Why isn’t “Mr Skeffington” a better picture than it is? Why is it one of the least satisfactory Bette Davis/Claude Rains pairings? Davis was particularly fond of “Mr Skeffington.” It’s hard to tell why. Her performance is a tour de force, as is Claude Rains’, so perhaps that was enough for her. It’s enough for me, too, to a limited extent. Yet, I can’t help disliking the picture for many reasons, the most important being that it could so easily have been so much better than it is. The picture is a mess: the story is interesting, individual scenes work well enough, and there are several fine performances. But it lacks the narrative momentum that was a hallmark of Warner Bros. pictures of that era — even the lousy ones. At two and a half hours long, it’s almost a full hour longer than the average Warner Bros. picture of the mid-40s, but after sitting through it a number of times, I realize now that it’s not the running time that’s to blame: it’s the direction by Vincent Sherman.
Judging from numerous Sherman interviews, and from the commentary tracks he did for DVD releases of his pictures, he was a thoroughly decent, hard-working, conscientious man. According to him, Claude Rains not only liked working with him, but saw him socially at least twice a month. That’s evidence enough for me to accept that he was in no way a martinet or an egomaniac, and that his colleagues respected and liked him. But it’s not enough to make him a director worthy of Rains and Davis.
Sherman seems most to blame for what’s wrong with “Mr Skeffington.” The suspicions I’ve long had about why the picture doesn’t work better are confirmed by the commentary track he supplied for the DVD. When a scene doesn’t quite work, he’s honest about it — as, for instance, the scene after the society belle, Fanny Trellis (Davis), marries Wall Street magnate, Job Skeffington (Rains), for his money. (On the DVD, it’s Chapter 10.) Job is richer than Fanny (she and her deadbeat brother, Trippy, have run through the family fortune), but he’s from a poor background. Fanny has social standing and breeding, but she lacks soul and heart . . . and the capacity to love.
On their wedding night, they take a boat ride round Manhattan; there’s a trio of musicians (violin, accordion, guitar) who stroll the deck; when they encounter a pair of newlyweds, they stop and serenade them. Eventually, the strolling players cross the path of Skeffington and his new bride, take a brief look, shake their heads and move on. On the commentary track, Sherman laments that the scene doesn’t quite work. In a significant way, he’s right; in a significant way, he’s wrong. He’s not specific about what he thinks is amiss, but he clearly believes that it’s either the actors or the writers or a combination of both that keep the scene from making its point. He’s dead wrong: the acting is meticulous, intelligent, heartbreaking, and in every way superb. It could not be more brilliantly performed. But the staging is terrible, and it makes the scene’s underlying purpose far too obvious. Points are made with tools that sharpen, not with blunt objects.
So what’s wrong with it? Sherman relies almost entirely on close-ups — the bluntest object in a director’s toolkit: it allows us to see only one face at a time and severely impairs the sense of human, spontaneous interaction. Here we have a scene performed by two consummate actors and Sherman denies them the opportunity to act the scene together, and to let us see the sparks fly. Mind you, they’re both terrific: their individual reactions are specific, interesting and well-performed. It is clear that Fanny doesn’t love Job; it is clear that Job loves Fanny. But we need to see them in the SAME shot to get the full sense of the poignancy of their mésalliance. It’s yet another case of a director who underestimates the potency of great acting. Claude Rains and Bette Davis together don’t need their performances to be spliced together in a cutting room: put the camera in the right place and let them go at it. This entire scene could have been done in a single shot and the effect would have been devastating. As it is, the acting is so exceptional that even Sherman and his editor couldn’t entirely wreck it. When I consider how William Wyler or John Huston would have staged and cut that scene, I can’t help resenting Vincent Sherman’s lack of imagination and sensitivity.
Here is the dialogue from that scene, accompanied by stills. The cinematographer was Ernie Haller, who did his usual beautiful work. But as you can see by these stills, the whole scene is done in close-ups rather than two shots. The acting and writing in this scene are wonderful, in every way beyond reproach. The individual shots are gorgeous. But it’s a ping-pong match rather than an unhappy love mis-match.
Job: [to deckhand, asking about the musicians] What’s going on?
Deckhand: Oh, that’s Tony, Joe and Luigi serenading a couple just got married over in Joisey. They go looking for them!
[Musicians strike up “Here Comes the Bride.”]
Job: How do they tell?
Deckhand: I dunno, but they do. You know, they ain’t messed up on a couple in over ten years. Can ya beat dat?
[Skeffington returns to Fanny.]
Fanny: Job . . . Could you tell they’d just been married?
Member of Wedding Party: He’s a very lucky boy. [Happy couple stare into each other’s eyes]
Job: I think I could. The way she’s looking at him, you couldn’t miss it.
Fanny: I see what you mean. The way I’m looking at you.
Job: No. Your look is cordial, not connubial. I’ve married you, Fanny, but I haven’t won you.
Fanny: [Shocked] Job!
Job: No. So far, I’ve merely taken you away from the others. . . .
Do you think that night two months ago, when I broke into your dinner party, do you think that was the first time I’d seen you? No. . . .
. . . I’d seen you many times before that. Dining at Sherry’s, dancing at the Waldorf . . . You never noticed me. When I saw you in your home, on the night I came to see Trippy, you looked very beautiful . . . very unattainable. That’s why I commissioned Howard Vanya to paint your portrait . . . At least I’d have that . . .
Fanny: [Cheerfully] Well, now you have both! The portrait and me.
Job: What you mean is I own both. It isn’t quite the same thing.
Fanny: Do you know why I came to your office that day to sell you bazaar tickets? Because I made up my mind, even then, that I was going to marry you.
Job: [Nervous but hopeful] Why?
Fanny: Because you’re good and kind, and your eyes are special . . . in a St. Bernard sort of way. . .
And although I’ve never really seen you smile, I always have the feeling that you’re laughing at me. And I find that attractive. Besides the fact you’re very rich . . .
Would you like to kiss me?
[There’s a long pause as Fanny goes through the ordeal of unpinning her veil and putting it up. Skeffington looks on, as Tennyson put it, “His eyes full of that life-long hunger.” Finally they kiss; she opens her eyes wide, mid-kiss and looks off into the distance, as if distracted. Absently, she pushes a curl back into place. Then she pulls away, gently.]
Fanny: [Brightly] We’re about to be serenaded.
[The musicians pause briefly, shake their heads and move along.] This, apparently, wasn’t broad or bald enough to satisfy Sherman, who on the commentary track complains that the scene isn’t clear enough. Jesus. Just reading the dialogue and looking at the stills makes it more than clear enough, as far as I’m concerned. Rains and Davis make the underlying problem even clearer: we need no musicians shaking their heads scornfully to tell us this is not a match made in heaven. But Vincent Sherman disagrees. If he had it to do over again, I suppose he’d add a title card to explain what we’d just seen.
Ah, I haven’t the heart to go on with this analysis. It’s too upsetting. The acting is of such a high calibre, and the foolish direction is appalling. Vincent Sherman, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is the same dude who thought Miriam Hopkins stole “Old Acquaintance” from Bette Davis . . . I rest my case.
The Brothers Epstein, who wrote “Casablanca,” wrote “Mr Skeffington.” There’s a lot of good dialogue in the picture, but one must put up with the incompetent direction to take it all in. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but as far as I can remember I’ve never made it all the way through in a single sitting. Every fifteen minutes or so, I throw up my hands and walk out of the room . . . as I am doing at this very moment.