Milton Sills was a moderately handsome, moderately talented actor who attained a moderately successful level of stardom in silent films. In silent days, the threshold of stardom was a lot lower, because movies could be produced very cheaply, and there were many low-budget production companies dedicated to grinding out films that consistently starred a specific actor ... usually either the owner of the production company, or his wife.
'Skin Deep' is a low-budget character study which tells a story that manages to be fairly unusual yet utterly predictable. Milton Sills is only barely recognisable under heavy makeup as Bud Doyle, a man ugly of face and also ugly of soul. Doyle is a common criminal: not even a crimelord, mind you, but just a cheap thug. The heavy-handed scenario indicates that Doyle has no alternative to a life of crime, because he's so ugly that nobody will trust him with honest employment.
It's interesting to see Sills going against his normal casting and playing a criminal. However, he clearly wants to retain some audience sympathy, so the script is careful to establish that Doyle is a pawn of nastier and more powerful crooks, such as Boss McQuarg. (Would anybody ever trust somebody cried Boss McQuarg?)
After committing various crimes, Doyle crosses paths with kindly Dr Langdon, who has a theory that good-looking people are treated better by society than ugly people (no comment). Langdon performs plastic surgery on Doyle, who comes out of it looking like Milton Sills. He rushes off to Hollywood and gets a job as Milton Sills's stunt double ... no, I'm joking, but that would have been a more imaginative (and less predictable) ending than what happens next.
SPOILERS COMING. The newly-handsome Doyle straight away renounces his life of crime, helping the authorities to round up McQuarg and Doyle's other criminal cronies. Happy endings all round, and one thing is clear: now that Doyle has movie-star looks, there are no possible obstacles to his success in life. There are absolutely no surprises in 'Skin Deep', and it doesn't help that the intertitles are so elaborate that they distract from the by-the-numbers story.
Oh, blimey! I have very mixed feelings about this film. On one level, it seems gobsmackingly shallow in telling us that ugly people have a harder time of it than lookers. On the other hand, has any movie (or other narrative work) ever really dealt with this subject properly? We DO tend to react to people based upon their looks ... not only in real life, but in the movies we watch. Polanski's 'Compulsion' is a good example: it's a harrowing study of one woman's descent into madness, but we eagerly watch this movie because it stars the stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who is extremely easy on the eyes. If the same film had starred a much less attractive actress -- or a man, in a comparable situation -- we would likely be far less eager to watch it.
'Skin Deep' really has nothing to say that hasn't been said elsewhere. On the other hand, it says something that we really need to be told, over and over: judge people by their deeds, not their appearance. I'll give 'Skin Deep' credit for good intentions, and it's well-directed by Lambert Hillyer, whose career deserves to be much better known. I'll rate this movie 4 out of 10.
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