Sunday 6 September 2009

Mr Skeffington (1944)

Director: Vincent Sherman
Stars: Bette Davis and Claude Rains

Here's Claude Rains again in a supporting role, that happens to be the title character of the film. He really was the consummate supporting actor, so much so that it's so easy to forget that he's ever technically supporting anyone. In Notorious, for instance, he's there to support Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, but we see more of him than we do Grant. I can't think of another lead actor from the classic era of Hollywood who so frequently dropped down to large supporting roles with apparent relish. Here he's superb but in many ways he's the MacGuffin, the bookends around the story of the real lead character and the anchor that roots her in reality.

The real lead character is a young society lady in demand called Fanny Trellis. She's apparently the most sought after girl in New York, even though she has some seriously scary hair that in some lights makes her appear somewhat like Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein, something that Bette Davis carries like it's the most beautiful thing in the world. Naturally she's fending off admirers right and left, many of whom have already proposed. When Teddy Roosevelt arrives to court her at dinner... sorry, Jim Conderley, played by John Alexander who played the president frequently, he finds that he isn't going to be alone. Edward Morrison is already there, Bill Thatcher is right behind him and more soon follow.

Mr Skeffington arrives too, though not for dinner. He's the employer of Fanny's brother Trippy, or at least was until he was until it was discovered that he's been embezzling money from the company through imaginative methods that weren't quite clever enough to remain hidden. Fanny and her cousin George do what they can to make good the debt but the Trellis family fortune has already been lost, through Trippy's inept estate management. There's just no way that it can be done.

Luckily for Fanny, almost everything she is can be summed up in how she works her feminine wiles and she goes to town on Skeffington. Unluckily for her, she doesn't seem to be getting too far: he doesn't send flowers in the morning and when she goes to his office to play some more feminine tricks on him, she picks the very day that Germany declares war on Russia and his office goes nuts. To her way of thinking, World War I just spoiled everything, but what she doesn't realise is that he had his eye on her even before she got her eye on him and they're married within two months. She doesn't feel a thing for him but he really is in love with her.

Now Skeffington is no idiot. A Russian immigrant whose name is only an approximation of the original attempted by the official on Ellis Island, he's the standard rags to riches story, working his way up to run his own major banking firm. More importantly, while he's married her, he knows full well he hasn't won her yet but as he tells the sympathetic George, he's a patient man. His first name is Job for good reason. On their first anniversary, her suitors are still proposing, not just desiring her any more but desiring to rescue her too. Skeffington patiently puts up with them all, knowing full well that Fanny thrives on the attention and the skill involved in continually dismissing them while ensuring they come back for more.

Of course she marries him to save Trippy from the attentions of the district attorney and can't quite hide that from him forever. The grand irony is that Trippy takes the marriage in utterly the wrong way and storms straight out to Europe. As the Skeffingtons discover watching newsreels on that first wedding anniversary, he's flying with the Lafayette Escadrille. Eventually he dies in action and she's devastated. I haven't read the source novel by Elizabeth (her surname was von Arnim but she didn't use it), but there's more than a hint of incest here and I wonder if it was there in the original material.

Regardless, it's here that the story really begins because it's when the truth comes out. Without realising that Job is in the room, she tells George that she married Job to save Trippy and now all she has is Job. Everything that follows all ties to how that relationship really functions, when it works and when it doesn't and in Skeffington's words that a woman is always beautiful when she's loved. They have a daughter too, though she hardly figures into Fanny's plans, which are all about appearing as young and desirable as possible. Obviously it's pretty hard to pretend to be twenty five when you have a twenty year old daughter.

Bette Davis has a grand part here. Never an actress to be afraid of looking awful on screen, here she plays a character obsessed with never looking awful, but inevitably getting there because that's what age does to a person. Diphtheria can't help but take its toll too, and the ageing used is superbly done. Throughout her life she looks younger than her years, though her attitude gradually ages her, but that illness catches those years up and adds more. It's a leap and a powerful one, something of a prelude to Baby Jane. Her face is too taut as if it's likely to tear itself apart and it's utterly appropriate because as time goes on she appears more and more as if she's going to tear herself apart. Age is an opponent nobody has beaten yet.

For his part, Claude Rains is as great as he's ever been here, and he was never much less than that. He was Bette's favourite actor and the one she handpicked for this role, the fifth of their six films together. He's perfect for the part, which deservedly provides the title to the film even though it's about Fanny Trellis. Playing an important and rich Jewish banker is hardly a great stretch for him, but the role provides plenty of depth. Where the part doesn't demand the depth outright, he adds nuances himself that really build the character. It's a tour de force performance even for him. He also plays very well off Walter Abel, who is excellent as Fanny's cousin George.

What's most surprising is where this film takes us. It's a melodrama, for sure, but one that keeps tipping its hat to other genres, especially the horror genre, as certain shots and angles and looks are unmistakeable in their influence. Perhaps the source novel has more than a touch of the Victorian gothic to it, even though it's set notably later on, with both world wars as a backing and everything in between. Director Vincent Sherman had started out on a horror movie, The Return of Doctor X, but it was one of the worst of its era. Bette Davis wouldn't find her way to horror until the sixties when grand guignol had made a comeback.

Of the obvious names, only Claude Rains was really established in the genre, having started out in Hollywood as The Invisible Man and The Clairvoyant and later adding The Wolf Man and Phantom of the Opera. I think though the choices came elsewhere, in the music of Franz Waxman, who had also written scores for Bride of Frankenstein and The Devil Doll; and the cinematography of Ernest Haller, who had filmed House of Horror as far back as 1929. It's a strange intersection of genres, never trying to be a horror film but in a very subtle way presaging the later grand guignol films of the sixties and in Fanny Trellis gazing upon the huge portrait of her younger lovelier self and wishing that she wasn't in Mr Skeffington but The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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