Tag Archives: Vincent Sherman

Mr Skeffington

Claude Rains as Mr Skeffington:  The patience of Job.

Claude Rains as Mr Skeffington: The patience of Job.

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.

Bette Davis, Claude Rains: Wedding Bell Blues

Bette Davis, Claude Rains: Wedding Bell Blues

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!

That's Tony, Joe and Luigi . . .

That’s Tony, Joe and Luigi . . .

[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]

Yer a very lucky boy!

He’s a very lucky boy!

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.

I see what you mean.  The way I'm looking at you.

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.

No.  Your look is cordial.

No. Your look is cordial, not connubial.

Fanny:  [Shocked] Job!

Job:  No.  So far, I’ve merely taken you away from the others. . . .

So far, I've merely taken you away from the others.

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. . . .

Do you think that was the first time I'd seen you?  No.

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.

Well, now you have both!

Well, now you have both!

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. . .

In a St. Bernard kind of way . . .

. . . 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 . . .

Besides the fact you're very rich . . .

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.] 

Prelude to a Kiss.

Prelude to a Kiss.

This shot reminds me of Shakespeare's Sonnet 93: 'Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place.'

This shot reminds me of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 93: ‘Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place.’

Fanny:  [Brightly]  We’re about to be serenaded.

We're about to be serenaded.

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.

The newlyweds fail the acid test.

The newlyweds fail the acid test.

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.


Two Styles of Acting in ‘Old Acquaintance’


Old Acquaintance:  The sublime and the ridiculous.

Old Acquaintance: The sublime and the ridiculous.

“Old Acquaintance” (Warner Bros., 1943) is an uneven picture that stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Half of it is civilized, well-bred comedy; half of it is a combination of kitsch, trash and camp. Davis is the civilized half; Hopkins is the other. At no point does Bette Davis lower herself for a cheap laugh; at no point does Hopkins rise to play an honest emotion.

The action of the play takes place in November and December of 1940; for the movie version of John Van Druten’s hit play, director Vincent Sherman ordered new scenes (Van Druten did the screenplay with Lenore Coffee) to show how the two starring characters’ friendship played out over the course of some twenty years. From the looks of it, the picture must have been shot more or less in chronological order: in the early scenes (i.e., those cooked up for the picture), the staging is imaginative and there’s a lot of action. But halfway through, when the original material takes over, Sherman seems to lose interest. He stages entire scenes as alternating close-ups.  Compare similar confrontations between Davis and de Havilland in John Huston’s “In This Our Life”: he contrives to have both stars in the same shot as often as possible, but Vincent Sherman alternates close-ups with the precision of a blackjack dealer shuffling a deck of cards. It’s a shame, because the antagonism of the two acting styles — the histrionic pantomime of Hopkins against the heightened realism of Davis — makes for really interesting chemistry when the two ladies are in the same room at the same time. In all those close-up shots, one can’t tell if Davis is responding to the lousy performance of her co-star, or simply making the best of the cues fed to her by an off-camera stand-in. Davis and Hopkins were not friends, and the rivalry between them in their professional lives closely resembled what we see in the picture. That adds to the camp element of the picture — it’s the sort of thing that Charles Busch sends up so knowingly — but there’s something really nice that gets lost in the camp: it’s Bette Davis’ performance, which is amazing in its virtuosity. She steals the picture by being the sensible one. It’s telling that the director, Vincent Sherman, went to his grave believing that Hopkins stole the picture.

Oh, for Christ's sake, shut up!  Miriam Hopkins as Millie Drake

Oh, for Christ’s sake, shut up! Miriam Hopkins keeps it false as Millie Drake.

Hopkins’ performance looks ludicrous today. What Davis does in the picture still looks great.

Davis as Kit Marlowe in the first scene. Confident and good natured, but not glamorous.

Davis as Kit Marlowe in the first scene. Confident and good natured, but not glamorous.

Take a look at the clip below, in which Davis tries to persuade Hopkins’ husband (John Loder) to give the marriage another shot.  But he’s in love with Davis and tries to persuade her to marry him after the divorce is final. He’s not bad, but she’s terrific.

She’s not entirely real — that’s not her purpose. She’s giving one of her Great Lady performances: refined, noble, dignified and heightened. It’s an idealized portrait of how a nice woman behaves. Davis does this throughout the picture, and she alters her behavior according to the age of the character. Earlier in the picture, she’s pragmatic and honest but without glamour or gravitas; as her character ages, she becomes more elegant and gains poise and authority. She really seems to age twenty years. Miriam Hopkins stays the same throughout.

Davis in a later scene. More glamour and authority, but the same woman.

Davis in a later scene. More glamour and authority, but the same woman.

The clip below offers a perfect example of the difference between Davis’ style of acting (and it is a style; that is, it is purposefully artificial in a theatrical way, while remaining credible: you believe her as a human being, albeit a stylized version of one) and the utterly phony histrionics that Miriam Hopkins goes through. She doesn’t mean a word she says and you can tell she doesn’t. She’s not playing a selfish, high-strung woman: she’s merely a grotesque, with no recognizably human qualities. It’s odd enough that Vincent Sherman let her behave so foolishly, but nearly fantastic that he believes she steals the picture by carrying on so idiotically. It’s true that she pulls focus, but that doesn’t mean she’s interesting.

Finally, here’s a scene where the two styles come into a head-on collision. It’s camp, all right, but only because Hopkins is such a drag queen cartoon. Franz Waxman’s musical punctuation adds to the vulgarity. Davis’ restraint and timing are remarkable.

In the context of the picture, the scene is more than camp: it offers catharsis. Miriam Hopkins’ frenetic antics are exasperating; her self-love is sickening. When Bette Davis gives her a good shaking, you realize it’s what you’ve wanted to do to Hopkins since the beginning of the picture.