The Skin Game
Opening screen: A talking film by John Galsworthy! Like so many of these early talkies, it was more economical and made a better impression to film as many scenes as possible without sound, plug in sound effects later, and keep the story moving. Because when we got back to the studio with the bulky, balky sound equipment in a padded room to keep out the noise, everything ground to a static halt. The camera could have only very limited movement, and it all became a scene from a stage play, which many of these films were adapted from.
And like so many of the films of this era, the story has to do with a woman who has brought scandal to herself or her family by doing something we’d barely even notice today. What a godawful strict morality these people lived by. In this one we have two feuding families, the patrician Hillcrists and the upstart Hornblowers, led by industrialist Edmund Gwenn. He’s full of class anger, and they are concerned with the problems of the wealthy and entitled, namely the ownership of a patch of land that, if Hornblower gets it, will be clear-cut and spoil the Hillcrist’s view! Today we’d couch it in environmental terms, save the forest and all. Back then it was pure entitlement. Hornblower rigs an auction and gets the land, though at a very steep price. (The auction scene is the best thing in the movie, with the camera swinging wildly among bidders.) Then the Hillcrists discover a shameful secret about Hornblower’s daughter-in-law. To make ends meet after her father’s bankruptcy, she was a professional “other woman,” a correspondent in divorce cases, paid to compromise a married man so his wife could divorce. It’s not like she had to go to bed with him; kissing him was enough in those benighted days.
Hillcrist is appalled, and too much a gentleman to use this information. Not so the Mrs. When confronted with the facts, Hornblower caves in and an arrangement is made to sell the land back at a ruinous loss, on the condition that the scandal never leaks from any Hillcrist. But it does, and the girl drowns herself. Both families are shamed. The one who really should be ashamed is her husband, who abandons her and her unborn child as soon as he learns the story. It’s well-written and acted and filmed, but what a terrible story.