Classic Film Talk: ‘Mr. Skeffington’ (1944)

Today we reminisce about

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

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Directed by Vincent Sherman

Starring: Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Walter Abel

* Published specifically for The 4th Annual Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Hollywood *

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Before I start talking about our featured film, I would like to give a little background into how I became a cinephile of Classic Film. I started becoming an avid movie watcher in the middle of my childhood after gaining access to cable services that had 24-hour movie channels like HBO and Cinemax. The varied programming introduced me to new genres and perhaps most importantly, having a VCR allowed me to make VHS cassette mixes of my favourite films. During the summer my siblings and I were often left on our own so these channels became our babysitter. Re-watching became a religion and no film seemed to be off-limits even though racier themes tended to be reserved for late evening showings. A few years later, I was gifted a robust TV/VCR combo and started making my own VHS collection, sticking to the “tried and true” titles but also branching out and trying some blind buys. The surging popularity of Miramax in the early 1990’s had a large effect on me because for the first time I was introduced to movies that were exotic and that had an international flair to them. Some of the titles include The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, The Piano, Trois Couleurs (Three Colours), The House of the Spirits, Bullets Over Broadway and Muriel’s Wedding.

My love of pop culture and films continued on into the early 2000’s at which time my watching came to a somewhat grinding halt after moving to France to get married and settle down. At the time, DVDs were still a fairly new thing and the prices were quite high so my husband and I only had a few of them to keep us entertained. We would sometimes rent DVDs but often times there were very few films with the original English soundtrack. Fast forward to 2005, a time when we were temporarily living in the U.S. and had just had our first children, a set a twins. Taking care of them as newborns demanded us to be available around the clock and we were always up in the middle of the night. Low and behold, the one channel to offer quality programming at 3am was TCM. I distinctly remember the first film I watched and the immediate effect that it had on me. That inaugural picture was none other than Mr. Skeffington, a film that made me fall deeply in love with the Golden Age of Hollywood and in particular, Claude Rains. Nearly 15 years after I first watched it, I am finally getting a chance to talk about this very special film.

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Synopsis

Frances “Fanny” Trellis (Bette Davis) is one of New York City’s most celebrated beauties and constantly has several suitors simultaneously vying for her attention. They often arrive well ahead of other guests at her parties just to try to beat the competition to ask for her hand in marriage. Fanny takes much delight in being so adored even though she has no serious plans to settle down with any of them. In fact, most of her time is spent being an everlasting debutante who wishes to remain youthful and attractive for as long as possible. She is extremely self-absorbed, caring only for herself and a few select others like her brother Trippy, cousin George (Walter Abel) and personal maid, Mamby.

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One evening in the late spring of 1914, Fanny and Trippy host another one of their famous parties where some of the guests speak of a possible impending war and changing political climate. Right before they head off to dinner, Mr. Job Skeffington (Claude Rains) arrives at the house unexpectedly to talk about an urgent matter to Trippy who works as a “customer’s man”/bond salesman at Jewish firm Skeffington & Co. Since Trippy blatantly refuses to speak to his boss, George and Fanny take it upon themselves to handle the problem. They learn that Trippy had been fired two weeks prior for turning in false orders in order to pocket the commissions. In total, he embezzled $24,000 from the company ($610,000+ in today’s money). Job asks if there is any way of getting the money returned to which Fanny reveals that they are secretly broke; the legendary Trellis fortune now being just that – a myth. Taking pity on the situation, Job gives them time to try and get as much money as they can before going to the district attorney.

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Fanny & Trippy

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The next day, Fanny is confident that everything will be fine because Job would have fallen for her and sent her a mountain of flowers. She receives plenty of floral arrangements from her various suitors but nothing from Job, perplexing her to no end. Her curiosity gets the best of her so she heads to his office with the excuse of wanting to sell him raffle tickets. Job is pleased to see her and in their conversation states that he is neither married nor romantically involved with anyone. He also says that he had seen Fanny many times out-and-about town before visiting her home but that he had never stood out to her. As they make plans for a luncheon date, a sudden commotion comes about at the office due to the sudden news of the declaration of World War I. This interrupts their meeting and as a result of the chaos do not see each other for several weeks.

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A mystery man has commissioned an artist to paint an elaborate oil painting of Fanny, paying a great deal for the work and for the artist’s silence. Fanny’s suitors are not amused and some of them even try to buy the portrait to no avail. On a whim, Fanny decides to go to Job’s house and in doing so sees her portrait being delivered there. The next scene cuts to Job and Fanny getting married at the domicile of a justice of the peace with a very no frills ceremony that is to the point. Afterwards, the newlyweds go back to Fanny’s home and encounter her usual group of beaus who are sulking over the unexpected marriage though they still have no intention of letting Fanny live happily married to Job. The person the most troubled by the union is Trippy who calls Fanny out on marrying Job for his money in order to save them from scandal. He leaves the house never to return, intent upon joining the Armed Forces in the war effort. Fanny is heartbroken and rejects Job for the first time upon Trippy’s departure.

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One year later, Job and Fanny are celebrating their paper anniversary. Their marriage is going fine though there is not much passion in it from Fanny and not much insistence from Job, especially when it comes to giving her suitors the boot. He has decided to look at the situation in a comical fashion rather than consider it threatening. Job, Fanny, George and the house staff all watch a news reel after dinner which gives them an update on world events. They happen to see Trippy amongst the American members of Lafayette and the emotion provokes Fanny to faint. She is tended to by a doctor who happily announces that a baby is on the way, making Job extremely proud but creating immense strain to Fanny. Her wish is to go away to California with George and have the baby there so that no one she knows will see her in such a “condition”. Already emotionally detached from her child, she reiterates her wish to never grow old and never lose her beauty. Job experiences the birth of his daughter, Frances “Little Fanny” Rachel Skeffington, from a distance. Little Fanny grows up being very close with her father and having an impersonal, cold relationship with her mother. She is mostly taken care of by a governess.

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“A woman is beautiful when she is loved… and only then.”

“Nonsense. A woman is beautiful if she has 8 hours sleep and goes to the beauty parlour every day.”

It is nearly the end of the war when word is sent that Trippy was killed in action. The news is too much for Fanny to handle and she lashes out at Job, blaming him for her brother’s death because had she never had to marry Job for his money to bail Trippy out of debt, he would likely still be alive. Job is stunned to hear her confession but remains calm though the dynamics of their relationship starkly changes after that evening. Fanny starts going out with different men and stays out until all hours of the night while Job seems to be waiting in the wings. However, Job has been discreetly seeing women who have served as his secretary, having five of them in all. When Fanny discovers this, she immediately files for divorce. The custody of Little Fanny has been granted to her mother but Fanny seems completely uninterested in keeping the child, asking Job if he would not like to have her instead. And so it goes that Job and Little Fanny depart to live overseas while Fanny reclaims her status as a “free woman”.

Does Fanny obtain the ultimate fulfilment from leading this carefree, independent lifestyle? What becomes of Job and Little Fanny in Europe? Will there ever be any joy shared in this family?

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Background & Thoughts

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Fannie Ward

The screenplay for Mr. Skeffington was derived from a story of the same name written by Australian-born novelist Elizabeth von Arnim who wrote it one year before her death at the age of 74. It has been said that the character of Fanny Trellis was loosely based on the life and exploits of silent film star Fannie Ward although there is no corroborative proof of this claim. Warner Bros. immediately purchased the rights for the film and started to think about casting choices. Along with Tallulah Bankhead, Norma Shearer and Irene Dunne, Bette Davis was considered to play Fanny before eventually being offered the role. Davis was none too thrilled about having to play a woman of 50 and outright refused the role, not caring if suspension was involved. Somehow she eventually relented and accepted with certain conditions such as choosing her director and having a say about different aspects of the production. (She just happened to choose Vincent Sherman, a labelled “woman’s director” with whom she conducted an affair during the film shoot.) The result of this was that the filming went four times longer than had been planned although, to be fair, things were halted for a week while Davis grieved for her recently deceased husband. It was a hellish set for much of the cast and crew who cited Davis’ poor attitude as a major hindrance to production. Somehow, the film was completed and managed to earn both Bette Davis and Claude Rains Academy Award nominations for Best Actress and Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

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Some parts of the original story were changed to satisfy the requirements of the Hays Production Code which aimed at boosting the moral nature of films. In the novel, both Fanny and Job committed countless sexual indiscretions over a lengthy amount of time and, in fact, Job was a known philanderer before they married. Maybe philanderer is not the right word to describe a man who had a penchant for bedding his typists… The screen version of Job only starts going out with his secretaries after many years of Fanny’s obvious disinterest in him though it is never even hinted at that he had sexual relations with them. As for literary Fanny, she was known to be sexually promiscuous with all of the beaus she knew after her marriage. In the film, however, she is shown only going out with them for fun and stringing them along as she always has with her past suitors. There is a particular scene in a nightclub in which she turns down yet another proposal, this time with her current gangster-type companion, in which she states that she cannot divorce Job to go off with another man because she “is a woman who believes in her marriage vows”. These modifications make Fanny appear more like a villainess and force the ending to be seen as a message of salvation for a marked woman.

This film is most definitely a melodrama with heavy notes of tragedy and some random instances of humour, such as it becoming a running gag that it amuses Job to show Fanny’s suitors to the door when she has rejected him or Fanny’s broken dates with Janie Clarkson. The changes made in the screenplay do make one wonder how a man like Job Skeffington would want to stay married to a woman who did not genuinely care for him. A lot has been said in other books and reviews about Job’s kindness, with which I undoubtedly agree, but I must take issue with the fact that he took pride in marrying “the one everyone wanted” while not having “earned” her love. I suppose that Job had some growing up to do as well as Fanny, learning that monetary wealth does not automatically give you an education in social graces. The more I look at it, the more I see that both had defects, as each and every one of us do, and that just maybe they were more suited for one another than it appears with the naked eye.

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My first real introduction to Bette Davis was in the form of a song. Kim Carnes’ 1981 rendition of “Bette Davis Eyes” was a song that was played throughout the decade and which made Bette a modern icon. Her name would once again hit the airwaves with Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue”, cementing Bette’s status as woman of great intrigue and influence, the very characteristics that would define Madonna throughout the course of her career. Clearly, Bette had a fire inside of her that made women look up to the way she helped break down barriers and how she was unapologetic for just being herself. There were few people who were on the fence about Bette. Either you loved her or you hated her. From what I gather, her inner circle was rather small though she had lasting relationships with several of her co-stars including Olivia de Havilland, Gladys Cooper, Paul Henreid, George Brent and a certain Claude Rains.

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Above: Bette and Claude in a scene from ‘Juarez’. Below: The two in ‘Now, Voyager’ & ‘Deception’.

Bette and Claude starred together in four films for Warner Bros.: Juarez (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), Mr. Skeffington and Deception (1946). They managed to stay very good friends even after Claude declined entering a romantic relationship with Bette, who was always seemingly head-over-heels in love with him. She thought the world of him and often spoke about him after his death. They would visit with one another quite frequently, often times with Bette coming for prolonged stays at Claude’s central Pennsylvania farm. Their platonic chemistry in real life translated itself well on-screen, a place where Bette could express some of those pent up feelings of desire and perhaps where Claude himself could reciprocate without any major consequences.

Their pairing in Mr. Skeffington is undoubtedly the most heartfelt of their collaborations and the one in which they play the most against their natural, bonafide tendencies towards one another. Fanny must be generally lukewarm to Job, never really showing an interest in him personally aside from the fact that he is very rich. After Trippy’s death and when it comes time to divorce him, she has completely moved on from Job, treating him with as much respect as one would give an unknown passerby on the street. Job, on the other hand, has always adored Fanny even when she was unaware of his existence. He would have continued on being married to Fanny with the hope of sometime reuniting, never saying an ill word about her to their daughter or to anyone else for that matter. There was only one moment in the entire film when Job lost his temper and that was done to defend himself against the poor treatment he had received from his wife after all those years together. One must wonder why he did not speak up before that time.

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While the union of Job and Fanny is not the most satisfying example of Claude and Bette’s on-screen coupling, it is nevertheless powerful and unforgettable. I will never forget the surge of emotion that I felt in seeing an aged Job during the final minutes of the film. This great man had been left so horribly scarred and forgotten by practically everyone. It was a cruelly unjust thing to happen to a man who had lived such a hard life since birth, his wealth only affording him tangible effects and social position but never proper love from the woman he so cherished. While the film’s ending gives us a small glimpse of hope, it does come far too late to immediately appreciate it. This film certainly would not be so interesting to watch today if it were not headed by the supreme casting of Claude and Bette. It is thanks to them that it will live on and on.

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8 thoughts on “Classic Film Talk: ‘Mr. Skeffington’ (1944)

    1. Thanks, me hearty! 😊 I actually thought about writing more but it would have likely turned into a mini-book! One can find themselves easily passionate about a Bette Davis performance. 😁

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