Mr. Skeffington (1944)


This is the story of a beautiful, but selfish and vain socialite, Fanny Trellis (Bette Davis), who enters into a marriage of convenience with a wealthy businessman, Job Skeffington (Claude Rains, Notorious), and proceeds to make the poor guy’s life miserable.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“A woman is beautiful only when she is loved.”

In my humble opinion, Mr. Skeffington, based upon a novel of the same name by Elizabeth and directed by Vincent Sherman (Old Acquaintance), benefits more from a second viewing than any other of Bette Davis’s Warner Bros. films.

At first glance, Mr. Skeffington looks like an endless saga of an utterly superficial woman, but this long and meticulous production is more intelligent and interesting than it first appears. The literate script by The Epstein Brothers (Casablanca) touches upon a lot of interesting ideas. The brothers use Fanny’s story to explore the ever-changing social attitudes in America over a period of thirty years (1914-1944).

The most interesting aspect of this film is the way in which it explores the facets of antisemitism. I believe this is one of the very first Hollywood films to deal with the subject of prejudice against Jews (it predates movies like Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire). The film makes a connection between the antisemitism in Nazi Germany and the antisemitism that runs through the veins of American society. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” The point is well taken.

Interestingly, studio production chief Jack L. Warner, who was Jewish, ordered the writers to eliminate any allusions to antisemitism, but Davis, actor Claude Rains, director Sherman, the Epsteins, they all refused to make any changes to the dialogue. And that was a good thing because it gives the movie an edge it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Mr. Skeffington is also satirical undertones about American rituals and values.

Mr. Skeffington contains quite possibly Davis’s most ambitious performance. She’s asked to play a character whose beauty is legendary, and Davis, who is nobody’s idea of great beauty (I myself think she was pretty, albeit in a non-conventional way), looks like an odd choice for the main character. The script calls for someone like Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind) or Hedy Lamarr (Samson and Delilah), but by sheer force of will and talent Davis makes you believe that men find her irresistible.

Davis prided herself on never backing down from a challenge and her dedication paid off. She raised her voice a full octave in order to appear more feminine. Ernest Haller’s (Jezebel) slick camerawork, Orry-Kelly’s (Some Like it Hot) exquisite gowns and Margaret Donovan’s wigs, all helped Davis achieve the desired effect. She has some detractors, but I think Davis gives a riveting performance.

Fans are still divided over Davis’s performance, but no one has ever dared to criticize Rains’s well-thought out, Oscar-nominated work. He’s absolutely brilliant. Rains has this great ability to convey complex emotions without moving a muscle. There are only a few actors who have that kind of power. The fine supporting cast includes George Coulouris (Citizen Kane) and Jerome Cowan (The Song of Bernadette).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Mr. Skeffington unfolds beautifully, eventually concluding with an extremely emotional coda. Thanks to the remarkable performances of both Davis and Rains, an intelligent script, fine direction, and high production values, Mr. Skeffington is a compelling and supremely entertaining movie. B&W, 144 minutes, Not Rated.

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