Monday, July 6, 2015

Film Review: Mr. Skeffington

"Mr. Skeffington"  *** (out of ****)

Bette Davis learns your looks aren't everything in the Warner Brothers drama "Mr. Skeffington" (1944).

If such a thing as Bette Davis fans exist anymore, it would not be so strange for them to tell you about Bette Davis' performance in "Mr. Skeffington", for which she was nominated for Academy Award in the best actress category. At that time in her career it was her eight nomination. She had already won two previous awards for her performances in "Dangerous" (1935) and "Jezebel" (1939), which I thought of while watching this movie.

It is Bette Davis and Bette Davis only that really makes "Mr. Skeffington" a picture worth seeking out. There are other good performers in the movie. The cast consist of Claude Rains, Walter Abel and Jerome Cowan. Each of them is fine in their roles. But it is Bette Davis that has that larger-than-life presence. When she is in a scene, you watch her. Bette Davis commands that kind of attention. It is too bad however "Mr. Skeffington" isn't worthy of her.

Bette Davis stars as Fanny Trellis, the toast of New York circa 1914. Fanny loves the attention. Every night, different men proposing marriage, fighting over her, wishing and hoping for a chance to speak to her in private. It makes Fanny feel important. She is a somebody. People want to know her and be around her.

Fanny prides herself on her appearance. She possesses a youthful beauty. Her reflection in a mirror is a beautiful her. Without her looks she is nothing. Just another woman. A woman that would not receive half the attention she does now because men find her attractive.

One day Fanny meets Mr. Job Skeffington (Claude Rains), he is a stockbroker who owns his own firm. One of his employees is Fanny's brother, Trippy (Richard Waring). Fanny learns Trippy has embezzled $24,000 from the firm. If Trippy doesn't return the money, Mr. Skeffington will have to report this to the police.

Fanny loves her brother and would do anything to protect him. Because she and Trippy are broke Fanny would even marry Mr. Skeffington if it meant Trippy would not go to jail.

At first one could assume "Mr. Skeffington" would be a movie showing the dangers of women. Women are money-hungry, greedy creatures that cause the downfall of man. It would be the kind of movie you might find Marlene Dietrich in. Here is a woman willing to use her beauty to take advantage of a man that genuinely loves her and would happily share what he has with her. There would be no need to con him if only Fanny had a heart and was able to love someone other than herself.

That could and has made for some entertaining movies in the past. It is not an original concept for a movie but those kind of stories are interesting to watch because of the universal truths they hit on.

However, that is not what "Mr. Skeffington" is about. The movie is about a woman's desire to be young. About the fear of growing old in a world that only admires youth and beauty. A woman so obsessed with the idea of having people think she is young she would even deny the existence of her daughter.

This is a theme which could very easily resonate with audiences today. What was true in 1944 is true in 2015. The problem is "Mr. Skeffington" treats this material in such a heavy-handed way. It wants the viewer to believe they are watching great drama. The movie runs two hours and twenty-six minutes. You don't need all that time to tell this story.

If you re-made this story today I am willing to bet the tone of the movie would be much different, much lighter. More satirical and comical. The movie would also be shorter. About forty minutes shorter.

Since the movie was released during World War Two it is pointed out Mr. Skeffington is a Jew. At the break of WW2 Mr. Skeffington goes to Europe. The movie, very subtly, injects the idea of anti-semitism. The problem is, it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It feels awkward hearing it about it and when other characters infer "is Mr. Skeffington a Jew?"

The movie has nothing to say about the mistreatment of Jews in Europe. It has nothing to say about war in general. I'm truly baffled why the topic would even be brought up.

As great as Bette Davis is in this movie, I have to admit, I find her to be an odd choice to play this character. Bette Davis was a great actress but a great beauty? I just don't see it. I personally have never looked at her and thought to myself, "gosh Bette Davis was so beautiful". I also have never begun a sentence with the word "gosh" either. We can argue who was a better actress but it would have made more sense if Dietrich was in this role or even one of the actresses up against Davis that year for the Academy Award like Greer Garson or Claudette Colbert. Of course then we would have been denied what is a truly entertaining performance from Davis. And that is worth something.

By the end of the picture one has to wonder has Fanny learned anything? Has she learned beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Learn to age gracefully. We all can't stay young. Has she learned the cruel way she treated others? I don't think she has. The movie gives us an ironic twist ending that perfectly suite's Fanny's vanity. But, I believe, she will go on being the person she has always been. A leopard doesn't change its spots.

The movie was directed by Vincent Sherman. He may be known for directing "In Our Time" (1944) which also about WW2 and a WW2 themed comedy called "All Through the Night" (1941) about gangsters fighting Nazi spies in America. The movie stars Humphrey Bogart, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Frank McHugh and Conrad Veidt. It is actually kind of funny.

"Mr. Skeffington", what a strange name for the movie, since it isn't about him, it not a bad movie but it is not great either. It is too melodramatic. That by itself is fine but the subject matter of the movie doesn't match the tone. It goes on too long. Two-and-a-half hours is too much for this story. On the plus side though, you have two Academy Award nominated performances; Claude Rains and Bette Davis. And Bette Davis is a real standout. It should be for her performance you watch the movie.