Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Skidoo (1968): Groucho Marx and Jackie Gleason on LSD!

This was such a hard to find and hard to see film until the internet age came along. Otto Preminger's embarrassment and shame continues to be locked in the vaults but we can enjoy as much or as little of it as we want on various video sharing sites. The classic scene featured here has Jackie Gleason trip out on LSD. I'm not about to recap the history of this notorious stinker, as it has been recounted elsewhere many times. However, I do want to recount the story of Groucho Marx dropping acid in real life in order to prepare for his role in this film as the turtlenecked, LSD kingpin named God (we see Gleason experience terrified visions of the Marx character in this clip). In his memoir Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut (1993, Simon and Schuster), underground publisher and counterculture icon Paul Krassner recalled the experience of providing Groucho with the LSD and having to act as his "guide" for the duration of his trip.

Krassner tells the story:

"... I was hanging around with friends from the Hog Farm, who were extras in the movie. Skidoo was proacid propaganda thinly disguised as a comedy adventure ... One of the characters in Skidoo was a Mafia chieftain named God. Screenwriter Bill Cannon had suggested Groucho Marx for the part ... [Groucho] was concerned about the script of Skidoo because it pretty much advocated LSD which he had never tried, but he was curious. Moreover, he felt a certain responsibility to his young audience not to steer them wrong, so could I possibly get him some pure stuff and would I care to accompany him on a trip. I did not play hard to get. We arranged to ingest those little white tablets one afternoon at the home of an actress in Beverly Hills ...

... We had a period of silence and a period of listening to music. I was accustomed to playing rock and roll while tripping, but the record collection at this house consisted entirely of Classical music and Broadway show albums. First we listened to the Bach Cantata No. 7. 'I'm supposed to be Jewish,' Groucho said, 'But I was seeing the most beautiful visions of Gothic cathedrals. Do you think Bach knew he was doing that?'

... Later, we were listening to the score of a musical comedy, Fanny. There was one song called 'Welcome Home,' where the lyrics go something like, 'Welcome home, says the clock,' and the chair says, 'Welcome home,' and so do various other pieces of furniture. Groucho started acting out each line, as though he were actually being greeted by the clock, the chair, and the rest of the furniture. He was like a child, charmed by his own ability to respond to the music that way.

... At one point in our conversation, Groucho somehow got into a negative space. He was equally cynical about institutions, such as marriage - 'legal quicksand' - and individuals, such as Lyndon Johnson - 'that potato-head.'

... Groucho was holding on to his cigar for a long time, but he never smoked it, he only sniffed it occasionally. 'Everybody has their own Laurel and Hardy,' he mused. 'A miniature Laurel and Hardy, one on each shoulder. Your little Oliver Hardy bawls you out - he says, 'Well this is a fine mess you've gotten us into.' And your little Stan Laurel gets all weepy - 'Oh, Ollie. I couldn't help it. I'm sorry, I did the best I could ...'

... Later, when Groucho started chuckling to himself, I hesitated to interrupt his reverie, but I had to ask, 'What struck you funny?' 'I was thinking about this movie, Skidoo,' he said. 'I mean some of it is just plain ridiculous. This kid puts his stationery, which is soaked in LSD, into the water supply of the prison, and suddenly everybody gets completely reformed. There's a prisoner who says, 'Oh, gosh, now I don't have to be a rapist anymore!' ... But I'm getting a big kick out of playing somebody named God like a dirty old man. You wanna know why ... it's because - do you realize that irreverence and reverence are the same thing?'

... He recalled Otto Preminger telling him about his own response to taking LSD and then he mimicked Preminger's accent: "I saw tings, bot I did not zee myself.' Groucho was looking in a mirror on the dining room wall, and he said, 'Well, I can see myself but I still don't understand what the hell I'm doing here ...'

... A week later, Groucho told me that the Hog Farm had turned him on with marijuana on the set of Skidoo. When Skidoo was released, Tim Leary saw it, and he cheerfully admitted, 'I was fooled by Otto Preminger. He's much hipper than me ...'

... In 1971, during an inerview with Flash magazine, Groucho Marx said, I think the only hope this country has is Nixon's assassination ...' It would later be revealed ... that an FBI file on Groucho Marx had indeed been started, and he was labeled a 'national security risk.' I phoned Groucho to tell him the good news. 'I deny everything,' he said, 'because I lie about everything.' He paused, then added, 'And everything I deny is a lie.'


Anonymous said...

"Reverence and irreverence are the same thing." I'll be thinking about that for days.

I wonder if Krassner's reminiscence is true. Marx's actual performance in the film is so eerily catatonic that I could easily be convinced that he was tripping during the shooting itself.

Thanks for this post; I've heard rumors for years about Marx dropping acid before "Skidoo" (a film I've been privileged to see on a real movie screen a couple of times at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, most recently this past year) and it's good to finally discover that the source is the intriguing Paul Krassner.

Anonymous said...

hey-I Always say that! They are most certainly the same thing! I'm so happy Groucho said it also. Agreement is like validation. hahahaha! think on that one! Oh the bedevilry of a binary world...hahaha! Ana Bon-Bon

Michael Powers said...

It's now four years later and I still haven't figured out what to think, if anything, about the comment that "reverence and irreverence are the same thing," just in case anyone had been wondering if during my stint of "thinking about that for days" I had come up with anything: I haven't.

Mon Harvard said...

I'm with you Michael. I don't follow the reverance -irreverance thing.

Anonymous said...

You might have to be on acid to understand, but it's a Hegelian sort of thing--the thesis of reverence and the antithesis of irreverence are resolved in a synthesis. They are opposite sides of the same counterfeit coin, in the way teenage rebellion is a reaction to the authority itself while it pretends to be about the pronouncement of the authority. Both reverence and irreverence take the authority seriously, as something to follow or flout. Groucho, on acid, wants to do neither. He want to ignore the authority altogether.

Michael Powers said...

That's absolutely right and well said. I was thinking the same thing as I was reading my initial post a few moments ago, it's perfectly obvious, and you're exactly right.

shmuggy said...

Interestingly that ridiculous film was on cable this morning. I can't think of any word better suited to describe it but "ridiculous".
I think the OWS people would have loved seeing it.

Anonymous said...

I think Groucho's remark was just another of his 'Groucho-isms' that he just says to amuse or confuse. I don't think it is worth trying to sit down an analyze this profound thought. Just enjoy it for what it is.