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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Skin Deep was inspired by the notorious East Side gangster, "Monk"
Eastman, whose real name was William Delaney. The law was on his trail
when he joined the army in 1917, earning the Croix de Guerre and other
decorations that won him a restoration of full citizenship. His gang
was unable to lure him back into a criminal life after his
demobilization, and Delaney was murdered on Christmas night by an
The surviving version of Skin Deep, the Netherlands release cut, De Man Met Het Dubbe Le Gelaat, appears to be just over a full reel shorter than what American audiences saw. Veteran "Bud" Doyle (Milton Sills) tries to put his criminal past behind him, but quickly forgotten by the crowds that acclaimed his battlefield valor, he drifts toward his old tenement haunts. The sets are convincingly poor and working class, with there is no glossing over Doyle's school-of-hard-knocks roots. He is a rather benevolent character, despite the obvious ugliness of his grossly enlarged, misshapen nose.
Doyle becomes yet more human because of his unfaithful wife, who is complicit when boss McQuarg (Frank Campeau) frames Doyle, and even the District Attorney has qualms, knowing the real, higher-up criminals remain free. However, learning that a sizable sum has been raised for the disabled soldier's hospital and is kept in the flimsy safe of its head, Dr. Langdon, McQuarg cannot resist the temptation, requiring Doyle's skill.
Visiting her husband in prison, Sadie tells him that the D.A. is threatening to also send her to jail, and informs him of an escape plan. A stunt flier begins to practice his aerobatic tricks near the prison, and climbing to the top of the jail wall, Doyle makes a daring leap onto a passing train. The plane flies low over the train, dropping a rope ladder, which Doyle begins to ascend. But with the added weight, the pilot cannot gain the necessary height, and Doyle is pulled through a wooded area until the ladder breaks and he lies on the ground.
Ince personally directed this harrowing sequence. It typified the "Ince punch": an unpredictable, novel scene, fresh in its events, but easy to grasp, combining character and spectacle, compelling the breathless viewer to the edge of their seat. Through the quick cutting, the succession of dangers, together with the wild improbability, effectively combine to create a memorable scene. It was of no less value in publicity.
Fortunately for Doyle, his tattered body is found, not by prison guards, but by a passing motoristDr. Langdon (Winter Hall). A plastic surgeon, he takes Doyle, whose face has been slashed by the tree branches, back to his sanitarium for an operation. The unmasking of Doyle is predictably suspenseful, and in a reverse of the cliché, Doyle now has the natural visage of the actor who plays him, Milton Sills, rather than garbed in grotesque make-up. The shock for Doyle to see a new face in the mirror brings about a reawakening of his soul, and no less significant is his first sight of his lovely nurse, Ethel Carter (Florence Vidor).
Returning to the city, police realize Doyle cannot possibly be their manor so they think. Sadie must endure her own, private moment of realization. Not recognizing her husband, he shows her an old tattoo. However, she realizes that with a new face has come a new man. He suggests her next stop should be Renofor a divorce.
The last sequence has intercut shots of wheelchair bound veterans listening listlessly to patriotic speeches. They need more; the soldier's home is crowded with those who need its services. Their story has become one with that of Doyle. The closing title of the movie in America made clear the message it was intended to convey. "'Doyle made his fight and won. But there are thousands of other men, not ex-criminals or gangsters, but men who need a helping hand. They do not seek charity, but only ask to be remembered by a land to which they offered their bodies and blood.'--Thomas H. Ince".
Skin Deep was the first movie to use the new science of plastic surgery as a theme, with medical validation. (Similar plot ideas, given less emphasis, appeared in two other films at the same time or months later, Universal's The Man Who Married His Own Wife and Marshall Neilan's Minnie.) When the bandages are removed, Doyle is no longer driven to behavior that is expected because of the criminal visage he had.
As Photoplay summarized, "Hokum, certainly. But so well constructed, so well directed, that almost any audience will applaud at the proper times. There are moments of suspense that bring out the perspirationand what melodrama can do more?" Lambert Hillyer directed the seven reel production of a scenario by LeRoy Stone from a short story, "Lucky Damage," by Marc Edmund Jones. Skin Deep was produced for $179,384, grossing $422,704 after 15 months in release, as detailed in my biography of Ince.
The American Legion received 10% of the profits as the result of a unique contract whose arrangements required they take no action to publicize the movie, only to accept the gift. However, Ince did mention the Legion, and the Legion in turned thanked Ince for his cooperation in their campaign for movies that would inspire better citizenship, sponsoring screenings of Skin Deep at various meetings of chapters of its organization. Adding to the publicity was the labeling of Skin Deep as entertainment, not a war picture, a factor for audiences eager to return to normalcy, but who might yet realize some lessons from the war if framed properly.
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