assembled exclusively with first takes. It’s one of those astounding epic failures, so bad that the Preminger estate largely keeps it under lock and key. It’s never been released on home video, and only seems to turn up periodically for freaky, half-mocking museum showings or when the programmers at Turner Classic Movies are caught up in a particularly perverse mood. It’s the sort of movie that’s hard to watch in one straight shot if you’re especially sensitive to the feeling that your sanity is slipping away.

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