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When asked about The Skin Game (1931) in an interview with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said simply, "I didn't make it by choice, and there isn't much to be said about it."
It's true that The Skin Game is not one of Hitchcock's best remembered movies, and in fact it is one of his least typical. Based on a 1920 play by John Galsworthy about two families - one aristocratic and one nouveau riche - feuding over land rights, it feels uncharacteristically stage-bound for a Hitchcock film. However, it is a somewhat impressive actors' showcase, with two powerhouse performances essentially preserved from the original 1920 stage hit: Edmund Gwenn as the nouveau riche Mr. Hornblower, and Helen Haye as the snooty landowner Mrs. Hillcrist.
Both actors had also played their roles in a 1920 Anglo-Dutch silent film produced in Holland. Gwenn was a famous stage star at the time and would become a favorite of Hitchcock's, who cast him three more times in Waltzes from Vienna (1933), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and The Trouble with Harry (1955). Gwenn also appeared in a 1957 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
According to biographer Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock was a great admirer of John Galsworthy, ranking him as strongly as John Buchan (author of The 39 Steps, 1935) as an influence. Hitchcock had seen The Skin Game both in its original West End run and as the silent film. In preparation for writing the new screenplay with his wife Alma, Hitchcock met with Galsworthy a few times. The playwright had a baronial air and way of life, and Hitchcock described one visit to his estate as "the most cultured dinner table I ever attended." Given Hitchcock's admiration for Galsworthy, it's ironic that the reason his movie is not terribly successful is because Hitchcock was essentially forced to adhere too strongly to the play.
Galsworthy had an agreement with British International Pictures that did not allow his original dialogue to be changed without his approval, "and no tampering with the play's integrity." According to McGilligan, Hitchcock was therefore rather hemmed in on what he could do: "Though he worked to open it up visually, [he adhered] very closely to the play - shooting most of the scenes with multiple cameras for a fluid sound track." Another Hitchcock biographer, John Russell Taylor, has pointed out that even aside from Galsworthy's B.I.P. agreement, the play is constructed so precisely that Hitchcock would have found scant opportunity to open up the story in any event: "The virtues and the faults are much more of Galsworthy than of Hitchcock. Hitch, indeed, hardly obtrudes himself apart from some big subjective close-ups to dramatize a faint."
Actually, Hitchcock does also liven up an auction scene with some quick camera work including swish pans, but overall there is little of his visual mastery on display here. The critics latched onto this, with The New York Times sniffing, "Mr. Hitchcock's imagination is never particularly keen during this production. Now and then this director has a fairly good idea but it is never brilliant."
One slight change that did distinguish the final film from the play is something of a tonal one - the movie is weighted a bit more against the gentry than is the play, possibly reflecting Hitchcock's own views. Actress Jill Esmond, who appears in The Skin Game as Jill Hillcrist, was married to Laurence Olivier at the time.
Producer: John Maxwell
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: John Galsworthy (play), Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Film Editing: A.R. Gobbett, Rene Marrison
Art Direction: J.B. Maxwell
Cast: Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Hornblower), Helen Haye (Mrs. Amy Hillcrist), C.V. France (Squire John Hillcrist), Jill Esmond (Jill Hillcrist), Phyllis Konstam (Chloe Hornblower), John Longden (Charles Hornblower).
by Jeremy Arnold