Friday, December 3, 2010

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Every once in a while you come across a film which you cannot decide to like or not. It's not that the movie doesn't have parts that you greatly admire, but there are enough problems to diminish both its enjoyability and rewatchability. Such, of course, is the film Mr. Skeffington, or I would not employ such words to describe my chagrin. Parts of this film are absolutely brilliant, but an almost equal portion of it is a drag.

Covering a span of twenty-five years from 1913 to 1938, the story chronicles the lives of Job and Fanny Skeffington, one of the richest men and one of the most beautiful women in New York, respectively. Most of the scenes focus on Fanny, whose vain and frivolous ways blind her to the things that are really important in her life until she almost loses them all. That makes the film very difficult to watch especially since Fanny is such an unlikable character for much of the film and makes no progress towards growth until the very end. Actress Bette Davis usually brings wonderful nuances to her roles, but for this performance she seems like a straight coquette out of the Scarlett O'Hara mold without out any of the aforementioned character's deep passions or ambitions. Fanny does start out with some humanity since she marries Job Skeffington in order to save her brother from embezzlement charges, but once her brother dies in World War I, she becomes almost like a caricature until the end of the film.

The strongest part of this movie is Claude Raines in the title role. He portrays the self-made, fabulously wealthy Jewish banker Job Skeffington, who falls in love with Fanny Trellis, the prettiest girl in New York, a girl who's already turned down dozens of eligible men. Surprisingly enough, she consents to marry Skeffington, and even though he knows it's not for love, he's content to wait for her to learn to love him. Not surprisingly, the marriage is a rough one, and the couple eventually divorces, leaving Skeffinton to raise their daughter alone. He end up moving them to Europe to look after their business interests, but their Jewish ethnicity makes them the target of Nazi aggression. Eventually Job makes it back to America, but not before having his fortune confiscated and being tortured and blinded by the Nazis. We only hear about this abuse after the fact, but it doesn't detract from the statement about the war and antisemitism .Raines as always does a wonderful job at playing the complex emotions of the character he is given and breaks our heart as he suffers and broods in silence.

Of course we get a semi-happy ending despite these complications. Fanny loses her beauty to diphtheria and has a crisis when she realizes that her days of being an object of desire to men were over forever. Just after all this happens, she hears about Job's plight and that he's willing to reconcile with her, unaware that Job is now blind, she manages to overcome her vanity and agree to meet with him only to discover to her joy that he will never know of her disfigurement. This ending feels a bit of a cop-out because I think it would have been much more character growth for Fanny if Job had been able to see her in her altered state and she could have learned that true love exists regardless of looks. Of course there's a certain poetic beauty in the fact that he will always see her as the beautiful young woman he feel in love with, but I don't know if that's worth the reduction in payoff we get after watching over two hours of Bette Davis being a shallow coquette.

One last thing I would like to note is that this film is quite explicit about dealing with issues of prejudice against Jewish people, which was extremely rare for the 1940s, and I applaud it for that. At the same time, though, they didn't turn this into a race film but kept the reality tragically understated, as if there were nothing to be done for it.

I give this film a 6.5 out of 10. It has great potential and wonderful moments, but it ultimately falls flat from the lack of progress from an unlikable protagonist.

No comments:

Post a Comment