The last scene from Mr. Skeffington is one of the most memorable moments in cinema. “A woman is beautiful when she is loved, and only then,” Job Skeffington tells his ex-wife, Fanny. There are two lessons in this scene: nothing is forever; and beauty equals more than just the appearance. Fortunately for Fanny she learns this lesson, but not before she suffers a tremendous fall that destroys her family and herself.
In 1944, Bette Davis and Claude Rains starred in Warner Brothers’ Mr. Skeffington. This black and white movie was directed by Vincent Sherman and produced by Jack Warner and twins, Julius and Philip Epstein. Paul Dessau and Franz Waxman composed the music for the film. Waxman was a prolific composer in Hollywood. Some of his most known film scores include Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard, and A Place in the Sun. Mr. Skeffington is a thought-provoking film that earned both Davis and Rains Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively.
Mr. Skeffington is like a more complex version of a parable because the story is neither didactic nor simple. Yet, there are important lessons to be learned from the film. The story begins just before World War I. Fanny Trellis (Bette Davis) is a beautiful socialite constantly swarmed by wealthy suitors. One night during one of Fanny’s parties, a quiet, pensive looking man named Job Skeffington (Rains) arrives at her home. He tells her that her beloved brother, Trippy (Richard Waring), has been caught embezzling money from his company. Skeffington is a kind man and his admiration and affection for Fanny are apparent. She capitalizes on his feelings towards her by pursuing and marrying him. By marrying Skeffington, she protects her brother from prosecution and greatly improves her financial status.
At times, it’s almost painful to watch Skeffington at the mercy of his willful but unfaithful wife. He loves her so dearly that he overlooks her inappropriate behavior. Many people begin to think that Skeffington is weak, but he really isn’t. He’s a doting husband and father. No matter how people behave towards him, he always acts with integrity. Fanny, on the other hand, continues to be self-absorbed. She’s cruel to her husband, and she neglects her daughter. The worst part is that she gets away with treating people like this just because she’s so beautiful. Well, she gets away with it for a while. Karma may be a bitch, but she also has her own schedule.
In the end, Fanny pays a hefty price for the way she has treated people. For so many years, Fanny was powerful because she was able to use her beauty to manipulate people. When she no longer has that beauty, she realizes how empty and vulnerable she really is. Mr. Skeffington, who narrowly escapes the concentration camps during World War II, reminds Fanny of something he told her when they were first married: “A woman is beautiful when she is loved, and only then.” This statement applies to us all. As a society, we are greatly influenced by appearances, but beauty is still subject to perception. If a beautiful woman, for example, is cruel towards others, her character will overshadow her beauty.
Claude Rains and Bette Davis give incredible performances in this film. While Davis had a very distinct look, she completely immerses herself in the role so that it is easy to forget that you are watching Bette Davis on screen. One of her strengths as an actress was that she didn’t mind being ugly for a part. She was willing to completely transform herself, which helped her remain a powerhouse in Hollywood for so many years. Rains also had a very long and prolific career. His strength was in his ability to use subtle facial and body expressions to convey emotion. Though he was not a very tall actor (he stood 5’6”), he had a presence that held up to the biggest Hollywood actors of his time. Even Bette Davis believed that Rains was one of the best film performers. Another actor worth mentioning is Walter Abel, who plays Fanny’s cousin, George. As the cousin, George has the advantage of being the observer. He’s unassuming, and yet he knows more about what’s going on than anyone else in the movie. He’s the voice of reason when everyone else is too distracted by the drama Fanny creates.
Mr. Skeffington may not change how we view or treat beautiful people, but the movie will certainly leave an impression. People’s looks will continue to have an inflated value in society. Appearances are usually the first thing we see, but the more we get to know someone, the less their appearance matters. Time and gravity are the great levelers to which no one can escape. Without character and substance, beauty is simply a house of cards. True everlasting beauty comes from compassion, kindness, and integrity.
Perhaps, in this generation of selfies and self-absorption, Mr. Skeffington would be invaluable to people. My mother once said she saw this movie as a child and never forgot it. It’s that kind of film.