THE SKIN GAME (1931) – British International Pictures – Rating: ★★★
Black and White – 83 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Hornblower), C.V. France (Squire John Hillcrest), Helen Haye (Mrs. Amy Hillcrest), Jill Esmond (Jill Hillcrest), Phyllis Konstam (Chloe Hornblower), John Longden (Charles Hornblower), Frank Lawton (Rolf Hornblower), Edward Chapman (Dawker).
Directed and adapted by Alfred Hitchcock
Scenario by Alma Reville, based on the play by John Galsworthy
Photographed by Jack Cox
Edited by Rene Marrison and A.R. Gobbett
In late 1930, Alfred Hitchcock was celebrating the release of Murder! While only a modest financial success, it did receive good notices in the press. More importantly to Hitchcock, he had enjoyed considerable creative freedom making the movie, which meant he was able to imbue it with his personal style; his fingerprint is on virtually every frame. His next announced film was The Skin Game.
This film may have been Hitchcock’s choice, but more likely it was thrust upon him by British International Pictures, who considered adaptations of stage plays a safe bet. Whether Hitchcock chose it or not, he was an admirer of the author, John Galsworthy, and had even seen the original London stage production in 1920. When Galsworthy sold the rights to his play to British International Pictures he had absolute control over the final screenplay; not one word of his dialogue could be changed without his permission. This meant that Alfred Hitchcock would have to use visual means to express his creativity, to leave his imprint on the film.
The film begins with a nice montage of images and sounds; bleating sheep, a barking dog, a shouting man, a honking horn. This is only the fourth movie Hitchcock made with sound, so he was just beginning to experiment with the many ways he could mix sound with visuals.
Shortly after this opening montage we learn that this movie concerns two families. The first is the Hillcrist family, who are landed gentry, having resided on the same land for many generations. They represent gentility and tradition. The other family are the Hornblowers, newly arrived in the area. They are nouveaux riches, and represent progress. The Hillcrists have sold a parcel of land to Mr. Hornblower, with the verbal understanding that the tenants who live on the property would be allowed to stay. Now, however, an older couple who live in a cottage on the property inform the Hillcrists that they have been told to vacate. This sets up a confrontation between the Hillcrists and Mr. Hornblower.
Mr. Hownblower is played to perfection by Edmund Gwenn, who had originated the role on the London stage a decade earlier. He arrives at the Hillcrest estate. Squire Hillcrest (played by C.V. France) and his wife Amy (Helen Haye) ask Hornblower to reconsider evicting the tenants. He refuses to change his position; in addition he mentions that he is going to try to buy another parcel of land adjacent to the Hillcrist estate, and build a factory there, which will blight the view the Hillcrists have enjoyed for a long time. The majority of this sequence is filmed in one take. For about four-and-a-half minutes the camera follows Edmund Gwenn as he addresses Squire Hillcrist, then Mrs. Hillcrist. Hitchcock also makes good use of off-camera dialogue here, another technique new to the sound era.
The centerpiece of the movie is an auction sequence, at which the parcel of land is to be sold. Hillcrist and Hornblower attempt to outbid and outwit one another over several tense minutes. Hitchcock makes the most of his talent in this sequence. He begins with an establishing shot on a poster, then pulls back and tracks through a narrow street scene, including pedestrians and all manner of transportation. It is done deftly, in one take. When the auction begins, much of it is shot from the point of view of the auctioneer, as he gazes out at the potential bidders. Rather than cut back and forth from Mr. Hornblower to Mr. Hillcrist’s agent, Dawker, as they try to outbid each other, Hitchcock employs a whip pan. The camera pans back and forth in a blur, from one man to the other. This camerawork is expertly done by Jack Cox, who was the cameraman on eleven Hitchcock movies.
In the above series of images you can get a sense of how Hitchcock and Cox employed the whip pan, to great effect.
In the end Mr. Hornblower uses both his clever business tactics and his seemingly endless reserves of money to win the land. Mrs. Hillcrist however hints to Mr. Hornblower that if he does not relent he will regret it. It turns out that Mrs. Hillcrist has acquired some rather salacious information about Mr. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Hornblower’s elder son. She threatens to expose this information unless Mr. Hornblower sells his newly-acquired land and leaves at once. While the story is all John Galsworthy’s, the theme is one that Hitchcock would often employ; that of a woman having the strength and determination to solve a problem, where the man has failed. There is a resolution of sorts, although the ending can be seen as tragic.
The film has a reputation as being a minor work in Hitchcock’s British period, and that may be true, but fans and scholars of Hitchcock will enjoy watching a film in which the young director employs several visual techniques to tell the story without compromising the author’s text.
Performance: Edmund Gwenn gives a marvelous performance. Of course, having originated the role on the stage, he was very familiar with it. Hitchcock became rather fond of Gwenn; he would use him in three later films. Helen Haye is good as Mrs. Hillcrist. The other performances are adequate, but nobody else really stands out. Jill Esmond, who plays the Hillcrist’s daughter, has a friendship with the Hornblower’s youngest son Rolf, played by Frank Lawton. There is a hint of a possible romance in the text, but their performances don’t bring much to the roles. Phyllis Konstam, as Chloe Hornblower, has perhaps the most difficult part to play, and she definitely generates sympathy.
Source material: As I previously mentioned, the playwright John Galsworthy had final say over the screenplay, so the movie does not differ in any significant way from the play. A couple of scenes were moved around, but the dialogue is all retained intact from the play. The only significant difference is that in the play, it is made quite clear at the end that Chloe will survive. In the movie that is left uncertain at best.
Recurring players: Edmund Gwenn would later appear in Waltzes from Vienna, Foreign Correspondent, and The Trouble With Harry. Helen Haye and Ivor Barnard would later turn up in The 39 Steps. Phyllis Konstam had earlier appeared in Champagne, Blackmail and Murder! John Longden had appeared in Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock, and would later appear in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn. Edward Chapman had been in Juno and the Paycock and Murder! R.E. Jeffrey was also in Murder!
Where’s Hitch? Alas, there is no Hitchcock cameo in this movie. He has at least three confirmed cameo appearances in earlier films, but it was not yet a tradition in 1931.
What Hitch said: When Hitchcock mentioned the film in an article published in Film Weekly in 1936, he spoke with some fondness of the movie, saying: “The Skin Game was one of the most successful of the pictures I made during this time. It gave both Edmund Gwenn and Phyllis Konstam very good parts. I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstam’s woebegone expression when I told her that we should have to have a tenth take on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.” When Hitchcock sat down with Truffaut over thirty years later, he was much more dismissive, saying only “I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.”
Definitive edition: Beware the many public domain or bootlegged copies of this movie floating around. The only decent quality version currently available in the United States, is to be found on the three-DVD box set released by Lionsgate. The print is far from pristine; the image is not always clear, and the audio is worse. This is a movie that needs to be restored. There are no extra features included with this movie, although the box set does include a far-too-brief featurette about Hitchcock’s early British period.