Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Skin Game (1931)

Alfred Hitchcock's The Skin Game (1931)

Synopsis:

The plot revolves around two feuding families — the aristocratic Hillcrists and the nouveau riche Hornblowers — and the consequences of their ongoing fight over land ownership. It’s no surprise that things end tragically.

Reaction & Thoughts:

In the famous 1962 interview conducted by director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said, “I didn’t make it (The Skin Game) by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.” Hitchcock’s clear disdain for the material is palpable throughout the entire film. I have to agree with the director; it’s  indeed one of his dullest movies.

The Skin Game is an adaptation of John Galsworthy’s 1920 play of the same name (there is a silent version that seems to have been lost forever).

Hitchcock worked on the screenplay with wife Alma. According to film historian Patrick McGillan, the director held Galsworthy and his work (he won the Nobel Prize for his Forsyte Saga) in high esteem so it is a bit surprising that The Skin Game is not a better movie. Perhaps the fact that Galsworthy refused to allow any significant changes to the play account for the film’s stately pace. Aside from some nice close-ups and a few moments of clever editing, this is nothing but canned theater.

The film is essentially a morality tale. The Skin Game explores the post–World War I British class system. It’s all played as a high-pitched melodrama, with lots of speeches and the kind of unrealistic twists that you can find in a modern daytime TV soap opera. Nothing here is particularly interesting. More important, the themes of the story got nothing to do with Hitchcock’s universe.

The stage play had been a success and Hitchcock’s bosses rammed it through The Master of Suspense’s throat thinking they had a surefire hit. The director had his eyes on another project and unbeknownst to the money people, he used the time of the shooting to develop something closer to his heart. Afraid of missing a paycheck (refusal to do a movie was punished with suspension without pay), Hitchcock pretended to be fully immersed in the current assignment, while in fact he was working on something else — this is a sneaky technique Hitchcock used again and again during the early years of his career.

Actor Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) became a fantastic character actor in later years, but here it is obvious that he had not yet learned to tone it down for the camera. Gwenn plays the patriarch of the Hornblower clan, a role he created on the stage (he also played the same role in the 1921 silent version), and he’s way too mannered. He isn’t the only one, though. All actors are still playing to the back row in the theater. This is an early talkie so I was ready to give the film some slack, but Hitchcock’s previous movie, Murder!, doesn’t have this problem. Perhaps Hitchcock’s apathy is to blame for the overacting.

Jill Esmond (This Above All and Random Harvest), who is now better known as Laurence Olivier’s first wife, plays Jill Hillcrist. And, in the third of the five roles he did for Hitchcock, John Longden (Blackmail  and Juno and the Paycock) plays Gwenn’s son, Charles Hornblower.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Even though Hitchcock is the best known film director, there is a good chance that you didn’t even know The Skin Game existed. The movie has been buried beneath a long list of film accomplishments. I tried hard and long to find something in the film that could be linked to Hitchcock’s cinema and I kept coming up empty-handed. If you are a fan of the director, you want to watch it. This is, however, a movie for non-fans — having no expectations will help you enjoy it a bit more. In any case, this is Hitchcock at his laziest. P.S. The film is now available in Lions Gate’s 3-disc DVD box set (R1). B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Skin Game (1931)

Hitch’s cameo

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2 responses to “Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Skin Game (1931)

  1. Yep, I’m in the category of those who never heard of ‘The Skin Game’. I’ve been thinking about watching a Hitchcock film I’ve not seen before. This would be choice, but if Hitch is lazy, I dunno. There’s a lot out there I ought to see first. Still, nice review as always, Eric.

    Liked by 1 person

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