- Class meets crass and both cruelly trample on innocent dreams
- One of the Master’s best British films but it’s often unfairly overlooked
- Class system injustice is laid bare in a dirty game where everyone loses
- Even dirtier are the film’s many terrible bootlegs, tainting its reputation
- Every official, good quality release detailed here for the first time anywhere
Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
“Skin game” is a mid-C19th Americanism that’s long disappeared from regular use; the film’s Spanish title, Juego sucio (Dirty game) succinctly sums it up and has aged much better. Here’s a Spanish mini-remake.
The Hillcrests are a wealthy family who have held their country estate for many generations. They cherish the traditions of the landed gentry and regard their new neighbours, the Hornblowers, as upstarts – tradespeople who have fought their way up from the lowest section of society. The Hillcrests consider themselves the moral leaders of the community and on learning that the Hornblowers seek to dispossess the Jackman family after 30 years of tenure, they enter battle in the Jackmans’ defence. – Australian Polygram VHS/alt (1995)
Sexploitation, corruption, blackmail – all and more is wrapped up in this high stakes drama of two rival families. This is hellishly powerful stuff, and easily one of the Master’s most underappreciated films. It’s rife with twisting, turning moral dilemmas in which both parties fight dirty and almost no one emerges as wholly good or bad. There are more than enough ethical complexities and crises of conscience to satisfy even the most demanding fan of Hitch’s later works. It packs a lot of emotion, both subtle, overwrought and all points between, into its lean 80-odd minutes and really is one of my faves of Hitch’s British period. Just as it threatens to bow out on an unresolved denouement, a brief two-second final shot seems to show us the likely course of events after the final credits.
The assured direction, cinematography and mise en scène are never anything short of brilliant throughout. There are numerous examples of visual touches that Hitch would go on to use again and again in his future works. Skin Game is too often unfairly written off as a perfunctory stop-gap in his temporarily stalled ascendant career, but I wonder how many commentators have actually seen it in good condition, if at all. It’s patently obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that Hitch invested a lot of time, thought and care into crafting this film to be every bit as good as he could possibly manage.
The Skin Game was adapted from an eponymous 1920 play by John Galsworthy, who most famously authored The Forsyte Saga. The young Hitch greatly admired his works which, like this one, frequently turned their focus on the iniquities of the class system. Using the full cast, it was also filmed during its initial stage run and previewed in December 1920. That version was an Anglo-Dutch co-production, whose Dutch title, Hard tegen hard, literally translates as “Hard against hard”. Sadly, it appears to be lost. Hitch brought back two of the leads, Helen Haye and Edmund Gwenn, to reprise their roles in his version. Haye went on to play Mrs. Jordan in The 39 Steps, while Gwenn featured in Waltzes from Vienna, Foreign Correspondent and The Trouble with Harry. He also appeared in Forever and a Day, which Hitch was due to direct but just ended up with a writing credit; a 1940 radio adaptation of The Lodger “directed” by Hitch; and “Father and Son”, a 1957 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
There were also numerous BBC adaptations: among them were those for radio in 1941, 1949 and 1965; and for TV in 1951 and 1974. Three further entries, for radio in 1934 and 1954, and TV in 1959, saw the return of Edward Chapman but promoted to Hornblower senior’s role; he played his opponent Hillchrist’s lackey Dawkins in Hitch’s film. The 1941 radio version featured Malcolm Keen as Hornblower; he had, of course, earlier starred for Hitch in The Mountain Eagle, The Lodger and The Manxman. Lastly, Galsworthy’s play was also adapted for US TV’s Kraft Theater in 1952. Of all the TV adaptations, I can only ascertain the survival of the 1974 UK version, which is preserved on standard definition Quadruplex videotape. Does anyone know of any others?
Article on the play by Ivor Brown, Radio Times (p.691, Vol. 44, No. 572, 14.9.1934)
As is often the case with Hitch’s works, the film’s title has multiple meanings; one of them being the commodification of featured player Phyllis Konstam as new bride Chloe Hornblower. Having inadvertently married into one of the film’s warring factions, like many young women in early Hitchcocks she was judged to be sexually compromised according to “polite” society’s norms and suffered grossly unfair treatment as a result. Konstam was married in real life just a few months following the première in a much more blissful, yet no less eventful, lifelong union to tennis star Bunny Austin and they published their punnily titled joint autobiography in 1969.
- A Mixed Double (1969) – H.W. ‘Bunny’ Austin and Phyllis Konstam
- UK: Network 2-DVD/4-film Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 1 (2013)
Largely confining her acting career to the stage, Konstam appeared in only 12 features and four of those – Champagne, Blackmail, Murder! and The Skin Game – were for the Master. Sandwiched in between them was her only other film currently available, the tightly plotted crime thriller Escape! (1930), also based on a popular 1926 play by Galsworthy. Its incredible cast is a veritable snapshot of who’s who in British cinema at the time and is almost entirely made up of Hitchcock alumni or actors with close connections including Gerald (father of Daphne) du Maurier, Gordon Harker, Edna Best, Madeleine Carroll, Ian Hunter and Ann Casson. It’s been released in a DVD set sourced from BFI Archive materials, alongside three other films connected with Ealing Studios.
There are many more versions of Escape (the exclamation mark was only appended for the 1930 film’s UK release), including five BBC Radio adaptations from 1933–1967. Across the Pond, the first of three US radio plays was a Columbia Workshop two-parter broadcast August 15 and 22, 1937 starring Orson Welles, who returned for an October 15, 1939 episode (alt) of the The Campbell Playhouse. Next up stateside was an episode of Theatre Guild on the Air broadcast April 27, 1947, starring George Sanders (Rebecca; The Lodger, 1944) and Penelope Ward (Convoy).
The following year saw an effective British-American big screen remake which is sadly so far unreleased, only appearing on a few bootleg DVD-Rs whose ropy transfer is also on YouTube – but at least copious original film materials survive. Sadder still is the complete loss of the 1951 BBC TV adaptation, while the most recent screen outing was a 1962 German TV movie, retitled Die Flucht.
We’re not finished with Phyllis yet: her younger sister Anna, also an actress, appeared in nine films, one of which was Young and Innocent. The Kohnstamm (original spelling) family tree has many other distinguished branches; for instance, the sisters’ uncle was noted psychiatrist Oskar Kohnstamm. His children, Peter and Anneliese, provided the names and inspiration for the iconic German play and childrens’ book, Peterchens Mondfahrt aka Little Peter’s Journey to the Moon (1912/1915, Internet Archive, Gutenberg). Its author, Gerdt von Bassewitz, was a ex-patient of Kohnstamm’s, at one time residing in his sanatorium. Little Peter grew up to become an internationally renowned doctor, also serving as the inspiration for Dr. Edwardes in Spellbound, married and eventually settled in the Orkneys where he had a son, Scottish historian Angus Konstam.
Home video releases
Circulating official transfers of Hitch’s hand-wringing opus are all of a very decent preserved print, but there’s no doubt the film could really shine with a new digital scan and restoration of the original negative and various other early generation materials in the BFI Archive. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely anytime soon. However, at least the current transfer is available on BD in the US, while there are various official standard definition options available:
- US: Lionsgate DVD 5-film AH: 3-Disc Collectors’ Edition (2007)
- Kino 3-DVD and 2-BD/5-film H: British International Pictures Collection (2019)
- Lionsgate Prime Video
- UK: Optimum 9-DVD Early H Collection (2007, reissued 2016)
- Italy: Eagle 2on1 DVD (2005) w/Easy Virtue, also in 5-DVD/10-film AH Collection and 8-DVD/15-film AH Portrait
- Germany: Alive DVD (2020)
- France: Journaux.fr DVD/magazine (2002, 2005)
- Studiocanal 2on1 DVD (2008, reissued 2012) w/Blackmail, also in 2-DVD/3-film AH: Les Premières Oeuvres 1929–1931 and 6-DVD/10-film AH: Premières oeuvres – beware: all films have forced French subtitles
- Spain: Universal 4-DVD/7-film H Collection: La primera etapa del Maestro del Suspense
- Benelux: Universal 2on1 DVD (2007), also in 5-DVD/9-film H Collection 3 and 20-DVD/24-film AH set/alt
- Scandinavia: Universal 5-DVD/9-film H Collection: Early Years of the Master of Suspense (2007) info
- Denmark: Soul Media DVD (2022), also in 13-DVD AH Movie Collection
- Poland: Kino Świat 4-DVD H Masterworks (2008) – details
- Hungary: Caesar Film DVD (alt, 2007; reissued 2009 w/added Hu dub)
- Greece: Studiocanal 2on1 DVD w/The City of Lost Children (1995) – newspaper giveaway
- Brazil: Universal 3on1 DVD (2010) w/Number Seventeen and Rich and Strange, also in 18-DVD/23-film AH Collection
Note that the SD releases from the US have a slight edge in overall detail. The film was dubbed into German in 1978 and 2006; one of these, presumably the latter, is included on the German DVD. Note too that said DVD, the latest, is the first to present the film in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio common to early talkies. All other releases, including the recent Kino set, have inaccurate 1.33:1 transfers.
Like all other British Hitchcocks, The Skin Game has suffered the vicissitudes of countless awful bootlegs and the relatively limited number of official releases to date can be ascribed to cause and effect. Among the tsunami of illicit DVDs and streaming copies, be especially wary of an anonymous, barebones Spanish BD-R, likely from Resen.
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.
What an incredible work you’ve produced. A fantastic resource for the serious Hitch collector! 🙂
Thank you for the great online resource you have made available in Brenton Film!
I have been extremely interested in reading through all the information you posted about Hitchcock’s films.
Do you know of any resource that has information about the film locations in “The Skin Game?”
I have only found one reference that mentions the locations were in Devon.
I would appreciate any help or suggestions for more research!
Thank you so much for your site!
desperately trying to find movie poster or lobby card for the skin game 1931 unable to understand the UK library archives do not know where to look any advertising colour would be nice Australia calling my name is Therese i noticed Hitchcock made the first 5 films were with British international they used Wardour advertising 1934 he moved to Gaumont they made proper colour posters you have lobby cards for black mail do you know if there were any for juno and pay cock 1930 elstree calling 1930 the skin game 1931 rich and strange there is a poster for… Read more »