* contains spoilers
A Girl in Every Port (1952) would be one of Groucho’s last feature films he starred in. Also starring William Bendix (1906-64 lobar pneumonia) and Marie Wilson (1916-72 cancer). It seems like another RKO torture movie. And it is odd Groucho is in a film with Bendix – but this is RKO – as Bendix had radio success in the mid-40s with The Life of Riley. The original script for that show was for Groucho but sponsors passed on it because Groucho was to play a fairly straight father of a household.
Groucho would have to wait for You Bet Your Life to come around, while Bendix would make a film version of The Life of Riley for Universal. But scheduling made Bendix miss out on starring in the new tv series of The Life of Riley which went to Jackie Gleason and was cancelled after one season with viewers unable to accept him in the Bendix role. So Bendix was apparently between gigs when he did A Girl in Every Port, as afterwards he would achieve success with a revamped The Life of Riley tv show which would go for five seasons from 1953 until around 1958. The radio show had been cancelled in 1951.
As for Wilson, after the success of the film version of My Friend Irma in 1949 and after a long career then a divorce in 1950, her film career more or less ended the year after A Girl in Every Port with Frank Tashlin’s Marry Me Again (1953) a minor RKO released film which followed his success with Bob Hope in Son of Paleface (1952). Wilson was peaking though at the time with the My Friend Irma radio and tv shows.
In fact A Girl in Every Port would be a radio listener’s dream movie with its three radio stars, if not necessarily a movie fan’s dream! Meanwhile, its title A Girl in Every Port could be seen as a sailor or a drunk’s drink or a substitute for sex. Port being the drink and drinkers more likely to stay at home and listen to the radio rather than go to the movies. Maybe the film was meant for sailors and their girls. I can’t work out the demographic beyond radio and tv. Maybe there was none and it was pure torture.
Groucho and Bendix play sailors and Bendix buys himself a dud racehorse.
“He’s gonna make a million dollars,” says Bendix.
“What? Is he a counterfeiter as well as a horse?!,” replies Groucho.
Bendix has spent his money left over from his Aunt Gussy’s estate and sadly the racehorse is a swindle.
“Looks like we got stuck with a pot of glue,” says Groucho, apparently unengaged with the material and with an uninspiring director in Chester Erskine (1905-86). Erskine directed Androcles and the Lion the same year. Harpo Marx was supposed to have starred and indeed four weeks of footage were shot with Harpo much to the delight of the film’s producer. How he would have played it remains a mystery. But Howard Hughes liked Alan Young (1919-2016 natural causes) who had won two Emmy’s the previous year for his tv sketch show – so Harpo was dumped.
No footage survives of Harpo’s role and, in fact, it was noted movie historian Robert Osborne who said it happened and that Harpo wasn’t just considered for the role. Director Erskine was not really a comedy director, although he had directed the hit movie The Egg and I (1947) that had introduced Ma and Pa Kettle. He followed this up with a Writer’s Guild of America nomination for Best Written American Drama for his script of the 1949 movie All My Sons.
And just to show Erskine wasn’t necessarily original when it came to drama as well, the script for All My Sons was based on an Arthur Miller play! With Harpo sacked and Groucho working for the studio head that sacked him, you can understand why he isn’t giving his all for this film. You could almost even say that Hughes had it in for the Marx Brothers! Hughes was a well-known anti-Semite along with hating germs.
Again the script is anaemic, kind of like Sinatra was described in Double Dynamite, and Groucho doesn’t get to play Groucho very much in the beginning. The lines are too weak.
The tale goes on about the horse due for the knackers yard having a race-winning twin that the sailors hope to switch for the big race.
“Yes, isn’t there a simpler way to make a dishonest dollar,” is one of the better lines delivered by Groucho. It just seems a little familiar.
Meanwhile Groucho clears his throat at the line at the drive-in diner: “I’ll take the full course dinner for 85 cents. On second thoughts cancel the dinner and give me the 85 cents.” Sound familiar? It’s early Marxian shtick and Groucho knew it.
Marie Wilson is a buxom “dumb blonde” and there’s a small sense of freshness to some of the moments… “Just wrap yourself in a piece of lettuce between two slices of bread,” says Groucho to a waitress.
He has far more screen time in this movie than Double Dynamite and with “dumb” Bendix and “airhead” Wilson as co-stars, his one-liners seem better than they really are.
If you liked radio and television in the day and have a thing for horseracing and even horse race fixing this is for you. All that’s left of Groucho here is his slightly criminal persona in search of a script. Go back three spaces to Copacabana!
While Groucho thrived on television and radio, there was the cameo appearance in The Story of Mankind as well as a far better one in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957).
“I love you,” says Groucho in typical fashion to Jayne Mansfield. “It’s wonderful to be in love… and it’s even more wonderful to be on a teevee show with no commercials.”
For once Groucho is free to say what he likes and not in the confines of a script which is no good. By the time of Rock Hunter, RKO was just about dead and buried, killed by Hughes who sold it and probably still made a profit. Groucho had his revenge by outseeing the studio with his television show.
The last we would see of Groucho in fictional movies would be in director Otto Preminger’s (1905-86 lung cancer) spectacularly panned Skidoo (1968). Groucho plays a gangster named God.
The film starts off with a cartoon of Otto Preminger complete with coloured pin wheel which turns into an umbrella. Then there’s a teevee with various clips including the director’s own In Harm’s Way (1965)…
This is a drug movie, including heavy use of LSD, albeit a sanitised Hollywood product about the use of drugs, particularly in prison!
“I don’t like films on teevee, they always cut them to pieces,” says Carol Channing’s (1921-2019 natural causes) voice. And that goes for commercials too cutting them to pieces! I saw Skidoo as a child and it was the full movie in the days when any swear word, any nudity or too much violence was not shown. We would get the ‘adults only modified tv version’ at best of any movie that went over the top according to the tv censors. Now it’s a smorgasbord these days of sex, swearing and killing. Apart from the word “faggot” being used in the film, and I knew that word when I was twelve thanks to seeing American films in the cinema, I don’t think anything was cut from Skidoo. For all intents and purposes, apart from that word, it is a “family” movie!
“He hasn’t aged a day,” says Channing in what would appear to be Donald Crisp’s (1882-1974 complications of strokes) last film appearance. He flashes onscreen for a moment. It wasn’t Spencer’s Mountain (1963). Correct me if I’m wrong.
Skidoo is a genuine 1960s relic, one of those attempts by an aged director to try and be hip and it is a movie which will either repulse of entice you.
Jackie Gleason stars as a former gangster (1916-87 colon cancer) living anonymously in the community.
“She doesn’t even wear lipstick,” says Gleason about his counter-culture daughter, who brings home a hippie boyfriend named Stash played by John Phillip Law (1937-2008 pancreatic cancer). Stash says the current older generation only digs “what’s happening in the news rather than what’s happening in themselves.” Then Gleason is pulled out of retirement.
“When God says you go, you go,” says Cesar Romero (1907-1994 blood clot while treated for pneumonia), when Gleason is called upon to do one last job.
We haven’t met head gangster God yet, but it is Groucho, which would be the final irony since as your employer he decides if you to go to heaven or hell… dead or alive.
Apparently, director Preminger took LSD as research for the film and it is even reported that Marx also took the drug. He had a good trip. The director also took tips for dialogue from his hippie son. As for Preminger taking us for a trip…
“Nowadays you can’t tell the boys from the girls,” says one hippie, who asks a girl he’s kissing if she really is a girl. I guess nothing has changed, except it’s become a little more complicated.
Ronald Reagan was the conservative governor of California when this typically West Coast movie was made. He, of course, fought a war on drugs as President.
“Ugliness is Un-American,” says one bald-headed fat official to the hippies when they invade a council meeting. It could be Preminger by proxy.
Gleason has to go to jail to kill ‘Blue Chips’ Packard played by Mickey Rooney (1920-2014 complications of diabetes) before he can testify at the US Senate’s Crime Commission – where I swear I saw Donald Crisp! Channing and cast had a good time laughing at it on tv at the beginning of the picture. Gleason is locked up with draft dodger Austin Pendleton (1940-) who has renounced technology. At least part-time! Gleason soon learns he may never kill Rooney and may have to spend the rest of his life in prison/hell.
“What does God want with him after all these years?,” Channing asks young mobster Frankie Avalon (1940-) and before stripping, demands to know where her husband is. “I want to see God. Take me to God!”
The so-called innocent counterculture of drugs and getting stoned and that God is Love and there is no actual God is reflected against the guilty crime culture of Groucho Marx’s God – head of the godless murderers.
Obviously they weren’t on crack cocaine, or ice, or heroin for this movie. As bad as it gets is LSD and there are no real psychotic episodes. It is a family movie!
We learn through “The Tree” which is the most important organisation in the world “more efficient than the Pentagon” – that God is at the top. In this violent era, it’s a protection racket.
Some of the cast is made from those who appeared in the 1960s Adam West (1928-2017 leukemia) Batman series including director Preminger himself – he was a Mr Freeze – Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin (1933-2005 lung cancer and emphysema). In fact, it is about on this level that the movie seems to operate, if a little less cartoony. Batman was more hip than Skidoo.
As I mentioned, there’s also the generation gap at work between Gleason and his daughter played by Alexandra Hay (1947-93 heart disease).
When we finally do meet God or Groucho, it is with his mistress played by Donyale Luna (1945-79 heroin overdose) who was the first black supermodel. God is staying on his yacht, which was actually John Wayne’s yacht which previous to that was a WWII minesweeper. Wayne was in Preminger’s In Harm’s Way. God owes Luna another $10,000 when he loses at pool once more.
“There’s a strong wind coming from the north east,” says the yacht’s captain, played by famed gangster actor George Raft (1895-1980 emphysema). He played in the original Scarface (1932) which was produced by Howard Hughes.
“I don’t care where it’s from – stop it,” says Groucho at 77, with his hair dyed and wearing a toupee, still with that signature cigar and wearing his greasepaint moustache one more time.
Upon meeting Stash, Groucho asks: “What does a hippie want from God?”
“A safe place for butterflies,” he replies among a long list.
Meanwhile Gleason trips on LSD in prison as Pendleton has the pages of a book dosed with it. There is the name ‘Jim’ scrawled on the prison wall. Jim Morrison? And in one hallucination, Gleason sees God’s/Groucho’s head on the top of a screw before it disappears down the sink in the cell.
“Find your self in the water,” says Pendleton to Gleason as he gazes into the sink and finally he ‘sheds his ego’ as he comes down from his trip. Oh, it’s as simple as that! Homogenised drug movie and sex movie, Skidoo is not offensive and comes across as a mainstream attempt to get drugs accepted, at least in California. Preminger had already tackled such taboo subjects as drug addiction more seriously with The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), rape with Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and homosexuality with Advise & Consent (1962). It’s just by making the drug dealers comics and the criminals sympathetic, not to mention the pre-Manson hippies so benign… as Eros the pompous alien in Plan 9 from Outer Space said: “How could you be so stupid?!” But Skidoo is a comedy after all!! But I don’t see it leading to decriminalisation under Reagan. Those on grass had to wait a while longer.
“Do you know how much Dramamine I have to take?,” says Groucho about being trapped on his yacht for a decade. Poor Groucho sounds like he’s taken a dose of something as age makes him slur his words. He asks Stash to sell drugs to America’s youth for a great sum but Stash says: “Business bores me.”
There’s the split between God’s yacht and Gleason in prison. Heaven and hell I guess. And with drugs, you can still reach heaven even if there is no God. Which is shown when the entire prison gets high on LSD after the pages of the book are mixed with the jailhouse food. Warden Meredith literally hands over the keys with the idea that the prisoners will have finger painting and modern dance… and they can be taught to make costume jewellery… and even design their own uniforms!! The possibilities are endless on LSD according to Skidoo.
Thus, Gleason is given the chance to escape from the hoosegow in a balloon as everyone starts to act in slow motion.
“You look like a flower,” says a prison guard, played by the singer Harry Nilsson (1941-1994 heart failure) while Fred Clark (1914-68 liver disease) says he feels like a flower as he hallucinates the Green Bay Packers playing naked.
This cues a Nilsson song about garbage cans. Yes, kids who watch the Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987) would find that more offensive but not as much fun. I don’t think I was really aware of the possible negative effects of LSD as a lifestyle choice when I first saw Skidoo. I’ve tried it once.
The climax of the film has God’s haven/heaven overrun by hippies and Gleason in his balloon while Carol Channing dressed rather oddly in a long wig and a mariner’s cap sings the flower power anthem Skidoo.
“Skidoo… and the world can be a better place for you!…” and “Skidoo… between a one and three there is a two!” Skidoo also means two people getting together too!
“Where’s God?,” asks Gleason, amongst the mayhem on the yacht but Channing takes him to the bedroom. All good clean fun. God is otherwise smoking dope on a sailboat with a shawl around his head as Pendleton takes him on a trip as the film freeze frames before the credits are spoken across the titles. Something used by Robert Altman for M*A*S*H (1970) a couple of years later which was a far more successful movie.
Skidoo is not to everyone’s taste. Even if the sails on God’s escape boat read: Love and Peace.
Poor Groucho, after the grand and rapturous success of the Marx Brothers from 1929 until the farewell of The Big Store in 1941, his career options dwindled.
He reinvented himself by growing a real moustache and took to ad-libbing live on air. There were no good movie scripts on offer at RKO and an aging comedian always finds it harder to deliver material anyway. Groucho was sixty when the Marx Brothers ended.
Perhaps a final milestone for Groucho Marx came when Howard Hughes died in April 1976. Groucho outlived him for a year and, in fact, shortly after the first anniversary of Hughes passing away, Groucho entered hospital with pneumonia and died a few months later. He also got an Oscar, something Howard Hughes never won directly. Victory and revenge for Groucho/God was complete.
We should always remember Groucho during his early Marxian era of the 1930s, he’d like that, even though as a member of his own club he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would accept him as a member! And between a one and three there is a two!!