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It sounds like a nightmare: in 1971, with the country still agitated by notions of revolution and the proud defiance of the Black Panthers, clueless Hollywood comes out with a light-hearted comedy about a pair of pre- Civil War con men drifting through the South, swindling plantation owners with crooked slave sales. Not only that, but the "N" word (nigger, to those not afraid to face it) gets more on-screen use than it has since before the Civil Rights Act. Forget matters of good taste: did someone at Warner Bros. go out of their minds? Do they want their studio burned down?
The saving grace in the mix is actor-producer James Garner, a personality with such charm that he could have made a musical about eating babies and gotten away with it. (Well ...) After slipping somewhat in dramatic roles in the latter half of the 1960s, Garner returned to variations on his Maverick TV persona and renewed his popularity with a couple of western spoofs, Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter. Thus was the stage set for 1971's Skin Game, a sly comedy about race relations in its most basic form. Thanks to excellent writing and the participation of actor Lou Gossett, the movie tiptoes gracefully through a cultural minefield.
Happy partners in the big con are Quincey Drew and Jason O'Rourke (James Garner & Louis Gossett Jr.), Northerners that have worked all the usual swindles and are currently profiting from their latest brainstorm: Quincey sells Jason to a gullible slaveholder, and Jason then escapes. They split up the money and move on to the next town. Working in Kansas and Arkansas, Quincey and Jason play politics with the hostilities between slave and free states; they're wise to keep a state line in sight at all times. Knowing that his neck is on the line, Jason would like to quit while he's ahead. But Quincey loves the big payoffs -- anywhere from 200 to a thousand dollars -- and keeps Jason in the game. Complications arise in the person of runaway slave hunter Plunkett (Edward Asner, mean as a snake) and their biggest sale is ruined when fiery abolitionist-terrorist John Brown (Royal Dano) interrupts a big slave auction with an armed raid. Further distractions are offered by a pair of interesting females. Quincey is taken with Ginger (Susan Clark), a lady con artist who is great in bed and adept at separating him from his ill-gotten earnings. Jason sets his eyes on Naomi (Brenda Sykes), an innocent and attractive house slave captured by Plunkett. When the locals get wise to their slippery "skin game" Jason is carted off to the plantation of Howard Calloway (Andrew Duggan). Ginger and Quincey must think fast to find a way to free him.
Richard Alan Simmons probably came up with the original story for Skin Game by extrapolating trends in other successful movies. Clint Eastwood pulled a similar scam in Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, turning in bandit Eli Wallach for the reward on his head and then freeing him again. Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis played Black and White partners / enemies in the race-themed comedic western The Scalphunters. The risky Skin Game eventually shows us something to think about behind its racial jokes: finally facing up the reality of their "partnership", Gossett's Jason acknowledges that he and Quincey can never be real equals, so long as "the rules" allow one of them to sell the other based on the color of his skin. This unforced message is both apt and profound -- Skin Game doesn't come out and say "we all should be brothers" without acknowledging that there's still no good solution in sight, in 1858 or 1971.
The author of Skin Game is Peter Stone, the writer of Charade, Father Goose, 1776 and the adaptor of Sweet Charity, Mirage and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Stone chose to use his pen name Pierre Marton for this film and a couple of others. By 1971 black comedy, culture shock theater and other liberating trends had pushed the concept of good taste all over the map, so it's rather refreshing to see this Hollywood product combine irreverence with intelligence. 1 The "N" word is much more provocative now, even though black entertainers (and street people) use it more than ever. As the gags develop, we realize that the show is working because of the enthusiastic, warm performance of Louis Gossett Jr.. For twenty years we watched courageous black actors (James Edwards, Joel Fluellen, to name two) play various kinds of hotheads and victims. Gossett's Jason is his own man taking a risk to get by in hostile circumstances. When he makes with the subservient, sho-nuff talk it's on purpose, part of his game. Not too many films previous to this showed blacks fronting different personas to suit differing racial environments. Personally, I find Skin Game's comic approach healthier than that in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, with its neo-burlesque darkie humor: "Scuse me ma'am, pardon me while I whip this out!" Lou Gossett Jr. and Ossie Davis made a great contribution in the movie education of whites about race realities, taking things a step beyond Sidney Poitier's super-duper black everyman.
But Skin Game is mainly a brisk comedy with sight gags, comic eye rolling and turnabout-is-fair play tricks. Garner's Quincey is easily hoodwinked by the adventurous Ginger, who wastes no time in sharing both his bed and his bathwater. The con game competition between Quincey and Ginger makes a stab at the sublime precedent of Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, and doesn't do badly. When not stealing from each other, the pair dresses up as ministers to fleece the rubes with a "leprosy" scam. Susan Clark seems to have been in every other Universal movie made in 1969 and 1970, and she was never bad, just a little overexposed.
The story finds a finish via a subdued Black Power theme, but probably not one that Angela Davis would appreciate. Just as slave owner Calloway orders Quincey to be flogged, Jason and Ginger rescue him with the aid of a quintet of newly arrived tribal Africans not yet assimilated into the plantation culture. The Africans don't speak English but they easily overcome Calloway's overseers. All escape from Texas into the haven of Mexico. Interestingly, the film finds a satisfactory solution only when our heroes flee the country. Perhaps this is a radical film after all. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Skin Game is a good-looking enhanced widescreen transfer of this Panavision movie. Colors are perhaps a tiny bit faded, but not enough to really make a difference. Most of us have only seen the movie Pan-scanned on Television, where it looked fairly sloppy, and was probably trimmed a bit for language. It's a curious movie overall. I can't recall actor James Garner ever making a big show of his social conscience, but his picture is certainly one of the most creative racially themed movies -- the audience for Garner's mischievous comedies and that for progressive social themes doesn't normally overlap. Who expects light, irreverent mainstream entertainers to take on such a contentious subject? Verdict: an A+ picture. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Skin Game rates:
2. Makes you especially proud of the Texas tradition of The Alamo - a glorious victory that took an entire region of Mexico and made it into a slave state. Swell.
3. So many potentially exciting pictures from this era fall short. I'm thinking of 1971's Fool's Parade, a wickedly clever story by Davis Grubb, the author of Night of the Hunter. Columbia dulled its anarchistic, anti-capitalist theme into a unsatisfying James Stewart picture. Stewart forces a crooked banker to pay him his money by wiring his body with dozens of sticks of dynamite, but the terrorism angle just isn't there. The lack of that sort of compromise makes Skin Game seem all the more of an achievement.
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