Skin Game, The (1931): Hitchcock’s Uncharacteristically Stale and Verbose Feature, Starring Edmund Gwenn and Jill Esmond (Olivier’s Firs Wife)

Arguably one of the weakest films Hitchcock had ever made, The Skin Game is an uncharacteristically stagy and verbose work, adapted by Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville from John Galsworthy’s 1920 play.

The story revolves around two rival families, the Hillcrists and the Hornblowers, and the disastrous results of that feud.

In this British feature, Edmund Gwenn and Helen Haye reprised their roles in this British feature as Mr. Hornblower and Mrs. Hillcrist from the 1921 silent version.

The British countryside turns into a battlefield when Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn in the first of four films he would make for Hitchcock), a nouveau riche and self-man tradesman, stakes his claim to a piece of valuable forest property controlled for centuries by the “landed gentry.” The local squire (C.V. France) and his wife (Helen Haye) refuse to acknowledge Hornblower’s claim, showing contempt for his belief that money is more important than rights of blood.

Detailed Synopsis

The film deals with the issues of social lass warfare and the urbanization of the countryside.  The plot concerns a feud between two affluent families, the long-established (upper class) Hillcrists, played by C.V. France, Helen Haye, and Jill Esmond, and the nouveau riche (formerly working class) Hornblowers, played by Edmund Gwenn, John Longden, and Frank Lawton.

The Hillcrists are upset by the actions of Mr. Hornblower, whom they consider to be ostentatious and crass, in buying up land, evicting tenant farmers, and build factories. The Hillcrists make every effort they can to preserve the last large piece of open land that adjoins their rural estate.

Tricked out of the land in an auction, the Hillcrists learn a dark secret about Mr. Hornblower’s beautiful daughter-in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam)–she had previously worked as the professional “other woman” in pre-arranged divorce cases.

When Mr. Hornblower learns of this secret, and that the Hillcrists are prepared to use it against his family, Mr. Hornblower agrees to sell the rural land to the Hillcrists for less than half the auction price, if they keep the information secret.

When the news leaks out, Chloe Hornblower goes to the Hillcrists, begging to keep the secret from her husband. She then hides behind a curtain when her husband storms into the Hillcrist home, demanding to know the secret.

Keeping his promise to Chloe, Mr. Hillcrist makes up a story, but the young Mr. Hornblower is not convinced, and declares that he intends to end his marriage, even though Chloe is pregnant.

Upon hearing this, Chloe runs to the lily pond and drowns herself. When her body is discovered, the elder Hornblower concedes that Hillcrist has destroyed him and his family. He vow to harm Hillcrist and/or his family, and though Hillcrist apologizes, Hornblower dismisses him a hypocrite.

In Hitchcock’s treatment, their genteel snobbery is as obnoxious as Hornblower’s brash effrontery. End result is a morally ambiguous film in which there are no heroes or villains—and no involving scenario, either.

Neither the treacherous revenge plot nor the sromance is well integrated into the narrative, such as it is.

Hitchcock would not launch such a strong attack on the aristocracy in any of his future films.

Hitchcock himself did not like “The Skin Game,” which was an artistic and commercial flop. He told Truffaut: “I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.”

Hitchcockian Elements:

A central piece in the movie is the auction, an element which would appear in future films, such as North By Northwest.

Running time: 87 Minutes.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville
Released: June 20, 1931

Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Hornblower
Jill Esmond as Jill Hillcrest
Phyllis Konstam as Chloe Hornblower
John Longden as Charles Hornblower
C.V. France as Mr. Hillcrest
Helen Haye as Mrs. Hillcrest



I am grateful to TCM for showing this film on September 22, 2013, allowing me to refresh my memory.