By – Gareth Jones
For fans of Alfred Hitckcock, early sound films, Edmund Gwenn
Released in 1930, The Skin Game was Alfred Hitchcock’s fourth feature film in the still new sound era of film. For multiple reasons I had not watched this film yet. I watched the majority of his films as an undergraduate, and when I worked at the old Foothill Video store, I tried to watch all of them. However, many of Hitchcock’s early films were not available on VHS. Over the years, there have been bootleg versions and now you can find many of his early work on YouTube with horrific transfers. I watch The Skin Game on the Criterion Channel who pride themselves on showing the very best versions of films. I am glad that I waited to see it. I appreciate it so much more now.
It is an adaptation of a stage play from 1920 written by John Gallsworthy, telling the story of two feuding families, one from upper class old money, the Hillcrists, and the other from new money, the Hornblowers. The names are not very subtle The story follows as the two families battle over land, morality, and reputations. It is a very British story, but it still resonates with the world today as we see the “not in my backyard” debate rage on in so many development deals. It also has an environmental aspect as the beautiful land that the Upper Class covet will be converted into houses by the Hornblowers. There is some complexity here as we want land preserved but we also want to see people housed and treated equally.
It retains many theatrical elements whilst integrating many new cinematic devices. This is why I find it to be worthy of viewing today. If I had seen it in my youth, I think I would have not appreciated these attempts at new film language. Camera movement had hit a brick wall during the sound era because of the new technology. Moving the camera became a challenge due to the constraints of recording the sound. However, Hitchcock challenges himself here with multiple attempts at using a zoom or a pan. It is entertaining to see how he is still playing with techniques here that he would soon perfect with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 NIne Steps. There are moments here where the sound wavers as a result, so I recommend having the subtitles or closed captioning on when you watch it. This also will help with some of the muddled accents throughout the film. May of Hitchcock’s future masterpieces will use these techniques that he is developing and practicing here.
The film is a brisk 85 minutes and has some very strong performances. Edmund Gwenn is particularly fine as the Hornblower patriarch. He puts genuine venom into his lines and genuine emotion as he protects the ones he loves. This is before he moved to Hollywood to become one of the most beloved father actors with roles such as Mr. Bennet in 1937’s Pride and Prejudice and as the real Santa in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. Phyllis Konstam is also exceptional as Chloe, having acted with Hitchcock before in Murder!.
I find it fascinating to watch these early films by great directors and see the bones in their future work and hope that you do as well.
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel (best version) or on many free streaming platforms
Written by: Gareth Jones
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