Skidoo (1968) *

Hubris can only get you so far. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill. Whatever possessed Otto Preminger (In Harms Way, 1965) to believe he could deliver a contemporary satirical comedy beats me. And it beat him, too.

Despite the comedic input of Jackie Gleason (The Hustler, 1962) and Groucho Marx there’s nary a single laugh, except, sadly, at the director’s expense as he attempts to shine a coruscating light on social mores and instead ends up fluffing his lines. The highlights (!!) are gangster Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) having a bad trip, his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) falling in with a bunch of hippies and having her body painted, his wife Flo (Carol Channing) trying to seduce another gangster Angie (Frankie Avalon) and some attempted gags at the expense of technology.

There’s even the old one of kids making out beside a parking meter and when busted complaining they are not getting their allotted time. And there’s an ongoing “joke” of Flo tussling with various men for control of the television set through rival remote controls.

The story, if you can call it that, has Tony infiltrating a prison in order to bump off inmate Packard (Mickey Rooney) who plays the stock market, complete with ticker tape, inside. Flo and Darlene, trying to find his whereabouts, end up at Angie’s hi-tech pad. Then all the hippies go back to the family house where Flo washes their hair.

You can imagine where hippies come into all this, making with the hip talk, and trying to set up an alternative world to the Establishment.

Carol Channing makes her feelings known by donning pirate garb.

In the style of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) the main attraction are the cameos, Peter Lawford (Ocean’s 11, 1960), John Philip Law (Hurry Sundown, 1967), Burgess Meredith (Rocky, 1976), George Raft (Five Golden Dragons, 1967), Mickey Rooney (24 Hours to Kill, 1965)  and Frankie Avalon (The Million Eyes of Sumuru, 1967). But they will all cringe at their participation.

Channing, only just Oscar-nominated for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) makes the worst career choice of her life, Alexandra Hay (Model Shop, 1969) not far behind, though with less marquee value to play around with.

Every acclaimed director has an off day, taking on a project through poor judgement or, more likely, financial necessity. But Preminger was still a Hollywood high-roller and this just looked like a dose of career suicide.

Selling the Exotic – Pressbook for “24 Hours to Kill” (1965)

No matter how small a picture, its budget had to stretch to a Pressbook. Even if the movie would end up on the bottom half of a double bill or a drive-in programmer and did not have much to shout about, it still needed a Pressbook. Low-budget films meant low-budget advertising campaigns unless your name was Joe Levine who often spent far more promoting films than he did making them.

The Pressbook was essential because it was the source of the movie’s adverts that could appear in a newspaper – these came in a variety of sizes so an  exhibitor could remove the one most relevant and take it down to their local newspaper to make up the display advertisement. In the pre-digital era, it was a crude as that, adverts were effectively cut and pasted.

While some Pressbooks could run to 16, 20 or 24 A3 pages in full color, the most basic requirement would be four pages, enough to show the ads and get the basic message across. This was of the basic variety. In this case, ads took up the first two-and-a-half pages, leaving a half-page to list the credits and explain the plot. The final page contained information about the stars..  

Perhaps as revenge for producer Harry Alan Towers not coughing up enough money for a decent Pressbook, his name was left off it. Instead, filing his slot was Oliver A. Unger, more famous as a pioneer of syndicated television, importer of foreign films and producer of The Pawnbroker (1964). In reality, he was an executive producer, in those days that function being fulfilled by someone who either invested in the picture upfront or once filming was complete bought territorial rights.

Artwork was minimal, one main advertisement, one alternative. But more or less the same taglines appear in both. Hoping to hook in the audiences was the notion of “perfumed harem…in mysterious Beirut…where every hour can be your wildest.. and your last.”

Usually films like these boasting a flotilla of European beauties devoted some space to explaining their origins and puffing up their potential. Not so here. Space is just too tight. The only actors covered are Lex Barker, Mickey Rooney and Walter Szelak. Strangely, no mention is made of Barker’s socko career as a German western hero – the notion that Europeans could make westerns remained absurd at this point (A Fistful of Dollars would take three years following completion to reach U.S. screens).

According to the Pressbook, Barker more or less jumped straight from Tarzan to this kind of thriller. Though he had been out of the loin-cloth for more than a decade (Tarzan and the She-Devil, 1953, his final appearance), the 40 pictures he had made since then (including La Dolce Vita, 1960) did not merit a sentence. The Pressbook did carry a quotable quote from Barker explaining his reasons for quitting jungle life: “It made me feel like a male Bardot because I was always parading around almost nude.” This was the type of quote that only made sense until you realised that Bardot did not become a star till three years after he quit playing Tarzan. Still, who was going to argue?

A strict regimen of physical exercise allowed him to keep in the shape necessary for the film which required him to “run for his life, rescue a pretty hostess from kidnap by helicopter and fight off thug after thug.” 

Mickey Rooney gets a better write-up, especially for making the rare jump from successful child star to accepted by audiences for his adult roles. Though the writer of the Pressbook never appeared to actually go the movies. Spot the mistake in this sentence: “Last seen in runaway box office hit It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World Rooney now appears for producer Oliver A. Under in a drama equally as challenging.” That the first film was actually a comedy and not a drama never seemed to sink in.

The usual promotional material – suggestions for marketing, maybe a record of the soundtrack available, perhaps a theme song to target radio stations, various stunts – was non-existent even though the movie leant itself to a tie-in with an airline or a travel company especially as the National Lebanese Tourist Council had gone out of its way to accommodate the production.

24 Hours To Kill (1965) **

When engine problems force a plane headed for Athens to land in Beirut, the past catches up with purser Norman Jones (Mickey Rooney). He manages to convince captain Jamie Faulkner (Lex Barker) and the crew that claims by ruthless gangster Malouf (Walter Szelak) claiming he has stolen his money is a mistake. But once the kidnappings begin, the doubts set in.

Producer Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967), though he remained wedded to the exotic locale, would soon learn to prioritize action over romantic entanglement and this suffers from too much romance – married Faulkner trying to resolve his relationship with stewardess girlfriend Louise (Helga Summerfeld),  co-pilot Tommy (Michael Medwin) ignoring another stewardess Franzi (France Anglade) in favour of local girl Mimi listed in his little black book of previous conquests.

After a failed attempt to kidnap Jones, the gangsters turn their attentions to female members of the crew. Slim built Tommy proves handy with his fists and soon the crew are either running from trouble or running into trouble even as they attempt to enjoy the city high life. The title has a double meaning – the crew take it to mean that they have time on their hands to pass in as pleasant manner as possible only later realizing that their accidental landing provides the gangsters with a complete day to apprehend/kill Jones before the plane’s rescheduled take-off.

Although a good sight more attractive in the 1960s than when  war destroyed the city, Beirut still had comparatively little to offer a visitor beyond a historic site claimed to the Garden of Eden, posh hotels, swimming pools and the kind of belly dancers that you could get anywhere in the Middle East. Still, the movie does its best to convince the audience they are in for an exotic treat. Unfortunately, locale and girls in bikinis do not make up for poor plotting and lack of action.

In terms of casting Towers had hit upon a decent formula in the international coproduction line, Hollywood stars who didn’t cost too much but still retained marquee value and up-and-comers who might be sold as the next best thing to their respective countries, thus bringing in global revenue.  Former MGM child star Mickey Rooney (Secret Invasion, 1964) is the requisite Hollywood star, his credentials buffed up by the hit It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and continually newsworthy for his love life – he was currently on marriage number five.

All-purpose action hero Lex Barker was the surprise box office package. A former Tarzan he was enjoying a new lease of life as a huge star in Germany thanks to the Old Shatterhand series of westerns. Veteran Walter Slezak (Come September, 1961) completed the small group of actors who audiences might automatically recognize.

Heading the newcomers was Englishman Michael Medwin (Crooks Anonymous, 1962) who would later turn producer of If…(1968) ably supported by a stewardess trio played by German Helga Sommerfeld (The Phantom of Soho, 1964), French starlet France Anglade  (The Oldest Profession, 1967) and Austrian Helga Lehner (Games of Desire, 1964). Likely more memorable for purveyors of the European scene would be a brief appearance by another Austrian, Maria Rohm (Five Golden Dragons), wife of the producer. You might also spot Wolfgang Lukschy (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964).

British director Peter Bezencenet (Bomb in the High Street, 1963) was better known for his editing skills but didn’t cover himself in glory in either department here. Australian Peter Yeldham (The Liquidator, 1965) wrote the screenplay along with Towers. While not a great film, you can see the Towers style in embryo, this being only the fourth of the around 100 films that would go out under his banner.

Secret Invasion (1964) ***

Dirty Half-Dozen – cashiered British major, five hardened criminals with particular sets of skills – on a mission to rescue an Italian general and start a second front in the north of Italy just as the Americans are invading the south. Throw in a grand theft of ideas from The Guns of Navarone (shoot-out with German gunboat, scaling a cliff) and The Great Escape (tunneling, although in not out) and the usual bickering and rebellion and a top-class B-list cast bringing their A-game and you have the basis of a very solid actioner.

The classy Raf Vallone (Sidney Lumet’s A View from the Bridge, 1962) is the standout here, not least because he chooses crime, pitting his wits against the authorities, rather than exploiting his university degree in philosophy. But he’s ably supported by Mickey Rooney as an unlikely IRA terrorist and various inmates from Leavenworth and Alcatraz including Henry Silva (Johnny Cool, 1963) of the fashion model cheekbones, Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip), William Campbell (Dementia 13, 1963), and top-billed Stewart Granger (North to Alaska, 1960). That any appeared in this Corman brothers (Gene directing, Roger producing) spread suggested careers on the slide. Still, that’s to the movie’s gain. Forget the occasional dodgy process shots and enjoy the Dubrovnik location complete with ancient fortress, cobbled streets, and tiled roofs, each of which is put to violent use, with shoot-outs in each area, not to mention a cemetery where tombs provide the perfect cover for digging into the citadel. At times, the script is snappy enough that some one-liners stick in the memory and when the characters aren’t acting up they’re doing a lot of brooding, especially Silva, the hired assassin.

This doesn’t go quite the way you would expect, especially the double twist at the end, and a couple of places where the plot gets bogged down, but there’s enough invention, interesting characters and story to see us through and one genuinely heartbreaking moment that could have been the starting point or revelatory denouement of a film all on its own.  Granger lacks Lee Marvin’s icy demeanor but delivers enough leadership in typically British style when it matters. Silva’s own icy demeanor softens enough to allow romance to peek through with local girl Spela Rozia (who you will, of course, remember from Hercules the Invincible, 1964). While trying to steal every scene, Rooney, nonetheless adds a couple of imaginative bits of business to his character. Edd Byrnes is nobody’s idea of a forger, nor would his notions, nor equipment, pass muster with the experts of The Great Escape. Vallone is terrific as the imperturbable mastermind.

This is a more hard-edged, realistic endeavor than The Dirty Dozen. In that picture every scheme goes according to plan. Here nothing does and the crew are constantly thrown back on their wits, finding what they require from the most improbable resources, and carrying out a scheme timed to the second, finger-snapping to the beat in the absence of watches. The labored and overlong interrogation sequence slows the plot down until you think it will never get back on its feet – but that complaint aside, it is full of action and the ruses pulled fit comfortably into the genre.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.