Before there was Baby Jane, there was Fanny Skeffington…(Review of Mr. Skeffington, 1944)

one and only bette

By Heather Babcock

“One should never look for admirers while at the same time one is falling to bits.” – Fanny Skeffington (Bette Davis)

Mr. Skeffington (1944) is kind of like a granola bar – it looks super healthy and good for you but in reality it’s filled with about as many empty calories as a chocolate bar.

Released during World War II, Mr. Skeffington spans thirty years, beginning in 1914 and ending during the film’s present day of 1944. This means that the film’s star, the inimitable Bette Davis, gets to wear lavish period costumes designed by Orry-Kelly. All of the silks, feathers, furs and frills are enough to make any fashion enthusiast’s mouth water.

In Mr. Skeffington, Davis plays Fanny Trellis, a spoiled but beautiful New York socialite whose mere name causes rich and powerful men to go weak in the knees and whose presence transforms them into lovesick, bumbling idiots. In order to help her roguish young brother Trippy avoid an embezzlement charge, Fanny marries Job Skeffington (Claude Rains), a very wealthy and much older businessman.  That their first date is interrupted by the declaration of WWI is inauspicious: while Job is clearly taken with Fanny, she is fond of his money and in love with no one but herself. When Job kisses her after their wedding ceremony, Fanny seems more concerned with her hair than with the kiss. Marriage doesn’t prevent Fanny from still encouraging her many suitors to the aptly named Job’s amusement and consternation. It isn’t Fanny’s flirting which drives a wedge between them but rather her pregnancy. Fanny admits that she doesn’t like or want children and is afraid of growing old: “Babies grow up and everybody expects you to grow up with them.” She confesses that she is afraid of losing her beauty to which Job replies “A woman is beautiful when she’s loved, and only then.” “Nonsense!” Fanny huffs. “A woman is beautiful when she has eight hours’ sleep and goes to the beauty parlor every day.” After her brother Trippy is killed in WWI, Fanny shuts her husband out, no longer just dangling men but reeling them in – including a hard-boiled Prohibition era gangster. Job copes by lavishing love on his daughter and by spending late nights at work with his secretary. Fanny seeks a divorce and grants Job full custody of their daughter, giving her blessing for Job and the child to move to Europe. In her late 40s, Fanny is still gorgeous and dates men half her age but after she becomes ill with diphtheria she loses her looks – and her suitors.  Her once lovely face now ravaged, she finds herself alone, unwanted and rejected by even her own daughter who announces her marriage to Fanny’s younger ex-beau. At the height of her misery, Fanny’s cousin George informs her that Job is back in New York and that he is now homeless and penniless after being tortured by the Nazis in a concentration camp. Fanny seems less concerned about the concentration camp and more worried about what Job will think of her when he sees that she’s lost her looks. After some coaching though she agrees to meet with him and discovers that Job is now blind. Tearfully she promises to always take care of him and, leading him up the stairs to their bedroom, repeats Job’s line “A woman is beautiful when she’s loved, and only then.”

 Mr. Skeffington is often referred to as a “women’s picture”. This classification seems more than a little condescending to me. “Women’s picture” is a term used to describe many WWII era films that revolved around a female protagonist and interestingly it is often applied to those films which starred Bette Davis, then the most powerful woman on the Warner Brothers lot. Unlike Fanny Skeffington, Bette was not considered a great beauty. She was attractive, with a lovely figure and large mesmerizing eyes, but her beauty was unconventional and certainly not the Helen of Troy variety that the script calls for. Bette Davis was as close to an “everywoman” that classic Hollywood ever came to. Women could relate to her. That’s why the miscast works here – if Fanny were played by a stunning beauty like Ava Gardner, her selfish behavior would be more obnoxious than charming. With Bette in the role, female viewers can live vicariously through her exploits, delighting as she turns rich bankers into puppets and powerful gangsters into puppies.

However Davis’ performance in Mr. Skeffington has always struck me as a bit odd and after a recent viewing of the film I finally discovered why: Davis is not playing a beautiful socialite but a caricature of a beautiful socialite. Director Vincent Sherman has said that he was surprised and a little annoyed when Bette began using a higher voice for the character, without discussing it with him first. Bette told him that she wanted to sound younger but she uses the high pitched “dinner bell” voice for the entire movie. There is one scene though where Davis really gets to let loose and be, well, Bette Davis: when Fanny goes to see a therapist, the misogynist brute orders her to “Go back to your husband!” Like a goddess rising from the ashes, those magnificent eyes blazing, Bette shouts back “And you know where you can go!”

One thing Bette clearly relishes is Fanny’s transformation from ravishing to ravaged. When director Sherman balked at the “ugly” make-up she insisted on wearing, feeling that the hideousness was a little over-the-top, Bette shrugged. “My audience likes to see me do this kind of thing,” she replied.

If Mr. Skeffington were in fact about Mr. Skeffington, it would be an entirely different, and darker, film. Claude Rains does an excellent job as Fanny’s long suffering husband. His conflicting feelings of hurt and awe play out on his gentle face to heartbreaking effect. One of the most moving scenes in the movie is when Job, who is Jewish, tries to tell his daughter why he can’t take her with him to Europe. As he attempts to explain prejudice and anti-Semitism to the girl, he breaks down and admits that “it is a very hard thing to explain to a child.” She then asks him if it is easier to explain to a grown-up. “I don’t know,” he answers sadly. It is the most honest- and gut wrenching – scene in the entire film.

This leads me to the movie’s ending and why it has disturbed me ever since I first saw the film. Like most Code-era movies, Mr. Skeffington “punishes” Fanny for her promiscuity by taking away her looks. In films made after the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, “bad” women were destined to a tragic end – usually by death or by losing their beauty. Perhaps because Mr. Skeffington was made during WWII and the studio wanted to buoy the spirits of the women at home, the film grants Fanny a happy ending after all; however that happy ending comes at the expense of Job losing his sight in a concentration camp. That the movie uses the real life horror of the Nazis as a plot device to give Fanny her happy ending is a little bit icky and a lot problematic. Also the audience is deprived of ever knowing if Job would really still love Fanny if he could see that she is no longer physically beautiful.

And yet, even though I know that this ending is pretty awful, it still makes me bawl like a baby every time I watch it.

Mr. Skeffington (1944) is like a hot chocolate lava cake: it’s gooey and messy but thanks to Vincent Sherman’s smart direction, Ernest Haller’s gorgeous cinematography, awesome sets (the movie was filmed completely on the Warner Brothers’ back lot which completely amazes me – it really does look like New York), Claude Rains’ strong performance and of course, the one and only Bette Davis, the movie is irresistibly delicious.

 

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