JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1930): “What can God do against stupidity of men?”

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK – 1930 – British International Pictures –  ★★1/2

B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Edward Chapman (“Captain” Boyle), Sara Allgood (Mrs. “Juno” Boyle), John Laurie (Johnny Boyle), Kathleen O’Regan (Mary Boyle), Sidney Morgan (“Joxer” Daly), Maire O’Neill (Maisie Madigan). 

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the play by Sean O’Casey

Cinematography by Jack E. Cox

Edited by Emile de Ruelle

“Opening up” a stage play:  In the years and decades after making this film, Alfred Hitchcock would express some regret in not finding ways to make the film more cinematic.  The truth is that he imbued several scenes with his unique style, without at all sacrificing the tone or dialogue of the original stage play.

The entire three-act play was all set inside the apartment of the Boyle family.  Hitchcock convinced playwright Sean O’Casey that the film should begin outside the Boyle flat, then move into the flat after the opening scenes.  O’Casey was ultimately sold on Hitchcock’s idea, and wrote a new original scene for the film’s opening.  The movie opens with a very Hitchcockian shot.  The camera begins on an orator (played by Barry Fitzgerald) surrounded by a crowd.  The camera then pulls back and up, to reveal the alleyway where the men are gathered.

The dialogue and the visual combine to set the scene.  We are in Dublin, during “the troubles.”  The Civil War of the early 1920’s, when many in Ireland were clamoring for independence.   From here we cut to the interior of a bar.  We meet the patriarch of the Boyle family here, with his drinking companion Joxer.

Soon the two men head to Boyle’s tenement flat, where most of the movie will be set.  Here we meet the family.   Boyle does not work, and hasn’t for some time.  He is capable of working, but feigns a leg injury, spending his days drinking and pontificating.  His son (played hauntingly by John Laurie) lost an arm in the war, and is now a shell of himself, frightened of the very shadows.   Boyle’s wife Juno is the clear leader of the family, doing her best to hold them all together, although they are one step from being homeless.   The Boyle’s bicker back and forth, with an easy banter that leads one to believe they have gone on like this for years.

The Boyle’s daughter Mary comes home with a solicitor named Bentham.  Mary is clearly enamored of this man, and he brings good news from the family.  A distant relative of Mr. Boyle’s has died, leaving him an inheritance of 2,000 pounds.  When we next cut to the Boyle flat, things have changed mightily.  Although they have not yet received the bequeathed money, they have borrowed heavily against its eventual arrival, with new furniture, new clothes and extravagances like a phonograph.

The challenges of sound:   Although things are looking up for the Boyle family, we are soon reminded that the sorrows of war continue, and we receive a foreshadowing of events to come.  The son of an older lady who lives upstairs is murdered, and she goes off to the funeral.

Hitchcock wanted to do something very original and inventive with sound here.  One has to keep in mind that this is only Hitchcock’s second sound film.  He pushes in on son Johnny in a close up, while a multitude of sounds occur.  Hitchcock explained the structure of the scene to Peter Bogdanovich:

It was interesting the trouble one went to for sound at that time.  You see, you couldn’t add it later–it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.  I remember one shot in this very tiny studio–a close-up of the son huddled beside the fire–and I wanted to dolly in.  The camera was encased in what looked like a telephone booth in those days, for reasons of soundproofing.  So I had this booth on a dolly.  The offstage sounds were the family talking in the room–they’d bought a phonograph and they were playing a tune called “If You’re Irish, Come into the Parlor.”  Suddenly they stopped because the funeral was going by and then there was a rattle of machine-gun fire.  All those sounds had to be recorded at the same time, so the studio was packed.  There was a small orchestra, and i had the prop man sing the song holding his nose so that you got a tinny effect as on an old phonography record.  There were the actors with their lines.  Then, on the other side, I had a choir of about twenty people for the funeral, and another man with the machine-gun effect.  We could barely move in that little studio for all those off-scene sound effects on just one close-up.

One would never know from watching this scene the incredible planning that went into pulling it off, but is demonstrates Hitchcock’s ability to innovate, to use the new sound medium to the fullest.  Johnny becomes very distraught, and is concerned that the light in front of his Virgin Mary icon does not go out.

A Hitchcock tragedy:  This movie may have the most purely tragic ending of all of Hitchcock’s films.  The final act involves three blows that strike the Boyle family render the family ties forever.  The first is the discovery that the inheritance is not to be.  The will was not filled out properly, and all of the things the family had borrowed on credit are repossessed.  We then learn that Mary is pregnant by Bentham, who has fled the scene and left her alone.  Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that he did not add cinematic touches to this film, there are several in the final act.  Mary meets her old beau Jerry, who is willing to forgive her dalliance and take her back.  Until he learns that she is pregnant;  at that point he sheepishly beats a retreat.  Hitchcock chose to shoot this scene in an uninterrupted close-up two shot, which heightens the emotion of the very touching scene.

The finally tragedy is the greatest to befall the family, as Johnny is taken by force from the flat by a couple of old associates, who believe he left a comrade to die.  Johnny himself is soon killed, and Hitchcock shows the moment in a very cinematic (and very Catholic) way;  as the votive candle in front of Johnny’s statue is extinguished, we know he is dead.

Finally Juno tells Mary that they will depart together;  she is finished with “Captain” Boyle and will leave him for good.  Whereas the play ends with a short scene of Boyle and Joxer, Hitchcock chose quite rightly to end on Juno.

Juno, left alone at the end, leaves the audience with a final, moving soliloquy.  First she goes to the statue of Mary on the hearth, asking “Where were you when my son was riddled with bullets?”  Finally she offers a prayer that hearts of stone may become hearts of flesh, and the movie ends with this elegy on her son’s passing, and the futility of conflict in general.

Performance:  Most of the actors in this film were from the Irish Players theatre company, and many had appeared in the play on stage.  So clearly they were familiar with the material.  However, this was made at the beginning of the sound era, so speaking on camera was a novelty for all involved.  The performances are all solid throughout.  It really has the feel of a “filmed play” with the exception of a couple of sequences, and is acted accordingly.  Special mention goes to Sara Allgood as Mrs. Boyle; she is the heart and soul of the picture, and she is unforgettable in her role.

Source material:  Hitchcock’s movie is based on the 1924 play by Sean O’Casey.  The play is almost identical to the movie.  Hitchcock changed almost nothing, probably because O’Casey got to approve any changes or alterations to his original dialogue.  Hitchcock did excise a very small exchange between Boyle and Joxer which ends the original play.  After Mrs. Boyle and Mary have left the home  for good, a very drunk Boyle and Joxer enter.  Boyle has the last word, lamenting the terrible state of affairs in the world.  Hitchcock chose to end on Mrs. Boyle’s final monologue, which I find more fitting.

Recurring players:  Edward Chapman would later appear in Murder! (as Ted Markham) and The Skin Game (as Dawker).   Sara Allgood had earlier appeared in Blackmail (Mrs. White.  John Laurie would later play the part of the crofter in The 39 Steps.  John Longden (Charles Bentham) had several other small supporting roles in Blackmail, The Skin Game, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Fred Schwartz (Mr. Kelly) would later play an uncredited role of a tailor in Sabotage.  And Donald Calthrop (Needle Nugent) also played several other small roles in Blackmail, Murder! and Number Seventeen. 

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo in this film.   The Lodger is the only Hitchcock silent film with a known cameo.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock was a bit more talkative about this film in later years than many of his other early “talkies” for British International Pictures.  He mentioned it in a 1968 article on Rear Window in Take One:  “I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it’s reasonable.  Years ago I made a film of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.  It has a tragic ending, a very grim ending, but there was no other way around it.”

When Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock why he made this film, he replied

Because I liked the play very much.  I think the picture’s all right, though personally it wasn’t my meat.  But it was one of my favorite plays, so I thought I had to do it.  It was just a photograph of a stage play.  I wish I could have done something with it, but I truly believe that a theater piece is a theater piece–it’s designed and written with the proscenium arch in mind, and I think that opening it up becomes another thing.

And to Truffaut, Hitchcock said

The film got very good notices, but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema.  The critics praised the picture, and I had the feeling I was dishonest, that I had stolen something.

Definitive edition:  I am hesitant to call any home version of this movie “definitive.”  It has been in the public domain for a long time, and there are several different DVD versions available.  The DVD I own was released by FilmRise in 2014.  It is bare bones, no extra features whatsoever, with a (barely) watchable print.  There is one section of the film where the print framing is a mess;  the tops of the actors’ heads are cut off.  The soundtrack is difficult to understand at times.  My fingers are crossed that this movie will get a nice release some day.

 

MURDER! (1930): “This is not a play, this is life.”

MURDER! – 1930 – British International Pictures – ★★★

B&W – 108 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Herbert Marshall (Sir John Menier), Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Phyllis Konstam (Doucie Markham), Edward Chapman (Ted Markham), Esme Percy (Handel Fane). 

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock and Walter C. Mycroft, scenario by Alma Reville, based on the novel Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Cinematography by Jack Cox

Edited by Rene Marrison

A “real” Hitchcock picture:   Alfred Hitchcock came to this project riding a high.  His last two films, Blackmail (Britain’s first sound picture) and Juno and the Paycock had both been  hits.  But Hitch felt a little guilty about taking any credit for the success of Junohe had essentially filmed a stage play as written, and believed all the acclaim belonged to playwright Sean O’Casey.   He was eager to make another picture that dealt with subject matter he could put his own personal stamp on, as he had with Blackmail.

Murder! was an ideal story for Hitchcock to adapt, and he was brimming over with ideas.  The story is set in the world of the theater, and begins with the murder of an actress in a travelling theater troupe.  Diana Baring, another actress from the company, is found standing near the body, with the supposed murder weapon near at hand.  She claims to have no memory of what happened, and is quickly charged with the murder.   The trial is glossed over, with a greater emphasis on the jury room.  One member of the jury is Sir John Menier, a leading actor of the British stage.  He is the lone hold out in favor of acquittal for a time, but the other jury members sway him to change his vote.

With a guilty verdict cast, and an execution date set, Sir John still doubts her guilt, and sets out to solve the murder and free Diana before her date with the hangman.   He elicits the help of Ted Markham, the stage manager of Diana’s theater troupe, along with Ted’s wife Doucie.  Ultimately their investigation leads them to a circus tent, where a strangely dressed trapeze artist may hold the answer to a murder.

Innovations in sound and vision:   Hitchcock opens this movie with a nice visual shot.  We see a quiet row of houses at nighttime.  Someone is making a row outside a door.  Hitchcock tracks along a series of upper story windows, as the occupants open the windows to see what the fuss is about.  His camera finally stops on the window of the Markhams.

Later the Markhams go downstairs and head down the street, only to find the scene of the murder.  Doucie Markham accompanies the landlady into the kitchen.  Less than two years after the introduction of sound in British pictures, Hitchcock leads the vanguard in new and interesting ways to use it.  He has these two ladies begin their conversation in the kitchen, then move to the dining room, then back again to kitchen and dining room, without cutting.  It is filmed adeptly and adds a slightly lighter tone to a film that has just introduced a murder.

Later, when Hitchcock cuts to Diana Baring in prison, his German expressionist influences show.  She is often shown with the shadows of bars across her or behind her.  The female guard can always be seen passing back and forth through the window in the door.  And, as the day of the hanging draws closer, Hitchcock shows the shadow of the scaffold growing taller and taller, a nice touch worthy of the great silent films.

Hitchcock used sound to greater effect in the jury scene.  After a few moments of deliberation, the verdict is eleven for guilty and one (Sir John) for not guilty.  The other jury members surround Sir John, repeating key phrases to him over and over, which finally sways him to their side. 

Here is Hitchcock describing the writing of this scene (from an August 1930 article in Cassell’s Magazine):

Trial scene?  No!  Emphatically no!  The public is weary of the trial scene and my opinion is that you cannot get it over on the screen really successfully.  It is liable to fall terribly flat.  Besides, here Sir John was the central character and here is his entrance – Enter, Sir John.  It is, in a sense the crux of the story.

A jury scene, then, it had to be.  And while Mrs. Hitchcock was curled up in an armchair, nibbling the end of a pencil and gazing into space, I toyed with the gramophone, which, like my thinking apparatus at that moment, wouldn’t go.  Suddenly the “juice” arrived and the gramophone burst into song.  Almost simultaneously my thinking apparatus started into life.

“Got it,” I exclaimed.  “We’ll have all the jury repeating single phrases.  We’ll make em ding dong, ding dong, ding dong into Sir John’s ears till he’s bewildered.  We’ll numb him with monotony and stun him with crescendo.  That’ll make him give in and everybody can see him crumbling.

There are many subtle comic touches in the film which play on British class distinctions.  Such as when Sir John is dining with the Markhams, and Mrs. Markham begins to eat her soup with the wrong spoon.  So Sir John follows her lead, not wishing to embarrass her.  And the very charming scene where Sir John wakes up in a boarding house surrounded by children and a kitten.  

As with so many Hitchcock movies, this one features a fall from a height near the ending.  In this case a rather grisly one, as the murderer slips a noose around his neck and jumps in front of the circus crowd.

Shakespearean influence:  There is a Shakespearean undercurrent in the movie, just as there was in the book.  In the novel, every chapter began with a quotation from a Shakespeare play.   To quote Hitchcock:

There were also several references to Hamlet because we had a play within a play.  The presumptive murderer was asked to read the manuscript of a play, and since the script described the killing, this was a way of tricking him. They watched the man while he was reading out loud to see whether he would show some sign of guilt, just like the king in Hamlet.

Perhaps the most impressive scene in the film is one that may be described as the first soliloquy captured on film.  There is long scene in which Herbert Marshall as Sir John stands in front of his bathroom mirror.  The radio is playing, and we hear his interior monologue as he questions the guilt of Diana Baring.   Says Hitchcock:

We had to reveal his inner thoughts, and since I hate to introduce a useless character in a story, I used a stream-of-consciousness monologue.  At the time, this was regarded as an extraordinary novelty, although it had been done for ages in the theater, beginning with Shakespeare.

The problem was that sound dubbing did not exist in 1930.  So Hitchcock had Herbert Marshall record his monologue ahead of time, and had it played live on the set from a phonograph as Marshall stood in front of the mirror reacting to his own words.  As if that wasn’t challenge enough, Marshall also had his radio on. (Interestingly enough, playing the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which would later influence Bernard Herrmann when he scored Vertigo).  Since the music also could not be overdubbed later, Hitchcock had a thirty-piece orchestra hiding behind the bathroom wall, playing the music live, which had to sync with the phonograph recording of Marshall’s monologue and Marshall’s live acting in front of the mirror.  The fact that it all comes off seamlessly is a testament to the sequence’s success.

Just as the movie (and the novel) reference The Mousetrap, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, this movie ends with its own such moment.  First we see Sir John and Diana entering a room.   Then the camera pulls back, revealing that they are acting on stage together.  Hitchcock was borrowing from himself here, as he had done something similar in one of his early silent films, Downhill.

Performance:  It is very interesting to see a movie just one year into the sound era that is so dialogue driven.  Considering how new the format was, the performances are very good.  Herbert Marshall as Sir John really has to carry the film, and he does so, creating a character that is both sympathetic and charming.  Both Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman as the Markham’s are very good as well.  Slightly less satisfying is Norah Baring as the suspected murderess, and Handel Fane as the actual murderer.   Their performances are adequate, but pale when acting opposite Marshall.

Source material:   The novel Enter Sir John was the debut novel of Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson.  It is a fairly engaging read, and holds up well if one is a fan of mysteries.  The story is dialogue driven, with elements of humor throughout.   Hitchcock and Walter Mycroft did make several changes in the film adaptation.  In the novel Sir John watches the trial from the gallery.  It was Hitchcock’s idea to make him a member of the jury, which works quite well for the story.  The first quarter of the book focuses on the trial; Hitchcock chose instead to skip the trial and focus on the jury deliberation.  Many of the comedic touches from the book were kept for the film, such as Sir John reluctantly spending the night in the boarder’s house, and dealing with all the children and the cat in the morning.

The ending is rather different as well.  While both book and movie have Handell Fane being invited to Sir John’s to read for a part, which is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the novel Fane makes a dramatic escape from a window.  He is later caught on the street, only to escape the police station before ultimately being caught.  In the movie he is caught at a circus where he is a trapeze artist.  The idea of Fane being a cross-dressing performer was not in the book, existing only in the film.

Hitchcock’s German movie?  In the very early days of sound pictures, there were several attempts at shooting two versions of the same film on the same sets, but with different actors and in different languages. (Universal did this with Dracula in 1931, shooting a Spanish-language version with Spanish-speaking actors at night, while Bela Lugosi and company shot in the day).  This idea did not last too long, but Murder! was one such film.   Hitchcock shot another version, titled Maryin German (which I will review in another entry).  Here is Hitchcock:

I had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language – just enough to get by…as soon as we started to shoot, I realized that I had no ear for the German language.  Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all amusing in the German one…The German actor was ill at ease, and I came to realize that I simply didn’t know enough about the German idiom.

Recurring players:  Herbert Marshall would play the villain in Foreign Correspondent a decade later.  Phyllis Konstam had small uncredited roles in Champagne and Blackmailand would later have a more prominent role as Chloe, the troubled sister-in-law in The Skin GameEdward Chapman also had prominent roles in Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game.   Miles Mander had appeared in Hitchcock’s directorial debut The Pleasure Garden, as well as the German language version of this film, Mary.  Esme V. Chaplin (prosecuting counsel) also appeared in Mary.  Donald Calthrop was also in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycockand Number Seventeen.  S.J. Warmington (Bennett) would later appear in The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and Sabotage.   Hannah Jones (Mrs. Didsome) was also in Downhill, Champagne, Blackmailand Rich and Strange R.E. Jeffrey (jury foreman) was later in The Skin Game.  Kenneth Kove (jury member) would have a small role (meek man) in Stage Fright twenty years later.  Violet Farebrother (jury member) was also in Downhill and Easy Virtue.  William Fazan (jury member) also had uncredited roles in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.   Gus McNaughton (Tom Trewitt) would later appear as the pipe smoking man on the train in The 39 Steps.  And Clare Greet (jury member) was also in The Ring, The Manxman, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotageand Jamaica Inn.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 1:02:45 mark.  As the film’s stars stand talking outside a closed door, Hitchcock walks by left to right, with a female companion on his left arm.

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What Hitch said:  Hitchcock often spoke fondly of this movie.  I’ve already quoted him extensively, so we will end with his concluding remark to Truffaut:  “Anyway, to get back to Murderit was an interesting film and was quite successful in London.  But it was too sophisticated for the provinces.”

Definitive edition:  The 2019 Kino Lorber blu ray release is the best version currently available.   The picture quality is the best it has ever been, and probably ever will be.  There is some background hiss on the audio track which may require you to turn up the volume a bit more than normal, but considering this movie is 90 years old as of this writing, the sound quality not bad at all.  The blu ray contains an exceedingly dry audio commentary track by Nick Pinkerton. There is some valuable information to be had, but Mr. Pinkerton also mispronounces several proper names and words.  I have a hard time believing the utterances of someone who can’t even speak properly.   Also included is a 14-minute audio excerpt from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview sessions, a 5-minute video introduction from Noel Simsolo (in French with English subtitles),  the complete German language version of the film, and a 10-minute alternate ending.  This alternate ending is really just a couple of small scenes that were inserted into the ending to spell things out a little more clearly for an American audience.

A brief note on aspect ratio:   During the early days of sound films (approximately 1928-1932) many films were shot in a ratio of 1.19:1 (referred to as the Movietone ratio).  This involved overlaying an optical audio track over the film track.  The result was a film that was much closer to square than we are accustomed to seeing.  However, films from this era are very rarely released in this format for home viewing.   They are either “stretched” so the existing 1.19:1 ratio fills a 1.37:1 area, or the framing is opened up on the sides.  This particular version of Murder! chose the latter option, opening up the framing, which results in film equipment being visible in a couple of scenes.

THE SKIN GAME (1931): “What’s gentility worth if it can’t stand fire?”

THE SKIN GAME (1931) – British International Pictures – Rating: ★★1/2

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 ThSkin 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.skin8  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. skin9

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.