Skidoo: Donyale Luna’s Only Hollywood Film

26 Oct

Donyale looking her most beautiful in this still from Skidoo

Great news! We’re taking time out from the chronicle of Donyale Luna’s childhood for an exciting event! Luna’s only Hollywood movie, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo—which Paramount Studios yanked and stuffed in its vaults after it flopped in 1968—will soon be available through Olive Films (olivefilms.com, click on Coming Soon on the far left). (It’s not there yet, but they promised soon.)

Skidoo—as befits Donyale—is… different. Maybe even weird. It’s one of the strangest films ever made by a major Hollywood studio and director: as one reviewer put it, “There’s no movie remotely like it.” And its making is filled with fascinating side stories.

Donyale is a bride

The bride looks pure and innocent, right down to the camera sundog on her heart. A moment later she kisses Cesar Romero (who isn't her groom)

Just about everyone who was anyone in Hollywood appeared in Skidoo: Jackie Gleason is retired gangster Tony Banks (likely a model for Tony
Soprano). Carol Channing (who hid her own racial mixture until 2002 and was never criticized for it) is his wife, Flo. Groucho Marx is his boss, “God.” Donyale Luna is God’s sex-crazed mistress. (Now there’s a screen credit! Groucho was 77 at the time; Donyale was 21 or 22, and of a different racial hue. But, as Preminger said, “Call a character God and everything becomes a little unreal.”) John Phillip Law, Arnold Stang, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, Alexandra Hay, George Raft, Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford, Slim Pickens, Frank Gorshin, Austin Pendleton…such awesome star power as was seldom gathered into one movie before or since. Rudi Gernreich designed Donyale’s shift, and Harry Nilsson wrote the music and sang the closing credits.

The film is also distinguished by who’s not in it. Faye Dunaway, atop the heap after Bonnie & Clyde, was originally cast in Donyale’s role but she refused, even though she was under contact and a resultant lawsuit by Preminger cost her dearly. Groucho was a last-minute replacement: Donyale might have wound up the mistress to Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger, Zero Mostel, Anthony Quinn, Alfred Hitchcock or Senator Everett Dirksen!

Skidoo was Groucho’s last film; for three of the stars— Pendleton, Hay and Luna—it was their first. Hay was recruited from the Warner Playhouse, where she was starring in Michael McClure’s The Beard, appearing nude and getting arrested nightly. Like Donyale, she died young—of heart failure at 46.

The story of how Donyale got the role is worth telling. Preminger “discovered” her at a party for Twiggy, where she invited him to a screening of Andy Warhol’s Snow White—written and starring Luna. At the screening, in Preminger’s office the next day, Warhol was silent until the director offered him a drink. Warhol asked if he had any amphetamines. Preminger proffered a box of diet pills. “He emptied the pill box,” recalled Preminger, “ate them all and still didn’t say anything.” Inside Warhol’s placid exterior, things must have been lighting up and shooting around like pinballs cascading in a machine. It’s a tribute to his nervous system that he could gulp gobs of speed down his craw and still sit there, outwardly as meditative as a monk.

The next day Donyale invited Preminger to lunch to ask if he wanted to finance Snow White. “I said I didn’t finance films,” recalled Preminger; “I directed them.”

“Oh, you direct too,” she said. Soon after, Dunaway bought out and Preminger, enthralled by Luna, signed her.

Donyale was ecstatic about her role: “…For the first time I can be someone I’ve always wanted to play, a sexy, seductive type of gangster girl. Now it’s even better. God’s girl.”

Donyale and Groucho

God and his mistress enjoy a game of bumper pool. How long is Luna's neck?!!

Her opening scene, standing beside Groucho at a pool table, accentuates her height. Thereafter she appears mostly beside 6’3” Cesar Romero or 6’5” John Phillip Law and appears less tall than she was.

How was her acting? Both she and Groucho gave the director fits with their opening pool table scene. “Luna’s inability to stand still while standing behind Marx’s chair drove Preminger to a fury,” reported a film student covering the set for his Ph.D. But the big problem was Groucho’s “inability, even with a teleprompter, to get through his lines.” This cost Donyale some screen exposure, as Preminger kept deleting lines, reducing the scene “down to the barest essentials.” It still required 14 takes.

She delivered her remaining lines  better than on the Detroit stage, although her laugh sounds forced at times. She adopted one of her patented made-up accents for the role—just a slight bend in the way she normally talked.

Donyale and John Phillip Law

"What's wrong with my body? Don't you like my body?" Twice she spoke these lines, which must have been liberating for her

But—as befits a model—Donyale did her real acting with her body. Clad in a lime-colored Gernreich shift, she undulates around God’s yacht like a snake. The reviews focused on her exposed derrierre cleavage, but the real attention-getter is her sweeping, sinewy bronzed back. Her fingers, long and spindly as daddy longlegs, are usually in motion and seem to occupy half the screen. Although they diminish her most spectacular feature, her blue contact lenses are startling.

Here’s a synopsis of Skidoo: From his yacht (it actually belonged to John Wayne), God (Groucho), orders retired mobster Tony (Gleason), living a suburban life with wife Carol Channing, to sneak into prison to off a squealer (Rooney). While Tony’s locked up, Flo and their daughter (Hay) open their house to a tribe of hippies led by Stash (Law). Behind bars, Tony accidentally ingests some LSD smuggled in by his cellmate (“the Professor,” Pendleton) and realizes he can’t kill anyone. He and the Professor dump the rest of the contraband into the prison lunch and pretty soon everyone in the joint is ripped. While the guards trip, Tony and the Professor escape in a jerry-rigged hot air balloon. They arrive on God’s yacht at the same time as Flo and the hippies. A new Tony approves his daughter’s marriage to Stash, while God and the Professor sail off into the sunset in a cannabis haze.

Donyale's fingers

"Her fingers, long and spindly as daddy longlegs, are usually in motion and seem to occupy half the screen"

After Skidoo landed with a huge belly-flop—some theaters yanked it within a week of opening—Paramount quietly stuffed it into the studio vaults, where it has remained until this autumn. Internet reviewers who call Skidoo the worst movie ever made suggest that Preminger’s children prevailed on Paramount to lock it up to save their father’s reputation. According to several IMDb reviewers, Preminger’s kids do claim Skidoo is “not their father’s best work.” But they may be less concerned about Skidoo’s quality than its politics. While it pokes fun equally at hippie culture and the Establishment (represented by the mobsters), it lands squarely in the corner of LSD: once Tony imbibes it, his violent instincts turn to mush.

In 1968, everyone in Hollywood was looking to capture the hippie mystique, but, except for Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), they were clueless. Preminger gave it the old college try: he dropped acid under Timothy Leary’s tutelage and even got Leary to star in the trailer. The Professor’s words of guidance as Tony comes on to the experience sound like Leary himself could have spoken them.

But the acid imagery is ludicrous (what did Preminger see on his journey? Certainly not screws with Groucho’s head on top!) and the actors, few of whom had any psychedelic experience, mostly played drunk. One could also argue that Preminger’s view of acid appears naïve in light of later revelations about CIA hanky-panky under the influence. But he may have been making fun of the hippie peace-and-love message.

Besides Preminger, Groucho also famously underwent a maiden voyage—at the age of 77!—with counterculture clown and Yippee! co-founder Paul Krassner, “to prepare for his role.” (Read Krassner’s account here.)

At least one other cast member was familiar with LSD. On May 19, 1968—during the shooting of Skidoo and 11 years to the day before her death—Donyale Luna extolled its virtues in the New York Times.

Donyale and Frankie Avalon

Oops! We wouldn't want to leave Frankie Avalon out of the harem

Donyale in Rudy Gernreich shift

The garb. The back. The behind. Luna by Gernreich

In September 1967, according to Andy Warhol in POPism, she castigated her roommates in New York for taking acid. Some time in between, she dropped for the first time. Was it also to prepare for her role? It’s doubtful she scored it from Preminger, who got his from Leary and tried it just once. Did she get turned on by the Beatles, with whom she was hanging out at the time? Or by someone in Rome, from where she flew to California for the film? If anyone reading has a clue as to who turned Donyale on—it’s another major unanswered question about her life.

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times liked Skidoo, but he was a lone voice in the wilderness: it was skewered by the critics, who understood acid and hippies even less than Preminger. With some exceptions, blogger critics have been harsh as well. Many of their points are well-taken: Skidoo is far from a comic masterpiece and it doesn’t always succeed even on its own terms. Had I seen it in 1968, I would have detested it for its shallowness and misunderstanding of hippie culture.

But having viewed it several times in 2009 and 2010, I like it for its goofiness and for the gentleness behind its jabs at both hippies and the Establishment. I come away feeling good. Preminger was known as a German autocrat whose sense of humor was lugubrious when it existed at all. But in Skidoo, with all its missed opportunities, embarrassing dialog and flat Hey-Look-at-Me sight gags, I think, for just one film, he tapped into a higher comic vein, one that blends compassion with slapstick and satire: he flashed us an Olympian smile at humanity’s foibles.

I think of Skidoo as a very ambitious film that failed nobly: besides American culture and the Sixties subculture, Preminger took on all of technology and seemed to be jousting at organized religion. He overreached and simply fell short, partly because he was too much in the Hollywood box to capture the social revolution in the streets and partly because his sense of humor was puerile and heavy-handed.

The seductress strikes again

Can Stash (John Phillip Law) resist these seductive charms?

Three things about the movie that I really love: 1. The production number at the end with Carol Channing singing “Skidoo” as the hippies invade God’s yacht 2. The entire prison population on LSD. Shockingly inaccurate, but what a concept! The screenplay wisely intersperses story development so it doesn’t grow tiring. 3. Our girl Donyale Luna, gliding gracefully around God’s yacht in her lime-green Gernreich shift, seducing every man she sees.

References
Chris Fujiwara, The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008, pp360-366
Pierre Greenfield, “Out of the Past: Skidoo,” parallax-view.org
Skidoo reviews, imdb.com
Paul Krassner, “I Took LSD with Groucho Marx”
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed of Being Snow White, New York Times, 5/19/68.
Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, POPism: the Warhol ‘60s, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980, p237
wikipedia.com, Carol Channing

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