A vain, spoilt Gilded Age debutante, Fanny Trellis, marries her brother’s employer, Mr. Skeffington, in order to save her beloved, but swindling, sibling from prosecution. It becomes clear that not only doesn’t Fanny love her indulgent husband, she is incapable of real love for anyone, including their daughter. Eventually finding herself alone, a middle aged woman abandoned by the suitors she so took for granted, Fanny must deal with the loss of her beauty due to the ravages of diphtheria. The story ends as she comes to appreciate her husband’s quiet devotion of many years.
OSCAR NOMINATED for Best Actor (Rains) and Best Actress (Davis)
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How much you enjoy this film depends on how you feel about “women’s pictures” from the classic era. “Women’s pictures” were the chick flicks of the studio era and were designed to dramatize contemporary women’s concerns and, in this case, to voice their fears. Fanny’s terror at growing up and old, her cry when confronted with the possibility of having to see her estranged husband after her illness - “He only loved what I looked like - not me at all!” was meant to reflect the same concerns of the women in the audience about their lives and marriages. At the same time, the film provided them with an ornate, elegant setting, elaborate costumes and melodramatic plot twists. It can be an entertaining formula when handled by people who know what they’re doing. That, plus a straight up star turn from Bette Davis, and this is a fun way to spend a couple of hours.
Bette Davis was the biggest female star at Warner Brothers, and arguably in the industry, when she made this movie, which is unquestionably a star vehicle. As a result, the very top talent available were enlisted at her request. Vincent Sherman, with whom she had worked successfully on “Old Acquaintance” (1943), was her director. They were romantically involved during the shooting of “Mr. Skeffington” and, according to Sherman’s commentary on the DVD, their “personal story is integrally involved in every shot that we made in the picture.” It wasn’t always an easy relationship. They disagreed over her character choices, but apparently Davis generally got her way. Sherman initially was reluctant to allow her to pitch her voice higher than its usual timbre, which Davis does throughout the film. She insisted it would make her seem younger, and presumably more frivolous, and she won, with generally favourable results. The effect seems arch at times, but there is a good deal about Fanny that is arch and artificial and so it largely works for the characterization. Another subject of contention between star and director was the heavy make up that was created to prematurely age Fanny after her bout of diphtheria. Sherman feared it was too exaggerated and too heavy, and he relates a wonderful snapshot of the fearless and shrewd professional that was Bette Davis. As they were preparing to shoot the scene in which Fanny is revealed sitting up in bed alone, the audience seeing for the first time how the ravages of illness have drastically changed her, Davis told her director not to worry, “my fans like to see me do things like this.” It was shot Davis’ way and she was proved right. Her fans loved it.
Claude Rains, Davis’ co-star here, the eponymous Mr. Skeffington himself, had starred with her successfully twice previously, in “Juarez” (1937) and “Now Voyager” (1942). The two actors were friends off screen and their easy rapport on screen seems to confirm this. Rains brings a wonderful quality to this part and to the film in general. He is a much needed calming presence, not only on Fanny, but on the picture as a whole. Davis is such a strong, demanding emotional presence that she runs the risk of being wearing on the viewer, particularly when playing a woman as exasperating as Fanny often is. In Rains’ skillful interpretation, Job Skeffington, a Jewish immigrant, who comes from poverty on the lower east side of New York and eventually rises high enough so that he is able to “marry the woman every one else wanted”, but who doesn’t love him, is not a pathetic figure, as he might have been. Instead, Rains imbues him with a quiet dignity and a sure knowledge of who he his. He lets us know that Job is never fooled by Fanny. He knows she doesn’t love him and he accepts this, in the way that he might accept a poor yield on a stock. It’s the way of things, but just as stocks go back up so could his luck with Fanny. He exhibits an endless patience with her and an understanding of her insecurities and vanity. In short, he makes Fanny, and by extension her story, bearable.
He also has, what Vincent Sherman describes as “one of the best scenes in the picture”, with little Fanny. It is a charming scene between Job and his daughter at a restaurant, after Fanny and he have split, when he tells the girl she will live with her mother, but then relents and assures her he’ll take her to Europe with him upon seeing her reaction. lt is a scene that is poignant without being maudlin. The little girl’s valiant attempt at being grown up is delicately handled and there is a believable connection between father and daughter.
Overall, despite the slightly long running time, there is much to recommend this film. It is a piece of self-assured product from the studio era, an example of a group of professionals who knew exactly what they were doing in creating a slick, enjoyable entertainment.