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Week 12: The Skin Game (1931)

skingametitle.jpg“He wants it for spite. We want it for sentiment.”
“Lies between the Duke’s and Squire Hillcrest’s. An emerald isle. No allusion to Ireland, gentlemen! Perfect peace in the century!”
“Dodo, may I spit in his eye or something?”
“Well, what’s the meaning of it, eh? Is it sheer impudence or lunacy or what?”
“His car. It always seems to make more noise than any other.”
“And me six thousand out of pocket? No. No, I’ll keep it, and hold it over you!”
“What’s gentility worth, if it can’t stand fire?”

The Skin Game

gwenn.jpgAfter Murder! Hitchcock took on John Galsworthy’s popular stage play The Skin Game. His 3rd stage adaptation in a row, The Skin Game is a story of old money and new money coming into conflict in rural England. Hitchcock and Alma took on the adaptation again, and brought on several of the players from the previous films, including Phyllis Konstam, John Longden and Edward Chapman. The movie features Edmund Gwenn, a major star already who would go on to win an Oscar in the late ’40s for his performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.

chloe.jpgThe story of The Skin Game did not lend itself easily to Hitchcock’s specialty, but he at least seemed more determined to avoid the complete absence of cinematic life from Juno and the Paycock. It helps that most of the performers are top-notch, particularly Gwenn as Mr. Hornblower and Phyllis Konstam as the hapless Chloe, and that the story makes for reasonably-compelling social drama.

hillcrests1.jpgThe Skin Game concerns two families: the Hillcrests and the Hornblowers. The Hillcrests are minor nobility who have occupied their beautiful corner of the English countryside for centuries. The Hornblowers have recently made a fortune in industry and are setting up shop on Hillcrest turf, spoiling the scenery with factories and turning old tenants out of their cottages to make room for young workers. Determined to put a stop to Hornblower’s schemes for the neighborhood, Mrs. Hillcrest enlists the help of an unsavory underling named Dawker and they dig up some damning dirt from the past. The ensuing blackmail defeats the Hornblowers entirely, but at what cost to the Hillcrests?

jillrolf.jpgThe film begins, as most of Hitchcock’s previous films with rural settings do, by establishing the scene with various shots of the countryside. Jill Hillcrest, atop the traditional vehicle of the idle rich (a horse), meets Rolf Hornblower, driving a shiny new automobile, in a country lane and they discuss the tension between their respective families. Moving on, the elder Mr. Hornblower arrives at the Jackman cottage to inform them that they’ll have to move out immediately, despite having promised Squire Hillcrest when he initially bought the land that he’d leave all of the original tenants in peace.

centry1.jpgThe two rush immediately over to the Hillcrest home to complain to the squire, and inform him of Hornblower’s more sinister plan: to buy “the Centry,” a gorgeous tract of land bordering the Hillcrest property, and tear it up with industrial development. As the Jackmans continue talking, Hillcrest wanders to his window, tuning them out as he imagines his lush backyard view transformed into acentry2.jpg skyline of ugly chimneys belching foul-smelling smoke. Although his primary concern is for the tenants, his wife and his agent, Dawker, are far more pragmatic and selfish. As soon as she gets the news, Mrs. Hillcrest dispatches Dawker to convince the owner of the Centry not to sell to Hornblower, who happens to arrive in person just as Dawker leaves the house.

row.jpgHornblower and the older Hillcrests manage to annoy each other thoroughly in the ensuing conversation. The Hillcrests are disdainful and condescending, and Hornblower expresses his impatience with their stodginess and his anger at the repeated snubbing of his daughter-in-law, Chloe, by Mrs. Hillcrest. Jill comes home in the midst of this and is generally frustrated with the squabbling elders.

As Hornblower leaves, Dawker meets him returning the other way and goes on to report to the Hillcrests that he has persuaded the owner to put the land up for auction rather than sell it to Hornblower outright. Dawker and Mrs. Hillcrest retire to scheme in private, leaving Jill to further expound on her dislike of “rows” once she is alone with her father.

salts.jpgThe scene jumps to the day of the auction (with a seamless cut from father and daughter looking out over the Centry to a picture of it in extreme close-up on an auction poster). Everyone is arriving at once, and Chloe Hornblower pauses to greet the Hillcrests as they pass by. Mrs. Hillcrest, however, turns up her nose and pushes quickly past as though the other woman weren’t there, outraging Chloe’s husband and father-in-law.

The younger woman follows Mrs. Hillcrest inside and tries to engage her in conversation. Mrs. Hillcrest is civil, but makes it plain that she doesn’t want to talk. As the auction prepares to get underway, Chloe spots a man standing with Dawker on the other side of the room and goes noticeably pale. Jill rushes to her side with some smelling salts, and she seems to recover, at least somewhat.

auctionroom.jpgMeanwhile, Dawker has joined Hornblower in the front row of the room, while the Hillcrests sit together on the sidelines to watch. Dawker will bid against Hillcrest up to 6,000 pounds. If Hillcrest wishes him to exceed that sum, he is to blow his nose loudly. When he is ready for Dawker to stop, he will blow his nose again. The auctioneer spends a few minutes talking up the property, and has his assistant read the legal fine print out loud.

As the assistant reads, the microphone seems to have been deliberately placed too far away for us to hear what he is saying, and all we hear is muttering. Someone in the audience yells for him to speak up, but he finishes up without having spoken a single audible word. It comes off as a mildly amusing way to handle a boring patch of dialogue, but the way it is carried off smacks tangibly of a blooper rather than an intentional gag. The result is confusing and off-putting as much as it is funny.

In any case, the auction sequence is by far the most exciting, lively scene in the film; genuinely suspenseful with a few surprising twists. Hitchcock keeps the camera in constant motion, mostly panning rapidly between the competing bids of Dawker and Hornblower, with occasional cuts to Hillcrests or the auctioneer. The price of the property creeps inevitably above 6,000 pounds, and Hillcrest (after a slight hesitation) blows his nose, muttering to his family that if the bid should pass 7,000 he’s not sure they can stand it. Finally, he is forced to blow his nose again and Dawker stops bidding. However, just as the auctioneer is about to declare the property sold, Hillcrest jumps in and begins to bid for himself.

auction1.jpgauction2.jpgauction3.jpg

chloedistressed.jpgThe price continues to climb on into the 9,000 range, but Hornblower seems determined. It seems he will be victorious until the mysterious man in the back of the room puts in one final bid and snatches the property from under Hornblower’s nose. The Hillcrests are thrilled, certain that an agent of the neighboring Duke has stepped in with the winning bid. It seems that they have been victorious, but just as they prepare to drive away in triumph, Hornblower pokes his head into their car and reveals that the winning bid was placed by his agent, not the Duke’s. Meanwhile, Chloe is still looking very unwell, and it seems that Dawker has unearthed something about her that she would very much have rather kept buried.

chloeinterrogated.jpgMrs. Hillcrest decide more drastic measures are required to preserve the sanctity of the countryside, and writes to Hornblower requesting a meeting where she will reveal “something of the utmost importance” regarding his daughter-in-law. Hornblower takes the message straight to Chloe, who claims to have no idea what Mrs. Hillcrest might mean, unless she intends to tell Hornblower that Chloe’s father once declared bankruptcy. Hornblower laughs this off and leaves Chloe alone with her brother-in-law. Throughout this scene and the surrounding sequences, Hitchcock uses a combination of close-ups on Chloe’s stricken features and wider shots that make her appear both trapped and isolated within the frame, emphasizing the desperation and pathos of her situation.

chloebegs.jpgClaiming a fierce headache, Chloe goes into the garden to get some air and, by prior arrangement, meets Dawker in the shadows. She tries everything she can think of (begging, bargaining, threatening) to persuade him to leave her out of the family feud, to no effect. He claims he has no choice and the matter is out of his hands, although he expresses a cavalier sort of sympathy that her happiness should be a collateral victim of the altercation. Retiring to her room with her husband, Chloe desperately but subtly attempts to ensure his love for her, going so far as to tell him that she is carrying his child (a claim that is not definitively confirmed or refuted).

chloediscovered.jpgHornblower arrives at the Hillcrest home with Chloe in tow, demanding to know the meaning of the letters Mrs. Hillcrest has been sending him. She and Dawker have sequestered their star witnesses in a nearby room in preparation for the meeting. They tell Hornblower that his daughter-in-law was once a prostitute, or as they put it, accompanied men to hotels in order to help them get a divorce. Hornblower is outraged by the accusation and calls Chloe in with the intention of hearing her deny the charge and forcing Dawker and Mrs. Hillcrest to apologize. She does deny it, but then Dawker produces two of the men that she once worked for, and her jig is up.

swear.jpgDefeated and deflated, Hornblower sends Chloe out and waits to hear what arrangement Mrs. Hillcrest wishes to propose. He still has a bit of fight left, and they eventually agree that he will keep the Centry undeveloped, as stipulated by his signature on a legal document produced by Dawker. Meanwhile, Dawker and Mrs. Hillcrest both swear on a Bible that they will not reveal what they know about Chloe to anyone.

chloeappeal.jpgThat night, Jill and Hillcrest sit quietly, speculating about what might have transpired earlier and agreeing that it couldn’t have been anything good. Chloe sneaks in through the open door to the garden and hides behind the curtain, listening. Jill discovers her there a few moments later and they invite her in to sit down. She is very distressed and tells them that her husband is quite agitated and is coming to demand an explanation. She begs them to make up a convincing lie that will allay his darker fears. Hillcrest doesn’t like the idea of lying, but he and Jill soon agree that they will say Chloe left a previous employer under a cloud of suspicion regarding a problem with the books.

angryhusband.jpgCharles Hornblower arrives right on schedule, and Chloe dives back behind the curtain as he enters the room. He wants to know where his wife is, and declares Hillcrest’s explanation an outright lie, claiming he’s just had the full story from Dawker. Jill and Hillcrest attempt to calm him, but he is too upset and wants nothing more to do with Chloe.

brokenpromises.jpgJill goes to the curtain and finds that Chloe has disappeared outside. Charles rushes out after her, and Jill and Hillcrest, fearing the worst, follow. Soon, they find that Chloe has attempted to drown herself in the pond, and may have succeeded. Not to break the mood, but the story goes that Hitchcock originally filmed a scene of Chloe throwing herself into the pond, and demanded that Phyllis Konstam dunk herself several times while the camera rolled. All of these takes eventually ended up on the cutting room floor, and it is possible that Hitch never intended to use the scene in the first place.

drowned.jpgAs the anxious searchers pull Chloe out of the water and seek medical attention, Hornblower arrives and declares that he is ruined in the area, as word of the scandal has somehow gotten out. He declares a scathing hatred for every Hillcrest in earshot and promises to do them any ill turn he can think of in the future as he leaves with a possibly-dead Chloe (and perhaps his unborn grandchild as well).

timber.jpgAfter everyone has left, the Jackmans arrive to thank Squire Hillcrest for intervening on their behalf, as they will now be permitted to return to their cottage. He is too disheartened to feign courtesy, and after they leave he expresses feeling ashamed of the entire affair to his wife. Meanwhile, Rolf Hornblower and Jill meet one final time out in the garden. They have nothing to say to each other, and simply clasp hands before parting again, probably forever. The scene cuts to a final shot of a large, old tree (possibly located on the Centry, possibly wholly symbolic) being noisily felled by a group of workmen.

The Skin Game was probably a rather engaging theatrical experience, particularly at the time, dealing with the human element of some of the social and cultural turmoil that England was experiencing in the years after World War I. Hitchcock successfully translates this element onto the screen. However, beyond its appeal as a historical and literary curiosity, very little distinguishes the film as the work of the famous director and even less sets it apart from other examples of early sound cinema in Britain.

1929’s Blackmail should have represented a major breakthrough for Hitchcock’s career, but throughout the early 1930s his cinematic work would continue to languish in a grim purgatory of often-dull, second-rate adaptations and fantastically unsuitable projects. After an initially-exciting rush freedom and creative control four years before, Hitchcock’s treatment by British International Pictures was by now looking depressingly similar to the situation which had first prompted him to abandon Gainsborough.

Next Week: Hitchcock goes globetrotting

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~ by Jared on March 19, 2008.

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