Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Skin Game (1971)

          Even in the changing times of the post-Civil Rights era, the prospect of a Hollywood comedy about slavery would seem to promise something wildly offensive, and yet the James Garner-Louis Gossett Jr. romp Skin Game is not only thoroughly enjoyable but, in its irreverent way, respectful. The story, by Richard Alan Simmons, is clever and nervy. In the pre-Civil War South, white hustler Quincy Drew (Garner) travels from town to town “selling” his friend Jason (Gossett), a free man posing as a slave. Exploiting the arrogance of slave owners, they realize nobody expects Jason to slip away after he’s been purchased, so they divide their earnings each time they bilk another rube. The movie finds entertaining ways to address nearly every possibility suggested by this scheme—nefarious types figure out what’s happening and try to hustle the hustlers; Jason ends up getting bought by someone who makes easy escape impossible; Quincy ends up on the receiving end of a bullwhip, making him understand the dangers Jason faces; and so on.
          Even though the picture apparently had some rockiness behind the camera (two directors, a screenwriter working under an alias), Skin Game unfolds confidently, zooming along at a steady pace and revealing witty surprises at nearly every turn. It’s true that some of the twists are a bit too convenient (Jason’s bonding with a group of newly arrived African slaves is a stretch), but the resourcefulness with which the filmmakers complicate the heroes’ lives is impressive. The result is a breezy “another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” buddy comedy, with Garner at the apex of his rascally charm and Gossett mixing lightness into his customarily intense screen persona. Their bickering scenes are thoroughly amusing, and the depth of friendship the story conveys is touching.
          The movie provides love interests for both characters, appropriately a brazen grifter (Susan Clark) for Quincy and a beautiful house slave (Brenda Sykes) for Jason. (Clark, a solid player in a variety of ’70s movies, does some of her best work here, though she’s not in Garner’s league.) However, even with Simmons’ ingenious story and the winning performances by Garner and Gossett, the real star of the show is screenwriter Peter Stone, credited as Pierre Marton. The light-comedy master behind Charade (1963) and Father Goose (1964), Stone fills Skin Game with effervescent dialogue, like this quip from Garner after Clark’s sticky-fingered character offers to safeguard a bankroll: “It’s not you I don’t trust, it’s the money—it begins to act strangely whenever it’s in your possession.”
          FYI, the 1974 TV movie Sidekicks represented a failed attempt to turn Skin Game into a series; Larry Hagman took over the Quincy Drew role while Gossett reprised his Jason character. (Skin Game available at WarnerArchive.com)

Skin Game: GROOVY

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