I wanted to see Mr Skeffington because it stars Bette Davis, who is one of my favourite actresses. However, I ended up feeling that Claude Rains gives by far the stronger performance in this movie, which saw them both receiving Oscar nominations.
I was also interested to see it because I’d read that it is one of Hollywood’s first films to tackle anti-Semitism, and I’ve recently seen a couple of other films which look at this – but there isn’t as much about this theme as I’d expected. There are some brief, painful scenes where the Jewish hero, Job Skeffington (Rains) is shown being cruelly snubbed by members of society – and towards the end of the film there is some limited suggestion of what the Nazis were doing in Europe, leading to a shocking climax. However, most of the movie in fact focuses on Mrs rather than Mr Skeffington and on her struggle to come to terms with growing old and losing her looks – something which is unfortunately portrayed by Bette Davis wearing unconvincing wigs and inch-thick make-up.
The movie, a 145-minute epic covering several decades, is directed by Vincent Sherman and loosely based on a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. I decided to read the book after watching the film, but found that, while both are absorbing, they are very different, so there isn’t much point in doing any detailed comparisons. Von Arnim’s novel feels very English and is a sharp but understated tale, unfolding in flashback and following Mrs Skeffington’s thoughts – there are long scenes where nothing much happens. By contrast, the film, scripted by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein and moving the story to America, is a glossy, elaborate melodrama with strong elements of soap opera. Another big difference is that Mr Skeffington is hardly present in the novel, despite being the title character, whereas in the movie he is an important character and has some of the most powerful scenes.
I especially enjoyed the early part of the film, which shows Bette Davis’ character, Fanny Trellis, as a society beauty with a whole army of adoring suitors. Although Davis was a little old to play a young girl in the opening scenes, she makes you believe that she is irresistible, and is so charismatic that it is easy to believe she has all these people under her spell. Fanny’s secret is that, despite having a Gothic-looking old house, she doesn’t have the money to support this lifestyle – and must marry well, something which becomes all the more imperative when her brother, Trippy (Richard Waring) is caught swindling money from Job, who is his boss on Wall Street.
Mr Skeffington agrees not to press charges and then falls in love with Fanny, who visits him at his workplace. This might sound like a deal, like Fanny selling herself, and that is what the anti-Semitic Trippy claims. But, as far as Job is concerned, it is a love match. He is generous to a fault all through the movie, and has already shown he doesn’t care about the money before there is any romance. There are some affectionate scenes between the couple, including one where Job opens up about his impoverished childhood, and it is clear there is a real attraction between them. However, we are repeatedly told that Fanny doesn’t love him as he loves her – her real love is for her brother, with hints of incestuous feelings, and she is really marrying in order to protect Trippy. Her brother rewards her by making cruel comments about Job and then going off to fight in the First World War, where he is killed.
The Skeffingtons have a daughter, but Fanny is more interested in being worshipped by a succession of young men (although she never seems to have affairs) than in looking after her child. Showing a woman as a bad mother is definitely a way of stacking the dice against her in a classic Hollywood movie, and this whole plot development is clearly designed to make Fanny less sympathetic – though I must say I don’t think she ever quite loses my sympathy, because she always seems to have an essential friendliness and interest in other people, and of course she is played by Davis, who I think always has a vividness which makes her characters appealing.
When she discovers that Job has had a succession of affairs because he is so lonely in their failed marriage, she decides it’s a good opportunity to divorce him – and he goes off to Europe, taking their daughter with him. One of the most powerful scenes in the whole movie is where Job takes their young daughter out to a restaurant to persuade her to stay with her mother, but she pleads with him to take her with him instead. I’ve mostly seen Rains in parts where he is deceptively quiet and controlled, as he is up to this point in this film, but here his emotion comes to the surface – though without any hamminess – and you have to realise what a great actor he was.
The later sections of the movie seem weaker than this first part, as Job disappears and all the action centres on Fanny, who worries about her fading looks. I thought this whole theme went on for too long and seemed to get rather repetitive, as Fanny meets up with her old loves and is repeatedly shocked to find that they no longer see her as attractive. They have aged just as much as she has, of course, but she doesn’t seem to worry about that. All this is drawn from von Arnim’s book, but in the film there seems to be a disturbing element of gloating over the idea of an older woman making herself ridiculous by trying to attract men.
There are a number of plot twists which I won’t go into, leading to a final wildly melodramatic reconciliation, when Job, who has been tortured by the Nazis but somehow escaped, turns up at what used to be his house, and Fanny decides to take him back – partly, it is suggested, because he is now blind and so will still think she is beautiful. There is something peculiarly tasteless and cruel to both characters about this ending, yet I’d say Davis and Rains transcend that because there seems to be so much real affection between the characters, and so much longing to help and support one another despite all that has happened.