Phyllis KonstamEdmund GwennJohn LongdenFrank Lawton
The Skin Game
Medium: film
Year: 1931
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Galsworthy, Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville
Country: UK
Actor: C.V. France, Helen Haye, Jill Esmond, Edmund Gwenn, John Longden, Phyllis Konstam, Frank Lawton, Herbert Ross, Dora Gregory, Edward Chapman, R.E. Jeffrey, George Bancroft, Ronald Frankau
Format: 77 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 3 August 2011
It's one of Hitchcock's less well-regarded movies from his early years. There's a four-year period after Blackmail (1929) which he called his "lowest ebb", when he found himself making films he wasn't interested in. This time he's adapting a John Galsworthy stage play that he'd been forced to do by the studio and had already been turned into a movie once before, in 1921. He'd later tell Truffaut, "I did not choose that subject and there is nothing to say about it."
I liked it. I think it's underrated. A "skin game", by the way, means a swindle, trick or con.
The movie's big problem today is that it's dated more furiously than almost anything before or since. It's about a feud between a self-made Northern businessman (Edmund Gwenn) and English landed gentry (C.V. France and Helen Haye) who talk as if they've got a silver cutlery set in their mouths. These accents are incredible. They make the Queen sound like Chas and Dave. If you don't like posh people, this movie might conceivably kill you. "I don't like Dawkins, father. He's so common."
What's more, it's rooted in principles of class and gentlemanly behaviour that would have been starting to seem old-fashioned even in 1931, harking back to the Victorians. C.V. France loves his village's beauty and would do anything to protect it from the horrors of progress, jobs and Gwenn's pottery-making factory. Hell would be "chimneys and pots all over the place". Naturally the villagers' opinions don't enter into the matter, even when they're saying things like the following. "Wonderful improvement we're having in the town, mum. I hear we're having the electric lights soon." However to be fair to him, he's also determined to defend his villagers and regards it as practically a hanging offence that Gwenn bought some cottages from him and then kicked out the tenants, despite having promised not to. The legality of the situation doesn't even enter France's head. He merely knows that these are good people who've been there for thirty years and, dammit, Gwenn gave him his word!
Meanwhile Gwenn knows it's a black mark that he's made his money through business, rather than simply inheriting it from titled parents. "Am I lucky to have no parents?" (He had parents, of course. They just weren't aristocrats.)
I haven't read the original play, although it's out of copyright and free for download, but apparently Hitchcock made it less sympathetic to the gentry. There are no goodies or baddies in this film. Both Gwenn and France are capable of being almost shockingly noble, but only when the wind's blowing in the right direction. There's snobbery. Gwenn's animosity is in large part due to the gentry's cold-shouldering of his daughter-in-law, which is unpleasant to see. Under the wrong circumstances, Haye can be terrifying. However Gwenn, for his part, is a charming, jolly, friendly bastard. Here are quotes from the scene where France is trying to make him reinstate those tenants:
"Look here, Hillcrist, ye've not had occasion to understand men like me. I've got the guts, and I've got the money; and I don't sit still on it. I'm going ahead because I believe in meself. I've no use for sentiment and that sort of thing. Forty of your Jackmans aren't worth me little finger."
"Ye'll just have to learn that a man who's worked as I have, who's risen as I have, and who knows the world, is the proper judge of what's right and wrong."
In other words, we're not being told what to think. The film's tackling its themes fairly and intelligently, even if by now they are about a century out of date. Everyone's flawed. There's no villain, but instead two sides who both believe they're doing the right thing and think their enemies are beyond the pale. If you can bring yourself to care about people with these accents and attitudes, it's a genuinely meaty and interesting story from a playwright whom Hitchcock apparently rated as highly as John Buchan (The 39 Steps).
That's the first half of the film. Its high point is an auction in which Hitchcock briefly escapes the visual shackles that come with adapting a stage play and starts shooting around the room with zip pans. That's a terrific scene, but the rest of the film didn't strike me as stagey either. I can see that it wasn't playing to Hitchcock's strengths, but he does at least manage not to give us the impression that we're looking at a proscenium arch.
The second half of the film uncovers a secret. This is where the film finds its power. The gloves come off in the clash between the families and someone's going to get hurt, towards whom furthermore Hitchcock is encouraging us to empathise. (He didn't always do that with the victims in his films.) I was shocked by what these people were prepared to do, while one line of dialogue illustrates how far some of them are being pushed. "Is there anything I can give you not to mess up my life?" This comes from an attractive young woman, talking to a man, after they've already exhausted the usual avenues like persuasion, money, etc. She's also wearing a dress that shows her cleavage. Admittedly Hitchcock avoids underlining her meaning, but it's hard to think of anything she might be offering beyond the obvious.
Even there, though, the film remains dated. The scandalous secret is something that wouldn't exist today. It's a consequence of an old-fashioned feature of English law and today you'd simply have to find something else analogous. I quite liked this. By this point, the film's practically turned into an attack on its historical era and this is merely one more piece of evidence towards that. Galsworthy's original play appeared in 1920, incidentally, and back then one could perhaps have seen French and his family as emblematic of the aristocracy who'd created and then made such a bloody mess of World War One. That's a piece of historical context we're missing today.
Even the dialogue hasn't always survived the years intact. "We should all wallow and think of nothing but one for his knob."
The acting is excellent, far better than you might expect from the early days of sound cinema. That's a huge factor in why the film, for me, works. The stage play had been acclaimed and successful, so I suspect that at least key figures in the cast were simply reprising their stage success. Edmund Gwenn and Helen Haye had played the same roles in the 1921 silent version, incidentally. Both would be used again by Hitchcock, with Gwenn in particular having been a big stage star in 1931 and later going on to considerable movie success. Today he's still the only man to win an Oscar for playing Santa Claus, which was in Miracle on 34th Street. He's a cuddly little chap who could play villains or alternatively become the most adorable teddy bear. Here he's drawing on both of those.
A lot of people will see this as posh gits talking through their noses in drawing rooms, but I liked it. It's clearly more of a Galsworthy film than a Hitchcock one, but I don't have a problem with that. The play grabbed me. It's an intelligent exploration of its themes and I have no problem with the conditions Galsworthy imposed on the production. (No dialogue changes without his approval "and no tampering with the play's integrity.") Apparently Hitchcock was bored by the project and shot long scenes in a single take with multiple cameras, but that doesn't mean we have to downgrade our opinions of the final product for that. Besides, he's still managing to find visual flourishes even within the confines of the play's structure. Note the way for instance that after that opening of outrageous accents and even worse info-dumping, Hitchcock gives us a dialogue-free scene of working-class people arguing in a traffic jam (with a horse and a car).
"Here ye are, quite content on what your fathers made for ye. Ye've no ambitions; and ye want other people to have none."