Today we’re back with another installment of the sparsely-updated series Second Looks, where I re-watch a film I haven’t seen in a few years and evaluate it with a new pair of eyes. The film in question in this installment is 1944’s Mr. Skeffington, the film which earned Bette Davis her 8th Academy Award nomination in the Best Actress category.
Davis stars as Fanny, a woman who (as we learn in the opening scenes of the film) is the town’s most eligible bachelorette. A gaggle of suitors shows up at her house daily in order to call on or even propose to her. Her maid admits that the men of New York “propose in bunches” to Fanny, who charms them all with her beauty and social status.
You’d think that will all of the proposals, Fanny would be ready to settle down very soon, taking her pick from the many men who fall at her feet in admiration. But she isn’t — that is, until she meets Mr. Skeffington (Claude Rains, reportedly one of Bette’s favorite co-stars).
Skeffington shows up at Fanny’s home not to call on her, but to inquire about her brother, who stole a hefty sum of money from him. Slowly but surely, an attraction grows between Fanny and Skeffington, until eventually they marry and plenty of complications ensue.
Vincent Sherman directed this film for Warner Bros. Starring alongside Davis and Rains are Walter Abel, Richard Waring, Dorothy Peterson and Marjorie Riordan.
Mr. Skeffington starts out a bit slowly. Fanny’s suitors that appear at the beginning of the film are amusing, but things don’t really pick up until Mr. Skeffington himself enters the picture. There is a scene on a boat just after Fanny and Skeffington marry, which seemed to me (in my previous viewings and in this one) to be the point where the film really takes off.
Despite the opening slowness, when all is said and done, Mr. Skeffington feels shorter than its roughly 2.5-hour running time. The story spans decades, from the turn of the century on through World War II, and it is complex at times, exploring sibling relations and social problems (such as antisemitism) as well as marriage drama.
I think the film would benefit by focusing a bit less on the marriage drama and fleshing out some of these other issues, such as Fanny’s fascinating relationship with her brother, Trippy. Trippy is such a volatile and strong-willed character. He clearly loves his sister but is very stubborn and temperamental, so their disagreements are explosive. The scene where Trippy finds out that Fanny married Skeffington is highly emotionally charged — I would have loved to see more scenes like this. Still, the film has a pretty good story to tell, and it takes an interesting turn after personal tragedy (the nature of which I won’t spoil) strikes for Fanny.
My nit-picky issues aside, this film does have a whole lot going for it. The cast is undoubtedly phenomenal. Davis has garnered plenty of praise (and, as previously mentioned, the film earned her an Oscar nomination). She brings on a real powerhouse performance in the final half hour or so of the film.
I think Claude Rains takes the cake here, though. His performance is captivating, and he was also nominated for an Oscar for his work in this film (Supporting Actor category). When the script throws incredibly melodramatic scenes at him toward the film’s end, he brings a sense of sincerity to them. I’m a fan of Rains in any film, but he really tugged at my heartstrings in this one.
I must also take a moment to applaud two stellar aspects of the film outside of the performances: the costumes and the dialogue. Bette’s wardrobe is to die for, and the film is full of wit despite all of its melodrama. A favorite quip: “Your eyes are special, in a St. Bernard sort of way.”
I enjoyed Mr. Skeffington more the second time around than I did the first. Though I still had some trouble with the film’s pace, I think it’s a very good melodrama, elevated by spectacular performances by Bette Davis and Claude Rains.