Week 12: ‘The Skin Game’ – 1931

‘The Skin Game’ feels a little bit of a backwards step after the exploratory and innovative ‘Murder!’ from the previous year. It’s a rather slight story and partly returns to the ill-advised theatricality of ‘Juno and the Paycock’ (God help us). As such, there are scenes that feel rather stagey and see Hitchcock struggling to inject some style and technique into the whole enterprise.

It concerns two warring neighbour families, the well-to-do land owning traditionalist Hillchrists and the upstart, nouveau-riche factory- and land-grabbing Hornblowers. Each family is led by a strong male, Mr. Hillchrist played by C.V. France, Mr. Hornblower played by the venerable (and very good) Edmund Gwenn (who would go on to appear in another three Hitchcocks and win an Academy Award for his portrayal of Kris Kringle in the 1947 version of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’). The main beef is over property – Hornblower wanting to buy a tract of land neighbouring the Hillchrists in readiness to build a new factory. Things get messy when Hornblower triumphs at a land auction and Mrs. Hillchrist (Helen Haye) decides to blackmail him, using Chloe Hornblower, (the daughter-in-law with the secret prostitute past, played by Phyliss Konstam), as a weapon to attempt to get the land back. Evil mum is a nasty, snooty piece of work and blackmails Hornblower by threatening to ruinously reveal the secret if he doesn’t sell the land back to the Hillchrists at a much reduced price.

The hints at the daughter-in-law’s dubious past start at the auction, as Hitchcock brings up a series of zooming male faces half mixed into the auction footage, somewhat incongruous with the rest of the film as it feels like he’s doing it to get some magic into the whole thing – it doesn’t seem to fit in this otherwise rather conventionally told tale.

Edmund Gwenn is great throughout – he has a bulldog’s determination not to be put off or spoken down to, and an upstart’s aggression to achieve what he wants. His first featured meeting with Hillchrist starts with him being affable, friendly and with a casualness that is in contrast to the bristling anger of Hillchrist. Hornblower plays with coins throughout the scene, money being his key into this new world. Gwenn has great body language as his new found wealth gives him confidence in the presence of old school money, plonking himself down in a plush chair in contrast to Hillchrist’s stiff backed upright wooden seat.

At the end of this scene Hillchrist snubs Hornblower by refusing to shake his hand and the skin game is on – ‘I mean business’ says Hornblower, stomping out of the old house which is rapidly being surrounded by his growing empire.

The auction scene is by for the most exciting in the film. The tract of land they’re all after is introduced by a foreman guy who literally cannot be heard – an odd device but interesting experimentation with the audio here (although it could be construed as a mistake). We are told the price should hit around £6,000 but it escalates more and rapidly to eventually hit £9,500. Hitchcock has a fieldday of whipping and panning, rapidly cutting between the bidders largely from the auctioneers p.o.v..

It’s tremendous, and tremendously exciting. Hornblower wins out to the anger of the Hillchrists who shortly after find out the shocking truth of the Hornblower daughter-in-law and start their dirty tricks campaign.

The camera movement throughout the feature is much more polished than we have seen in previous movies, fluid camera dollies and tracks occuring regularly. Speaking with passion to his daughter, Hillchrist looks out on the land where he, his father and his grandfather were born, and we see a view of the land he will not give up ‘without a fight’. The pastoral country view is then revealed to be a printed poster, in a camera move that is way ahead of the good-idea-but-clunky similar one from ‘Champagne’ (preceding the job interview sequence in that movie). Hornblower stands by the poster laughing with two of his mates.

This is beautifully done and thought out and a really effective way of contrasting the old school Hillchrist and the lively, irreverent Hornblower. This camera move then continues and turns into a lovely long track down the busy town road (I do believe you can actually see the tracks buried in the ground) – graceful and interesting with a motorbike and sidecar appearing and lots of people milling about. All really nicely orchestrated and slick.

The contrast between the country and the city is nicely handled throughout with wipes from pastoral scenes to smoking factories and an early scene with Rolf Hornblower (Frank Lawton) driving his big shiny car chatting to the horse-riding Jill Hillchrist  (played by Jill Esmond. See misc notes below). There is a suggestion of romance between them also, much to the consternation of Mrs. Hillchrist who will not tolerate such potential in-breeding.

The Hornblower’s fragile daughter, Chloe, ultimately becomes the victim of the fathers’ disagreements – the blackmail resulting in her suicide by drowning. She is pregnant and thus, in Hornblower’s words: ‘you’ve killed my grandchild’. Throughout the film she is portrayed as a weak link and it is therefore fitting that Mrs. Hillchrist, the devious cow, should go for her as a soft spot in the aggressive Hornblower’s armour. This evil matriarch (precursor of so many Hitch mums), for all her family’s proper behaviour and old school tradition, doesn’t hesitate to blackmail Hornblower to secure the tract of land be signed over to them, the swine that she is.

By the by, when Hornblower gently asks Chloe regarding her past, the two of them and brother Rolf (Frank Lawton)  are grouped around a vase that has some suspicious looking flowers pointing in all directions – very much suggesting they are hiding microphones for the three actors.

This scene also is reminiscent of the improvisatory feel of some of the scenes in ‘Murder!’, the actors’ dialogue bumping into each other occasionally, Chloe coughing to Rolf’s cigarette and him apologizing and moving it away.

Following  the suicide and near destruction of both families, the closing dialogue intoned by Hillchrist himself, sitting shocked in his grand old house, sums it up in a poignant manner: ‘What is it that gets loose when you start a fight, and makes you what you think you’re not? Begin as you may, it ends in this skin game! Skin game! When we began this fight, we’d clean hands. Are they clean now? What’s gentility worth if it can’t stand fire?’ The closing image, the felling of a large old tree, signifies the inevitable passing of a pastoral innocence and the slow, relentless march of industrial progress.

‘The Skin Game’ is a little movie, but a good theme well acted and well told. It does seem stagey at times, and a little clumsy, but the performances give it a weight beyond the script’s limitations and there are some fine moments of creative direction that are to be admired.

Miscellaneous notes

There is a bizarre occurrence at just over 3 minutes in – Rolf Hornblower, one of the sons, drives away left to right after his conversation with Jill but, as a dissolve transition begins to the following scene, the frame jump cuts from right to left and then dissolves. It must have been a lab printing mistake when they produced the dissolve – very bizarre for it to have made it into the final film.

It’s always interesting to watch the technical way that picture dissolves were done historically (a dissolve being a controlled double exposure from one image to another). The shots to be dissolved from/to have been sent to the lab and processed from the exact start of the dissolve to the end – what you therefore get is a kick in the image as it starts the dissolve and then another when it ends, and a generation or two lost (so the quality suffers slightly). Viewing later dissolves, in movies of the  late 1950’s and onwards, the technicians had worked out that if the whole shot from the previous cut to the following cut was processed you avoid this kicking effect – but you do notice in these movies a slight loss of quality as it would also have to go down one or two generations in the processing procedure. Today, this is all history with the advent of digital technology.

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