The Bette Davis Project: Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Synopsis:

Mr. Skeffington tells 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, Now, Voyager), and proceeds to make the poor guy’s life miserable.

Reaction & Thoughts:

In my humble opinion, Mr. Skeffington, based upon the novel of the same name by ‘Elizabeth,’ and directed by Vincent Sherman (Old Acquaintance and The Damned Don’t Cry), benefits more from a second viewing than any other of Davis’s Warner Bros. films.

At first glance the movie looks like an endless saga of an utterly superficial woman, but this long, meticulous production is much more intelligent and interesting than it first appears. The literate script, by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace), touches upon a lot of interesting ideas. The Epstein brothers use Fanny’s story to explore the ever-changing social attitudes in America during a period of twenty 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 the 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, Jack L. Warner, who was Jewish, ordered the writers to eliminate any allusions to antisemitism, but Davis, 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 that wouldn’t have had otherwise. Mr. Skeffington is also surprisingly funny — humor and high drama co-exist in perfect harmony.

This is 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 utterly irresistible.

Davis always prided herself on never backing down from a challenge and her dedication pays off. She raised her voice a full octave in order to appear more feminine, and while it does sound strange at first, you slowly realize that this is a clever choice. Ernest Haller’s (Jezebel) slick camerawork, Orry-Kelly’s (Some Like it Hot) exquisite gowns and Margaret Donovan’s wigs, all help Davis achieve the desired effect. She has some detractors (director Sherman wasn’t satisfied with Davis’s characterization), but I think Davis gives a riveting performance in a truly challenging role.

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 (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Jerome Cowan (The Song of Bernadette), and Walter Abel (Holiday Inn).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The film 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, smart and supremely entertaining movie. B&W, 144 minutes, Not Rated.

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