Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926)

The Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum

7 December

We were back at the Cinema Museum tonight for the last Kennington Bioscope screening of the year, featuring the William Seiter directed comedy Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926) starring Reginald Denny and Laura La Plante. 

But before the main feature there was a selection of unique short films drawn from the personal collection of film historian Tony Saffery and recently transferred from the original 100+ year old nitrate stock onto digital using a 4k high definition scanner.  First up was Rambles around Mulhausen (1905) a travelogue around this town in what would then have been the German-controlled province of Alsace.  While these largely rural views were nothing particularly out of the ordinary (hop fields, farm animals, women washing clothes etc) what made this film so interesting was the superb quality of the surviving footage and the beautiful hand tinting.  In particular, one or two close ups of people’s faces were just stunning and more than made up for the somewhat patronising inter-title commentary. For some reason the footage then switched to Sparta in Greece although with similarly fine-looking hand tinted footage.   We then had The Adventures of Little Nibbs (1928), an American animated cartoon featuring some particularly intricate images with an awful lot going on visually.  Based around a premise of the father having to get a job as a policeman on what looked like the animated version of Easy Street in order to provide milk for baby Nibbs, there were some funny scenes (The police job advert – good pay, as long as you live!) as well as some surreal moments, particularly as various characters appeared and disappeared via apparent trapdoors in the pavement!.  This was only an extract, it would have been nice if the whole film had survived.  Next up was what looked like an Andre Deed comedy but untitled and undated, again somewhat surreal with a man asleep in bed in the middle of the street surrounded by all his bedroom furniture as two policemen tip-toe around trying not to wake him! Once more, this was only a short extract so not really too sure what was going on, but amusing nevertheless.

This was followed by another, somewhat text laden, animation LCC Housing Bond Campaign (1920) exalting Londoners to buy London City Council bonds to finance the construction of new houses (an idea not without merit today?).  It ended with a ‘personal message’, on Ritz Hotel headed notepaper no less, from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks urging people to buy the bonds.  Then it was His New Cane (1928) a chase comedy in somewhat Benny Hill style as the hero brings chaos to a town with his new walking cane.  There was some interesting use of stop-frame animation and reverse footage although at one point I did think that a clip from another film had worked its way in as suddenly everyone seemed to be wearing roller-skates for a few scenes, but I may just have failed to keep pace with the frenetic action. Next came The Adventures of Cinema Luke (1929) a mixed live action/animation short that made me think of Tony Hart and Vision-On as the cartoon character ( the spitting image of TinTin’s Captain Haddock) drawn by the artist came to life and scuppered his attempts to draw a lady’s portrait. This was all very cleverly done although the best moment was the inter-title of the artist asking the lady if he should draw her with a pretty face or make it a true likeness….too cruel!  We then had London: Wonder City (1921) featuring footage of the City of London (Guildhall, Mansion House, St Paul’s, Bank of England etc).  This was beautifully shot and excellently preserved.  My two favourite moments were seeing City of London traffic grid-locked even in 1921 and shots of The Monument before it was totally hemmed in by tower blocks.  Finally we had Tommy Marries His Sister (1910) which you won’t be surprised to learn was not a dramatic expose of family incest but when correctly translated from the French should be  titled ‘Tommy Gets His Sister Married’. This was an amusing comedy in which little brother Tommy manages to scupper the wedding hopes of his sister’s unwanted admirer thus enabling her to marry her true love. And all of this was achieved, if I remember correctly, without the use of a single inter-title, very clever stuff.    All in all this may have been a bit of a mixed bag of short films and extracts but totally fascinating nevertheless.  The highlight had to be the beautifully colourised footage of Alsace and Sparta although I would love to see more of Little Nibbs.  But the real delight of these films is that I suspect we may have had the privilege of being the first audience to view them since their original release, in some cases over a hundred years ago.  What a pleasure. 

John Sweeney and Meg Morley skilfully shared the challenging task of accompanying this varied and contrasting selection of films. 

Then it was time for the main feature,  Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926), being screened tonight in a 16mm version from Kevin Brownlow’s own personal collection.  Introducing the film himself, Kevin regaled us with the delightful story of having tracked down the film’s male lead Reginald Denny who had virtually erased his silent era career from his memory, then invited him, his wife and family to re-watch this film.  Somewhat reluctantly agreeing, Denny and his family nervously awaited the film.  When it began, the gags received only restrained relieved chuckles but the atmosphere noticeably improved and soon they were roaring with laughter and the film got wholehearted approval.  Denny’s wife spotted herself as an extra in the film and also identified Janet Gaynor as another un-credited extra. At the end, Denny himself shyly confessed of the film, “It certainly stands up a lot better than I thought it would”.      

Skinner’s Dress Suit tells the story of Skinner (Reginald Denny) and his adoring wife Honey (Laura La Plante) living the American dream (or as we might call it, suburban hell!).  But Honey does not think that her husband’s office job is bringing in a salary that’s up to his worth. Egged on by his wife, Skinner finally works himself up to asking his boss for a raise.  When his request is turned down, he hasn’t the heart to tell his wife. But she then starts spending the phantom payrise, the first purchases being a new dress suit for her husband and an outfit for herself so they can attend a key event in the local social calendar.  Their new outfits, together with a talent for dance craze ‘the Savannah Shuffle’ (which he had hilariously learnt from a company secretary and taught his wife over the phone) makes them a major social hit.  But Skinner is obliged to stay one step ahead of his tailor whenever he’s behind in his dress suit payments.  To make matters worse, when his firm looses a big contract from businessman Jackson (Lionel Braham) Skinner is made redundant. Still not daring to tell his wife, Skinner goes with her that night to another big social event.  Trying to avoid both his former boss and his creditors, Skinner bumps into Jackson and after getting to know each other Jackson wants to award his contract to Skinner.  The next morning, Skinner’s former boss, still desperate for Jackson’s business, offers to make Skinner a partner in the company, to which he and Honey agree.   

Based on the 1916 novel of the name by Henry Irving Dodge and filmed previously (and much less successfully) in 1917, Skinner’s Dress Suit might not be much more than a rather slight but frothy romantic comedy, however, the skill and proficiency with which it is made results in a funny and highly enjoyable film. It is also has quite a contemporary theme regarding status-seeking and consumerism.  Made at the height of Denny’s silent film stardom it was considered one of his best performances, albeit something of a move away from his more knockabout roles.  Although Denny (image, below right) successfully made the transition to talkies he never again achieved this level of stardom, being largely confined to second lead roles, a result, according to some, of his strong English accent (although this never seemed to hold back many other English actors in Hollywood).  And his accent must have been a boon in landing the part of Algy Longworth, Bulldog Drummond’s side-kick in regular Hollywood film outings.  While his later career may have included roles in a significant number of somewhat inconsequential films (Abbot and Costello meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1953!) he still managed roles in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Cat Ballou (1965).  His last film role was as Commodore Schmidlapp in the Adam West film version of Batman (1966)!  He also, rather bizarrely, became a leading developer of unmanned ariel vehicle (UAV) and drone technology for the US military (image, left). 

Denny and co-star Laura La Plante (image, right) married at that time to the film’s director, William Seiter)  made an excellent, naturalistic  partnership although there wasn’t much scope here for La Plante to demonstrate her comedic talent (she was much funnier in Home James (1928)), but her ability as a dancer certainly shone through.  Having failed to make the transition to talkies in Hollywood, La Plante continued her acting career in Britain, the high point probably being Man of the Moment (1935) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  Although apparently considered at one point as a successor to Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series (with other reports saying she even turned down the role in the original film as being too mundane!) so by 1935 her film career was effectively over. 

Director William Seiter (image, left) started out at Mack Sennett studios as a bit part player and stunt double before graduating to directing around 1918.  He made a number of Denny/La Plante films and his ‘Savanna Shuffle’work in Skinner’s Dress Suit obviously stood him in good stead for directing two superb Colleen Moore ‘flapper films’, Synthetic Sin  and Why Be Good, both in 1929.  Successfully moving into sound films he was a reliable director of solid if not spectacular light comedies but did have a big hit with one of Laurel and Hardy’s best known films, Sons of the Desert (1933).

Amongst the other cast, Lucille Ward was excellent as the rather rotund and prone to sobbing Mrs Jackson.  The scenes where she is flirting with Skinner were really funny as was the performance of William H Strauss as the (rather heavily caricatured) Jewish tailor.  And Betty Morrissey as the dance crazed secretary Miss Smith had real dynamism, such a shame that marriage brought her career to an early end. 

Overall then Skinner’s Dress Suit was a pleasing slice of romantic comedy, enlivened by good performances by all the cast and a pretty zippy direction.  Enjoyment was enhanced, as always, by John Sweeney’s superb accompaniment on piano. 

(NB  Skinner’s Dress Suit is available on DVD from Grapevine Video) 

This was a great way to end the Kennington Bioscope’s 2016 season, further emphasising its position as probably the country’s most innovative exhibitors of silent films.  Long may this continue and I’m already looking forward to the 2017 season.