Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
It’s one Hitchcock’s most quintessentially “English” films; a movie about the battle between modern and rural society, the nouveau riche and the landed gentry, slobs vs snobs. It’s a 1930s Caddyshack without the humor. And while Caddyshack plants itself firmly in the “slobs” camp, The Skin Game walks the edge between both parties, showing their weaknesses and strengths until a final, bitter ending that denounces everyone.
The film is adapted from John Galsworthy’s play of the same name. The genteel Hillcrest family’s idyll is upset by industrialist/new-money tycoon Hornblower (an excellent Edmund Gwenn) and his family. The two families battle over a piece of land next to the Hillcrest estate, first at a public auction then later through more scandalous means until finally a young woman nearly kills herself from disgrace (Note: Even for 1930s films that had to deal with censors and other issues, it’s very unclear whether she actually dies or not. She’s carried away unconscious and it’s clear that she lost the baby she was carrying, but I watched the end multiple times and I’m still not sure if she died).
Maybe the most important thing to understand about The Skin Game is that Hitchcock had absolutely no say over the script; playwright John Galsworthy had complete control and insisted that not a word be changed. Even though Hitchcock was a fan of Galsworthy and had seen the play, this kind of constraint was antithetical to how he liked to work. It meant that he couldn’t add or delete scenes, or do anything to open up the cinematic flow of the theatrical adaptation.
Therefore The Skin Game displays little of the restless innovation of its predecessor Murder! or the globe-trotting chase of its successor, Rich and Strange. Still Hitchcock does what he can. An auction scene where Hornblower and Hillcrest spar over the price of the land is thrilling, with a series of quick pans as the camera whips back and forth between the two men and their agents while the price climbs. It’s an almost musical sequence where Hitchcock is free to let his camera serve the story. And towards the end of the film, when several characters are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Hillcrest’s son, Hitchcock cuts from their unease to the camera slowly pushing in on the front door, increasing the tension as it telegraphs the moment when the door will open and all hell breaks loose.
Another technical note: In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock claims that on this film (and other early British sound films), he shot some of the scenes with multiple cameras rolling since the soundtrack couldn’t be edited. In the early days of sound recording, the sound was recorded onto a fixed medium, so that the picture had to be cut along with the sound. Shooting with multiple cameras would give him the most flexibility to cut between different angles, in the same way that live television still shoots the same way.
As I re-read this claim, I was startled. It flies in the face of everything I know about early British sound. Cameras were notoriously expensive and had to be contained in soundprooof glass cabinets; working with multiple cameras would be enormously expensive at a time when Hitchcock was working for Ealing studios with limited budgets. Filming with multiple cameras would also make recording dialogue difficult because of the changing camera angles and necessity to hide the microphone, not to mention that it would eliminate any of Hitch’s carefully-planned camera moves. Plus I’d never read about this technique happening until much later in film history, when cameras were smaller and cheaper.
None of this means that Hitchcock didn’t shoot The Skin Game this way. It’s certainly possible that he did, at least for some of the stagier scenes inside the home. But it’s highly unlikely, and flies in the face of my knowledge about film history. And Hitchcock was notorious unreliable in these and other interviews; claiming ideas for his own or conflating stories from one movie with another.
So I did a bit of research, looked up some books to check out, and tried to see who would be the best expert on the early days of sound in England. I was going to crack this wide open, prove once and for all if this strange technical claim was true or not. Look out, world!
And then I ran up against reality. When do I have time to go to the library? When do I have time to sort through all these books and check references? When do I even have time to write this week’s entry?
Right now I’m moving into my busy time of the year. I just don’t have the time to devote to the investigative/research side of this project that I want to. So the best I can do is make a note of it, and offer this explanation as a kind of mea culpa. And that bums me out.
But I’m still writing it. I’ve kept at this project and that’s the important thing. I don’t know how your mind works, but I get stuck in the rigidity of my own rules. I was talking to friends on Saturday about how busy this year has been and how this Hitchcock52 project has been a big part of my exhaustion.
My friend Bess asked “Well, could you space it out? Do them every other week?”
My immediate response, probably before she’d even finished talking, was “No. Absolutely not.”
The whole concept of this idea was built around the synergy of it. 52 weeks in a year. 52 Hitchcock feature films available. That’s what I fell in love with: the idea, the challenge of it. That’s what I keep holding onto against all odds. And I’m the one one who cares: no one’s paying me,no one’s keeping track. I could do whatever I want.
What do you do in that situation? For me, I can’t change the idea. I’d rather stop cold turkey and give up than move to an every-other-week plan. It has to be perfect or nothing. It’s not always the most productive attitude, and it’s something I struggle with in my personal life. Compromise, especially when other people are involved, is important. But when I’m the one calling the shots, I find it a lot harder.
My initial thought when I started this idea was that it would help me get back into film criticism. Instead it’s reawakened some of my larger creative desires and made me take more stock of myself. I know there’s a part of me that can’t give up this idea because of some deep-seated anxiety, but I can’t deny that it is helping me. As much as I can’t finish it the way I want to, I’m still doing it. That counts for something, even if it’s just for me.
The early part of The Skin Game tilts firmly in favor of the landed gentry; they’re positioned as well-meaning if out-of-touch genteel aristocrats. Hornblower, meanwhile, is represented by the menace of modern society encroaching on the English countryside. His trucks cause noise in the village and spew smoke. He’s heard offscreen before he’s seen, ejecting a couple from a cottage despite his promise to let them stay. During this scene the camera fixes on his limousine and chauffeur pacing back and forth uncomfortably. As the film builds to a confrontation over a piece of property, Mrs. Hillcrist memorably comments that “He wants it for spite; we want it for sentiment.”
The Hillcrests reveal their hypocrisy when their agent comes across a scandalous piece of news, that Hornblower’s new daughter-in-law was previously “a woman who went with men to get them their divorce.” The film stops short of calling her a prostitute, but it’s clear that it was work she’s now ashamed of. So in poetic fashion, both sides are done in by the thing they claim to despise; the Hillcrests must stoop to incivility to try to shame Hornblower out of the business deal, and Hornblower admits that he cares what everyone thinks when he backs out of the deal to protect his daughter-in-law.
Edmund Gwenn excels at playing the brash, new-money Hornblower in a role worlds away from the twinkly-eyed grandfather he’d play for Hollywood in films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Hitchcock’s own The Trouble With Harry. The Skin Game was Hitchcock’s first film with Gwenn but it wouldn’t be the last; Gwenn would also appear in Waltzes from Vienna (1934), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and the tv show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Gwenn was an easy choice for The Skin Game as he had played the role on stage and in a 1921 silent film adaptation. It’s a difficult balance, as he tilts from despicable to pitiable, sometimes in the course of a single scene (Like when he chastises Mrs. Hillcrest for not paying a social call to his daughter-in-law). Yet he’s at his best when he’s filled with conniving fire, wryly commenting, “I’ll answer to God for my actions, not to you, young lady” when the Hillcrest daughter tries to shame him for his behavior.
As a Hitchcock film, The Skin Game isn’t particularly memorable. Hitch had his hands tied and did the best that he could with certain sequences and flourishes. In later years he would claim it was assigned to him, but he seemed to have a true fondness for Galsworthy and the play itself. In that sense, it’s notable because it’s the work of an anonymous but capable craftsman. Hitchcock stays true to the themes of the play and even highlights them in a stark final moment.
After Hornblower’s daughter-in-law tries to kill herself, the Hillcrest family is left alone, devastated, in their manor. Mr. Hillcrest gravely asks “What’s gentility worth if it can’t stand fire?” as Hitchcock cuts to a shot of a tree being cut down, crashing to the earth. The Skin Game ends with a sadness for the loss of English country life yet it indicts everyone; the gentry for their small-minded refusal to change and the nouveau riche for their disregard of civility. It’s a rare, heartfelt moment of politics from the Master of Suspense.
Watch It: The Skin Game is available to watch streaming for free on Youtube, and is also streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s available on DVD too.