I'll say one thing about the makers of SKIN GAME, the 1971 comic western released by Warner Brothers, especially director Paul Bogart (ALL IN THE FAMILY), writers Richard Alan Simmons (COLUMBO) and Peter Stone (CHARADE), and star James Garner (whose Cherokee Productions made it)--they, to quote Dabney Coleman in DRAGNET, "got balls the size of church bells". It's a sure bet this movie would never get financed by a Hollywood studio today. That's right--it's a lighthearted comedy about slavery!
Despite the PG rating it earned from the MPAA in 1971, Turner Classic Movies aired it several years ago with a TV-14 for "racially sensitive material". That seems a bit harsh to me, for, despite its surprisingly candid look at slavery, it seems such an adult rating might cause viewers to shy away from a film that makes genuine points between the laughs. However, TCM does not appear to have run it since then, and I'm betting concerns about political correctness are the reason.
In the pre-Civil War West, white Quincy (Garner) and black Jason (Louis Gossett Jr.) are fast-talking conmen and friends who travel from small town to small town, working their perennial scam. Pretending to be a slave owner hard up for cash with his "yassuh, nossuh" property, Quincy pops into the local saloon or slave auction to sell Jason for a few hundred bucks, later to rescue him and split the dough. The two have quite a bankroll squirreled away in a Chicago bank, and Jason, whose role in the play is obviously more dangerous, is ready to retire. Quincy convinces his pal to do one last touch, an auction which could fetch up to $2000. Complications arise in the form of two women: Ginger (Susan Clark), another con artist wise to Quincy and Jason's masquerade, and Naomi (Brenda Sykes), a beautiful slave girl whom Jason wants Quincy to buy for him. The plot's more serious undertones kick in when Jason, who was born in New Jersey and has always been free, is actually forced into slavery on the plantation of the cruel Calloway (Andrew Duggan), leading to Quincy's months-long search for his friend.
SKIN GAME is marvelous, featuring fun performances by Garner and Gossett, who share a genuine warmth and chemistry on screen (Gossett later guested on Garner's ROCKFORD FILES series a couple of times), which makes the potentially incendiary plot easier to take. Both actors are given chances to shine on their own, and Gossett especially makes the most of them, able to use his natural charisma and intelligence to put his character on the same level as Garner's.
Not to say that SKIN GAME is watered down; there's a real edge to the racial humor. The N-word pops up almost as often as a Quentin Tarantino script, and, while I found it a bit unnerving, I have the feeling it was Bogart's intention. This is not HOGAN'S HEROES (a show I personally have no problem with) with bumbling slave owners--these are cruel, callous, arrogant men--but SKIN GAME finds just the right balance between social commentary and MAVERICK-style humor. It's no less thought-provoking than a Spike Lee film, but slicker and more entertaining than most.
Bogart's supporting cast is made up mainly of familiar TV faces, such as Edward Asner, Henry Jones, Neva Patterson, Parley Baer, Royal Dano, Juanita Moore, Dort Clark, George Wallace and Burt Mustin. Music by David Shire. Gossett actually returned as Jason three years later in the made-for-TV remake SIDEKICKS, with Larry Hagman replacing Garner. It was likely a pilot for a proposed series, but even in 1974 this sort of humor may have crossed a line few networks wanted to cross.