MR. SKEFFINGTON (Vincent Sherman, 1944)

“A woman is beautiful only when she is loved.” This silly aphorism, gospel to Job Skeffington and, when she has lost her looks to diptheria, conceded to by ex-wife Fanny, is something of a barrier to one’s acceptance of this film. If one can get over it, one can enjoy the film. The talents involved make getting over it very easy.
     Bette Davis is both brilliantly meticulous and emotionally full-blown as Fanny Trellis, who marries her brother Trippy’s boss, Jewish banker Job Skeffington (Claude Rains, excellent), to keep him from having Trippy prosecuted for embezzlement. Job, meanwhile, is genuinely in love with his schiksa, a socialite and beauty who, even after their marriage, is relentlessly pursued by competing suitors who now, as Job quips, not only desire her but wish to rescue her. Born to poverty from which he has lifted himself up, Job solves the problem of the Trellis financial problems; Trippy has decimated the family fortune that the two orphaned siblings inherited, along with their mansion. It is the loss of their parents and of parental guidance that we assume has made Fanny and Trippy so inordinately close and each, at the same time, selfish and impulsive. Trippy cannot endure the self-sacrifice of marriage to Skeffington that his sister has made for his benefit and is killed in World War I, for which Fanny blames Job. Trippy, the film makes plain, is anti-Semitic; although vain and flirtaciously manipulative, Fanny is not. After their divorce, Job goes to Europe and is broken and blinded in a Nazi concentration camp. When she sees what has become of Job, Fanny no longer fears the mirrors in her mansion; she will be forever beautiful in Job Skeffington’s eyes.
     The film, based on a story by Elizabeth von Arnim, is (as we nearly all were) naïve on the score of the Nazi death camps—surely, forgiveably so. The finale is irresistibly moving.
     Directing from an exceptionally witty and agile script by the Epstein brothers, and immeasurably assisted by triple Oscar winner Ralph Dawnson’s bravura editing, Vincent Sherman deserves a good deal of credit. His work is crisp, and it takes in stride a brace of shifting times, fashions and moods. And one shot is to die for: the outbreak of the First World War, indicated by commotion that Fanny observes through a clear glass partition in Job’s office.
     Whoever is responsible for the rhapsodic Job Skeffington musical theme—the credited Franz Waxman or uncredited Paul Dessau—also rates hosannas.

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