Mr. Skeffington (1944) – dir. Vincent Sherman
The great Bette Davis had many cinematic tricks up her sleeve. Three of these held her in good stead over a nearly-seventy year career: her eyes, her voice, her cigarette.
Never enough can be said about the famous “Bette Davis eyes”; they had their own three-ring circus going; they cartwheeled, they jumped, they batted, they flew, they flirted, they lied, they fluttered, they drooped. They were wet with tears when she wanted to deceive some man. They raised their joys to heaven and poured their poisons into the cups of those who worshiped at their altar. Davis knew what to do with them, and even when she over-used or over-relied on them, there seemed to be a reason for it. Entities unto themselves, they worked overtime for her and made her the finest screen actress of her time.
Her voice! As the years went on, it became a much-mimicked caricature of itself, so easily imitated by other actors, comedians and impersonators. “Pete-ah! Pete-ah! Pete-ah!”. But what a fine-tuned instrument of the cinematic symphony it was when Davis first hit the screen. Choppy in its cadences, fluted when it required her to sing, throaty and full of piss and vinegar when it needed to sting, she utilized it as craftily as she did her eyes — you never quite know where she is going with it — and made it to this day one of the most recognizable of movie voices.
And what is there to say about the ubiquitous cigarette — dancing in every direction at the same time, puffs of smoke coming out of her like the dragon she could be. The cigarette was Davis’ show business partner, just as Hope was Crosby’s, or Rowan was Martin’s.
All three of these signatures are hard at work in the glorious melodrama, Mr. Skeffington. Strikingly directed by Vincent Sherman and produced by the legendary Epstein Brothers, Julius and Phillip (whose creative dynasty continues today with Brookline-based writer, Joseph Epstein and actor/screenwriter, Dan Futterman), it is a scathing study in female vanity and the ravages of aging, and gives Davis another of the kind of bravura performance that became the hallmark of her years at Warner Bros. studios.
In this picture, she plays the vain and self-adoring Fanny Trellis, a silly twit of a thing who, nevertheless, possesses enough cunning to marry a man she cares nothing for in order to get her feckless brother, Trippy, off-the-debt-hook with a wealthy Wall Street broker, Job Skeffington, played with hang-dog pathos by the venerable Claude Rains.
Davis here is at her best pitching the pretend petulance she knows will win Skeffington over. Watch with delight as she does a slow-motion strip tease of taking off her hat after asking her new husband if he wants to kiss her, then when he does, being moved to do little more than re-adjust one of her curls. Vanity and deception, thy name is Davis!!
Or, lest you tell yourself she cannot possibly be as self-centered as she seems, watch again her horror as she realizes something as “trivial” as a declaration of world war is capable of smashing her luncheon plans with Skeffington. How dare the world and its petty problems upset her social schedule!!
There are stars, and there are actors. Davis was a star, yes, and she relished every moment of the praise and publicity heaped on her. But first and foremost, what you notice now that she is no longer with us and only the work remains, is how very devoted she was to the craft of acting. Whereas the equally talented Katharine Hepburn wanted fame, at any cost (She once said she didn’t care WHAT she became famous for — as long as she became famous for SOMETHING), Davis, from the time she first set foot on her grade school stage, as a child, longed only to be an actress, and a good one. No other career for her.
She and Rains are ably assisted in Skeffington by Walter Abel, George Coulouris and Richard Waring in what is now considered one of her finest pieces of work.
What happens to Fanny is nothing less than what SHOULD happen to Fanny and yet you are dared not to feel deep sympathy for her when the end does come and the final punch (which packs a real wallop!) hits you straight between the eyes. Simply stunning. Like Bette Davis herself.