Reginald Denny and Laura La Plante play a couple hoping to raise their standard of living. When Denny lies about a raise, La Plante goes shopping and all is well until the repo man comes calling. A perfectly delightful domestic comedy.
Reginald Denny is not generally mentioned when the top comedians of the silent era are listed but I figure that’s the loss of the list-writers. Ditto if they leave off Laura La Plante. Sure, there’s not much slapstick in a film like Skinner’s Dress Suit but that’s kind of the point. Besides, the more realistic situations and settings make the gags land right in the audience’s back yard.
Denny started out making boxing pictures, of all things, and his signature character was Kane Halliday, prizefighter. (He really was a heavyweight boxer but thank heaven he switched to films before his nose went the way of Louis Wolheim’s. Football in Wolheim’s case.) He continued with films called things like The Jaws of Steel and The Abysmal Brute along with a few aristocratic roles before someone with a brain (and at Universal!) cast him in comedies like The Reckless Age, about an heiress with a giant insurance policy and the agent trying to keep his company’s investment safe.
Denny was the whole package and had a similar quality to Cary Grant: he was a very handsome, strapping Englishman who wasn’t afraid to make himself look ridiculous in the pursuit of a belly laugh. If you’ve never seen one of his films before, get ready for a great time!
In this film, Denny plays Skinner, the cashier at a nut and bolt company. His wife, Honey (Laura La Plante), adores her husband but wants to move up in the world and tells him that he must ask for a raise. He agrees and it’s off to work. Where he arrives late. Again.
Skinner may be king of his castle but he’s known as a grumpy old bear at the office and the company is in dire straits due to their biggest account dropping them. Add a few additional mishaps and Skinner’s raise is out of the question.
Honey has complete faith in her husband’s negotiating skills and so she has told her friends and prepared a romantic feast for two to celebrate his raise. She is already dreaming of ways to spend the additional income and just needs a number from her husband.
Skinner doesn’t have the nerve to burst Honey’s illusions and tells her that he received a $10 per week raise. And, naturally, Honey decides to start spending that extra windfall. Her first mission: buy a dress suit for her husband and an evening frock for herself. There’s a party being held by the Colbys (Henry A. Barrows and Hedda Hopper), the social leaders of the area, and Honey means to make a splash. They could never have afforded to go before but with $500 a year in extra income, it’s now within their means.
Wow, it’s almost like applying social pressure to middle class married women to prevent them from earning their own incomes is a bad thing. (Contrary to the pre-1960s “all women were happy housewives” mythology often spouted today, poorer women have always worked and worked hard.) Bright, enthusiastic Honey would have knocked ‘em dead as an entrepreneur or at least seize the means of production but, alas, not going to happen.
The party scene is a great example of the film’s perceptive humor. Skinner and Honey are decked out in their new finery and proudly practice introducing themselves to the smart set but when they actually arrive at the party, social anxiety sets in. They don’t know anybody and it’s all terribly awkward. Denny and La Plante play their nervousness perfectly and anyone who has ever felt out of place at a party can relate.
Salvation comes when the Skinners dance, they know the latest moves and the rest of the party is eager to learn them. After that, it seems that everything is going their way. The Colbys want to be their friends, Skinner’s employers see him killing it socially and a good time is had by all.
It comes crashing down when Skinner is laid off and the repo men come knocking for the furniture that Honey brought on installment. Money? The Skinners are overdrawn. Worse, they are already committed to attend a fancy party and Skinner’s dress suit was purchased on credit with the payments due. (The film is only marred by a rather stereotyped performance by William H. Strauss as the Jewish tailor who attempts to repossess that famous dress suit.)
Will Skinner scrape out of this fix? Will Honey find out? Will the dress suit have to go back? You’ll have to see the movie to find out!
Skinner’s Dress Suit is based on a 1916 novel by Henry Irving Dodge that was adapted into a 1917 Essanay film with Bryant Washburn as Skinner but the themes of consumerism fit the 1920s to a T. I would love to compare the two versions but it seems that no copies of the Essanay film exist.
This is the sort of film that would have been made by Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew in the previous decade and would again be made with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray (The Egg and I) or Myrna Loy and Cary Grant (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse). If you like either of those films, you’re going to love Skinner’s Dress Suit.
Reginald Denny and Laura La Plante absolutely make this picture. They’re both funny and good-natured and their chemistry is excellent. Skinner and Honey have their problems (his is honesty, hers is covetousness) but they absolutely adore one another. The sweet mutual respect is refreshing in a world of snarky cinematic spouses and you know that even if Skinner loses, he still wins because Honey loves him.
But back to the funny. Both Denny and La Plante throw themselves into the physical aspect of their characters, dancing like crazy. The scene where Skinner instructs Honey on a new dance step he learned via the telephone is particularly cute with the leads conveying the entire lesson sans intertitles.
I must pause here to tip my hat to the director. William A. Seiter (Mr. Laura La Plante) had a long career in the talkies directing everyone from Shirley Temple to Laurel and Hardy to Deanna Durbin to Fred Astaire but he displays a strong grasp of silent era visual storytelling.
Early in the film, Skinner is late for his train and races to catch it. Two elderly gentlemen see what is happening and each wordlessly lays down a nickel. Skinner misses that train and one of the men is a nickel richer but the scene also is the epitome of “show, don’t tell.” Sure, there could have been a witty card stating that Skinner was habitually late and had about a 50/50 chance of missing his train but this is so much more effective and clever.
These flourishes continue throughout the film, from wordless dance lessons to Skinner constantly consulting his bank book to Honey demanding that her husband defend her honor. There are a few witty title cards but most of the tale is told visually, with a few well-chosen instances when the written word is used for maximum impact. In short, this is EXACTLY how intertitles were ideally used and anybody hoping to make a modern silent film can learn much from this picture.
Skinner’s Dress Suit is a light confection that is unusually well-constructed. It benefits from its talented director and charismatic leads, as well as a screenplay that most anybody can identify with even if they’ve never danced a step. This is a quality non-slapstick comedy and an ideal silent film for first-timers but veteran viewers will also be charmed. If you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself!
Where can I see it?
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