WEEK 12: The Skin Game (1931)

1930-39

Hi there! And welcome back to Weekly Hitch, which is a film studies blog where I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, in chronological order, and then I write about each one and pretend I know what I’m talking about and also sometimes I question why I’m doing this at all, but it’s too late to stop now.

For the 12th week here at Weekly Hitch, I watched Hitchcock’s 1931 rural family-feud film The Skin Game, which stars future Academy Award winner, Edmund Gwenn and is also a pretty boring movie. So let’s begin! (sorry)

The Film:

Good news, folks, I think this is going to be a short one this week; partly because this week’s film The Skin Game isn’t that complex, and also because I did not enjoy it very much.

The film begins with a chance meeting between Jill Hillcrest and Charles Hornblower – Jill and Charles are somewhat friendly, but also the daughter and son of two families who do not get along very well. As the two of them talk, Jill from atop a horse and Charles from in his car, we learn that their modes of transport speak a great deal to their family-style.

The Hillcrests represent the rural country folk, they love the land and the farmers and yes, they’re rich – but they take care of the people and love nature and all that junk. The Hornblowers, on the other hand, are recent arrivals from the city! Mr. Hornblower owns a pottery factory and he’s been buying up land and cutting down trees and basically being like the villain in a Captain Planet cartoon.

Hillcrest and Hornblower

Hillcrest and Hornblower

So, Mr. Hornblower has evicted some old farmer couple off his land, which he originally bought off Hillcrest, and Hillcrest is all mad about it because he sold Hornblower the land on the condition that none of the tenants were forced out, but Hornblower doesn’t care – he’s a city guy! The two are also at odds over a piece of land which is going up for auction soon and which happens backs on to the Hillcrest’s property, and which they’re keen to save from Hornblower’s evil hands. It’s a family feud!

At the auction

At the auction

Determined to stop the wicked Hornblower, Mrs. Hillcrest and her husband head to the auction and, in what is the films only interesting sequence, a land auction unfolds with double-bluffs and proxies and lots of drama – Hitch even incorporates a few whip pans which reminded my of John Frankenheimer or some later political thriller-type films, very cutting edge stuff – and then Hornblower wins the auction in a twist, and the movie goes back to being dull.

Having won the cherished land, Hornblower vows to knock down every tree in the name of progress, buy Mrs. Hillcrest has a plan! It seems that Dawker, who works for the family, has learned a dark secret about Hornblowers young daughter-in-law who is soon to give him a grandchild – and Mrs. Hillcrest plots to blackmail Hornblower with the secret, in the hopes of getting back the land and saving the country from the evil city people.

It's blackmail!

It’s blackmail!

After losing the auction, Lady Hillcrest puts her blackmail scheme into motion and Hornblower, upon hearing the horrible secret, agrees to sell at a steep loss in order to preserve his family – but in spite of it all, the story begins to leak out, and we discover that Chloe, the daughter-in-law, used to earn her trade by sleeping with men who needed an excuse to have a divorce (since you could only get divorced in cases of infidelity). Scandal!

The daughter-in-law (played by Phyllis Konstam who was also in Murder! and Blackmail) goes to the Hillcrests and begs them to keep the secret from her husband Charles (played by John Longden who was also in Blackmail– who then shows up and, unaware that his wife is hiding behind a curtain, tells everyone that he knows something is going on. Hillcrest makes up a story about Chloe that isn’t so bad, but the husband doesn’t believe it. He still intends to divorce Chloe, even though she’s having his baby!

After hearing this, Chloe runs out and proceeds to drown herself in the pond outside… so, you know… kind of a downer.

A tragic ending.

A tragic ending.

Hornblower tells the rural Hillcrests that his family is destroyed, and old man Hillcrest tries to apologize, but it’s kind of a lost cause.

Basically, British class-society was messed up.

The Result:

You can probably guess how this is review is going to turn out, and you’d be right.

It’s just not good. Sorry, Hitch.

Auction action!

Auction action!

Let’s start with the positive, because I like to pretend that’s what I am. So, the good things include some camera innovation – especially the whip-pans, very 60’s. There’s some interesting uses of sound montage, in which Hitchcock used many simultaneous sounds (traffic, dogs, people, yelling, etc) to give an impression of Hornblower before meeting him. And finally there are the performances, specifically Edmund Gwenn as Mr Hornblower, and Helen Haye as the very snobbish Mrs Hillcrest, both of whom are really fantastic – which is no surprise seeing as they both played their respective parts in the stage play upon which the film is based.

Edmund Gwunn

Edmund Gwenn

Edmund Gwenn is of interest here as he would go on to play Santa Claus in the 1947 version of Miracle On 34th Street – for which he won an academy award. Gwenn was also a favourite actor of Hitchcock’s – acting for Hitch in 3 different decades; in 1940’s Foreign Correspondent and in a rather funny role in 1955’s The Trouble With Harry.

So that’s the good. Unfortunately for Hitch and me, and by extension you, the good is outweighed here by the bad.

People talking.

People talking.

The film is horribly talkative, with almost no sense of motion or action or activity. There’s very little suspense, not just in the danger/murder sense – but in the sense of caring what happens next. Being based on a play (and by all accounts a fantastic play) the film is probably necessarily talkie, and was in fact titled on the print as “A Talking Film“, but the endless yammering on in this film is borderline tortuous. It’s all very heavy-handed and on-the-nose, especially in the discussion of city people vests country folk – which the film is all about.

The other bad thing here is Hitchcock’s filming style – I hate to say it. To help in creating a smoother more pleasant sound-track for the talkie, Hitchcock would occasionally film scenes (most of which are just people in a room talking) with more than one camera at the same time. And if you’re thinking that sounds quite like a soap-opera or other TV show, you’re right – and that’s exactly what The Skin Game looks like.

One of the nice shots.

One of the nice shots.

A Hitchcock movie that looks like a TV show. Imagine my not-impressed face. I’m making that face.

In the end, the whole film is just a heavy-handed, slightly soap-boxy, talkie, boringly filmed, depressingly ended movie with one good sequence and two very strong performance which just can’t lift the whole project out of the swamp in which it’s mired.

There. How’s that for succinct?

The Production:

The Skin Game began life as a stage play – like many of Hitch’s early works – and, like Juno and the Paycock, this play came with a high pedigree and a lot of pressure for the young Hitchcock.

John Galsworthy

John Galsworthy

The stage version of The Skin Game was first performed in 1920, and was written by future Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy. The play was adapted in 1921 in the Netherlands before Hitchcock got ahold of it.

John Galsworthy was initially not keen on seeing his beloved play adapted to the screen, and when approached by John Maxwell from British International about the idea of setting Hitchcock to film the production the playwright was dismissive. But, Maxwell was determined to have the property and sent Hitch to convince the writer that he would treat his property with appropriate respect.

Hitchcock, for his part, was a great fan of Galsworthy’s writing. He had always been a big fan of the stage and had drawn inspiration from Galsworthy in the past. He also found a great affinity for the story of The Skin Game – being very interested in the two sides of Britain and the class struggles between the country and the city.

Class struggles...

Class struggles…

After securing Galsworthy’s participation, Hitchcock was very careful to keep the playwright happy throughout pre-production. Even though it was not obligatory, Hitch did his best to accommodate the playwright’s casting suggestions (including Gwenn, who also performed Hornblower on stage and in the Dutch version). Hitch also ensured that not a word spoken in the film was altered from the original text.

Filmed in November and December of 1930, the movie wound being far more about words and performance than directorial ability, and I get the feeling this left Hitchcock with little to do, and little to care about when it came to actually film The Skin Game. The only exception, yet again, comes in the auction scene… a concept which Hitch would revisit more famously in North By Northwest and Saboteur.

By January of 1931, the film was complete, and Hitch was moving on to his next project – and growing increasingly tired of having to supplicate his ability and ambition to the whims of playwrights and producers who would rather hear a story than watch it unfold.

The Legacy:

Oh, Skin Game, what do I do with you? Where do you fit? Are you among the rural Hitchcock films like The Farmer’s Wife and The Trouble With HarryOr are you among the morality tales like Downhill and Easy Virtue? Or maybe you’re neither. Perhaps you’re just an anomaly.

Chloe's in trouble...

Chloe’s in trouble…

The trouble with The Skin Game is that while there may have been potential in the idea, and perhaps even cinematic potential for Hitch, there’s just no escaping the fact that it’s not a great movie – poorly filmed, and roughly edited. And any place it might find in the larger body of Hitchcock’s work is marred by all the ways it doesn’t fit at all.

Don’t get me wrong, there are elements of past and future obsessions. Hitchcock loved dealing with class struggles, and this movie has that in spades. A girl drowns, as one did in The Pleasure Garden and as Anny Ondra tried to do in The Manxman. There is the drama of an auction, the scandalous secret (of course involving sex), and there’s the unhappy resolution of getting what you want at a price too high to pay.

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The unhappy ending.

But, even with all those bits of Hitch, The Skin Game – quite like Juno – just isn’t his film, it belongs to the material and to the actors, and I feel like if things had continued down roads like this Hitchcock might have worked himself right out of the business. And he nearly did, as we shall see in a few weeks.

In the end, this movie is an example of a director working years ahead of the medium, but unable to convince people to let him pulpit along. Hitchcock knew, instinctually how a good film should be made, but Maxwell and Mycroft seemed to keep saddling him with words and people who never shared his vision.

There’s light at the end of this tunnel, of course, if we can just make it to 1934. But first we have to pass through next week’s film, an original Hitchcock production based on an idea he shared with his wife Alma, it’s 1931’s Rich and Strange.

Until then.

 

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