The Day that Groucho Marx Took an LSD Trip - A True Story
Skidoo - Preminger's Hippy Stinker
Director Otto Preminger made "Skidoo" due to his fascination with the hippy lifestyle, but his subsequent embarrassment over the film lasted until his death, as the notorious bomb was locked away in the vaults for years. It is rarely screened on TV. Its DVD was released in 2011.
This movie is a demented artifact of Hollywood's desperation to be "with it". It has a cast list as long as your arm, and includes scenes of Jackie Gleason tripping on acid and Groucho smoking pot. It is a bizarre product of the '60s and evidence that even experienced showbusiness pros were swept up in the madness of the era.
Preminger, Groucho, and Acid! Oh, My!
As wildly irreverent and surrealistic as the Marx Brothers were in their heyday, it's hard to believe that one of them would end up trying the potent hallucinogen - and Hippy sacrament - LSD in 1968, but that is exactly what really happened.
Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx was born in 1890. Probably the most famous and beloved of the Marx Brothers comedy group, he had a show business career that lasted over 70 years, and is still considered one of the most influential comedians who ever lived. He was certainly one of the funniest men of the 20th Century, and his ad-libs and one liners are stuff of legend.
Undoubtedly he was no stick in the mud, and famously remarked "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member," but could anybody really imagine that Groucho, whose career started in the days of silent film, would take an acid trip at age 78 with counterculture icon Paul Krassner to research a movie role as a Mafioso kingpin named God?
If you wrote it as fiction it would be considered too unrealistic.
Krassner Gets a Call from Groucho
Paul Krassner, writer, activist and co-founder of the Youth International Party, was a leading figure in the counterculture of the 1960s. By his own account he had been using LSD frequently in the late '60s period both as part of his research and for recreational purposes, and had access to high quality, high potency doses of the drug.
Somehow Groucho had heard of him. Krassner recounts:
"I got a call from Groucho Marx. He was going to be in an Otto Preminger film called Skidoo, and it was pretty much advocating LSD, and he had never tried it but was not only curious but also felt a responsibility to his audience not to steer them wrong so could I get him some pure stuff and would I care to accompany him on the trip?"
Krassner was not shy. He procured the stash from his bank safety deposit box and gleefully prepared to undergo the experience with Groucho at the house of an unnamed actress in Beverly Hills. Presumably Groucho's own home had bad vibes.
An Afternoon Trip with Mr. Marx
In Krassner's autobiography, "Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut," he recalls the experience in some detail which, frankly, this author finds surprising considering the potency of LSD available at that time.
"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, Groucho mused "Everybody has their own Laurel and Hardy. 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 ...'"
Krassner Pulls Groucho Back from the Precipice
While Groucho's overall experience seems to have been enjoyable, according to Krassner there was a moment where it could have gone the other way. He recalls:
"There was a point when our conversation somehow got into a negative space. Groucho was equally bitter about institutions such as marriage ('like quicksand') and individuals such as Lyndon Johnson ('potato-head')"
Negativity and gloomy thoughts are dangerous while under the influence of hallucinogens, and can produce what is called a "bad trip" - a crisis of anxiety, paranoia and even terror. Krassner was experienced enough to recognise this and steer Groucho back into positive space:
"Eventually, I asked, 'What gives you hope?' Groucho thought for a moment... Then he said just one word out loud: 'People.'"
"After a while, he started chuckling to himself. I hesitated to interrupt his revelry. Finally he spoke: 'I'm really getting quite a kick out of this notion of playing God like a dirty old man in Skidoo. You wanna know why? Do you realize that irreverence and reverence are the same thing?'
'If they're not, then it's a misuse of your power to make people laugh.'
And right after he said that, his eyes began to tear."
Why Did Otto Preminger Make Skidoo, Anyway?
Another of Krassner's anecdotes is revealing of why Hollywood stalwart Otto Preminger went from making slow paced dramas to a drug addled comedy extravaganza.
"[Groucho] 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 ...'"
Fascinated by the hippy culture as described by his son who lived in Greenwich Village, Preminger had initially wanted to make an anti-LSD film based on the novel "Too Far to Walk" by John Hersey, but became disenchanted with what he saw as a simplistic allegory, and opted instead for Doran William Cannon's script for Skidoo.
Immersing himself in the counterculture, Preminger went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the epicentre of the Hippy movement, and later hung out with John Phillip Law (who has a role in Skidoo) and his brother Tom at their ultra-hip mansion in Hollywood.
Tom Law recalled "When I met Otto, he told me he was making an anti-LSD film. I asked him why and tried to explain he wasn't being truthful to the subject, that I knew many people who had positive experiences and he was contributing to stereotypes. He listened and agreed. Preminger was cool."
Preminger went on to take LSD himself under the supervision of none other than Timothy Leary, who delighted in "turning on" anyone he could. Preminger's own experience, which he recounted to Groucho, served as part basis for Jackie Gleason's astonishing seven minute acid trip in the film itself, probably one of the weirdest things ever committed to film in Hollywood history.
Jackie Gleeson's Acid Trip in Skidoo
Groucho Comes Down and Skidoo Bombs
After Groucho and Krassner's pleasant afternoon came to an end, they went their separate ways. Groucho went off to make Skidoo, and Krassner returned to writing and political activism.
Krassner only had a few more encounters with Groucho after that day, one was a short time later, when Groucho revealed in a phone conversation that he had smoked marijuana on the set of Skidoo with some of the extras. Krassner may have been surprised, but this was not, in fact, the first time Groucho had partaken of the dreaded weed, the Marx Brothers had allegedly used the substance in their youth, before it was illegal, as claimed by Chico Marx in 1959 on BBC TV's Showtime.
In 1971 Groucho gave an interview with Flash magazine in which he commented, "I think the only hope this country has is Nixon's assassination." Krassner heard about this and phoned Groucho to find out if he had really said it. Groucho confirmed the interview. Krassner warned him that this sort of comment might bring him unwanted attention.
Groucho joked, "I deny everything, because I lie about everything." He paused and added, "And everything I deny is a lie."
Later it would be revealed that Groucho actually had a file opened on him by the FBI for his comments in the interview and was labelled a "national security risk"!
And Skidoo? It bombed. Badly. Critics and audiences hated it. Its release was limited, and it disappeared into obscurity for years. Until the internet age came along, it existed only in the form of bootlegs shared among aficionados of cinema turkeys and fans of the bizarre. Now, with its release on DVD and internet broadcasting, anyone can watch it any time.
It has to be said, though, Skidoo is a really terrible movie. Aside from the surreal spectacle of it all, there's nothing much here to appreciate. It's a confusing mess that doesn't know if it is a mob caper or a hippy musical.
But out of it we have the delightful image of Groucho Marx - The Groucho Marx - tripping on acid with a Yippie in 1968 Beverly Hills.
They don't call the place Hollyweird for nothing, folks.
Skidoo Theatrical Trailer
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