Skinner’s Dress Suit was a well-known commodity by the time Universal Pictures reimagined it for comedian Reginald Denny. The character of Skinner was the brainchild of American author Henry Irving Dodge, whose “Skinner’s Dress Suit” was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post before it was published as a novel in 1916. Audiences first saw Skinner on screen the following year in a series of successful films produced by the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, directed by Harry Beaumont and featuring Bryant Washburn in the starring role: Skinner’s Dress Suit (1917), Skinner’s Bubble (1917), and Skinner’s Baby (1917). The well-liked confection proved ideal source material for the charismatic Denny, and Universal secured the rights in 1925 as one of their “Universal-Jewel” releases, making it one of the studio’s prestige productions.
In 1926, Reginald Denny was at the height of his fame as a star comedian who played the American everyman confronting modern life much in the style of Harold Lloyd. Film critic Iris Barry (later the first film curator of the Museum of Modern Art), in her 1926 article “The Cinema: Lesser Glories” for Britain’s The Spectator, noted: “A newer figure is Reginald Denny. His films are definitely delightful and extremely funny, not farces like those of Lloyd or Keaton, but real, light comedy, from which the humor of dress suits, dance partners and domestic and business life in general is deftly extracted.”
Denny came from a theatrical family. Born Reginald Leigh Dugmore in England in 1891, he adopted his father’s stage surname—Denny—after he ran away from school at sixteen and became an actor. He worked continuously in Britain and abroad until enlisting in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. Denny’s lifelong interest in aviation began during his service in World War I, which is also when he further cultivated his pugilistic skills, eventually winning his brigade’s heavyweight boxing championship. His boxing experience served him well in Hollywood as a result of the popularity of the boxing series The Leather Pushers (1922), produced by Universal. Good-looking and well-built, Denny had a fine sense of humor and was not above appearing ridiculous if the story required it. Denny excelled at light comedy and his best films are precursors of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s. He also had excellent taste in story ideas; he receives story credit for six of his films and is uncredited on many others as he sought involvement in the creation of all his starring features. Fortunately for Denny, he had a perfect collaborator in director William A. Seiter, whose notable body of work primarily involves comedy teams—the Laurel and Hardy classic Sons of the Desert (1933), Room Service (1938) with the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello’s Little Giant (1946), to name a few.
Denny and Seiter’s first film together, The Fast Worker (1924), costarred the perky Laura La Plante who became Denny’s favorite leading lady. The on-screen pairing was a happy and successful one. Denny had recommended La Plante for the part as they had worked well together in a previous film, Sporting Youth (1923). She is best remembered today for the Paul Leni comedy-mystery thrillers The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Last Warning (1929). In addition to being a favorite of Denny, she was the object of Seiter’s affection and they became engaged while making Skinner’s Dress Suit. The on-screen chemistry between Denny and La Plante is unmistakable; yet it was the collaboration between Denny and Seiter that was essential to the success of Skinner. In a 1964 interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow, Denny reflected on Seiter: “We never had … a cross word, and we always brought the picture in within budget. We used to sit down and talk the story over before shooting. There was a great interchange of ideas; we’d listen to anybody. If someone thought we could do something better, why not? We’d try it again. But basically, the great secret was that Bill Seiter and myself would get the script, and we’d make suggestions, and argue like hell. Finally, we’d get it right. You can’t be a comedian unless you think what you’re doing is funny.”
The scenario for Skinner’s Dress Suit, credited to Rex Taylor, is written with flair and charm, showcasing the likeable lead characters in relatable situations. Skinner (Reginald Denny) feels trapped behind the iron bars of the cashier’s cage at McLaughlin and Perkins, Inc. His adoring wife, Honey (Laura La Plante), wants him to move up the corporate ladder and prods him to ask for a pay raise. Honey idolizes her husband and sees him as “a master of men and events.” In reality, he is not a success at his job and fails to get the raise. When Honey presses him, he lies that he secured ten dollars more a week. An elated Honey immediately buys her husband a dress suit—the white tie and tails worn on formal occasions held in the evening—and something for herself so they can look their best at a party held by the local smart set led by Mrs. Colby. Dressed in their finery, the two are like ducks out of water at the fancy soirée until they make a splash dancing the latest craze, the Savannah Shuffle. His social success in his dress suit is proof that “clothes make the man.” Skinner performs a more intricate dance, however, trying to keep one step ahead of bill collectors, and his wife, when he loses his job altogether. Ultimately, Honey’s confidence in her “big, handsome, successful husband” wins him a contract his employer thought was lost—and a happy ending.
The production, too, was a happy one, and a highlight of the filming was the staging of the Savannah Shuffle in the party sequence. Denny himself contrived the dance’s ridiculous steps, a combination of the Charleston, the Gaby Glide, and a duck waddle. The notable supporting cast includes actress (and future gossip columnist) Hedda Hopper as Mrs. Colby and a young Arthur Lake (best remembered as Dagwood Bumstead in the numerous Blondie films he made for Columbia Pictures between 1938 and 1950) as the office boy. Janet Gaynor and Reginald Denny’s future wife Isabelle Stiefel appear uncredited as party guests.
Skinner’s Dress Suit enjoyed favorable reviews. Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times reported that the film, which premiered at the prestigious Rivoli Theatre in Manhattan, was received “by many a good hearty round of applause” and assessed it simply as “… a feature that comes in the category of nice comedies.” Photoplay proclaimed, “A refreshingly clean comedy with an excellent cast, ably directed.” The San Francisco News noted: “Reginald Denny is decidedly in his element as Skinner. He gets out every ounce of fun there is in a role of the harassed young husband and the situations which he finds himself.” Bryant Washburn attempted to recreate the film’s, and his own, success with Skinner’s Big Idea (1928), but the effort failed. In 1929, Universal remade Skinner’s Dress Suit as Skinner Steps Out, a talking film starring Glenn Tryon. Yet no other film version—before or since—approaches the appeal of Reginald Denny’s.
The arrival of sound films revealed Denny’s distinctive British accent and rendered his portrayal of the American everyman impossible. After a few starring roles, he was relegated to playing Englishmen in supporting parts. Meanwhile, Denny’s aviation hobby had become more than a pastime when he formed Reginald Denny Industries in 1935 for the manufacture of recreational model planes. He developed the first scaled remote piloted vehicle—a radio-controlled drone aircraft—that the U.S. Army used for training and combat during World War II.
Still, Denny had a long, varied career as a character actor up until his death in 1967 at the age of seventy-five. He appeared in more than a hundred sound films, including Cecil B. DeMille’s Madame Satan (1930), Sidney Franklin’s film version of Noel Coward’s play Private Lives (1931), George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet (1936), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), the Cary Grant-Myrna Loy classic Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and the campy comic book caper Batman (1966), not to mention his frequent television and stage work.
In 1964 Kevin Brownlow arranged for Denny and his family to see Skinner’s Dress Suit in the form of an old 16mm print from Universal’s Show-at-Home movie library. Denny had not seen any of his silent films in more than twenty years and was reluctant, telling Brownlow that the film would “creak.” Instead, Denny was delighted by a fast-paced and charming comedy. “It certainly stands up a lot better than I thought it would,” was the actor’s modest assessment. Skinner’s Dress Suit is the finest example of Reginald Denny’s little-known and underappreciated comedy and, now in this new restoration by Universal, further evidence of the superb craftsmanship typical of Hollywood in the 1920s.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Philip Carli