This truly lavish melodrama really knocked me out. I simply did not find any significant weaknesses to this film, at least none of which others have alluded. Films of this type can easily become maudlin, insignificant, and flat. However, "Mr. Skeffington" is the result of a set of elements that are incorporated vibrantly. The film simply has a grand sweep to it, lifting it high above many others of this genre.
The staging and sets (in conjunction with Ory-Kelly's costumes) are as good as any movie that I've seen, along the lines of "Gone With the Wind", "Citizen Kane", "Gigi", or "Long Day's Journey into Night". The use of silence and spaciousness, along with noise and density, is brilliantly carried out and is extremely well-balanced by the characters' non-verbal responses to each other. It's hard to describe without providing details of given scenes - I would suggest that you watch it with this perspective and see what you think.
Speaking of scenes, length is the common enemy of films of this type, but not here - each scene plays out like a shining entity that still provides momentum and underpinning for the entire story. I counted at least 12 very memorable scenes. Humor is added strategically to most scenes to balance the starkness of the story and is nicely understated to avoid a sense of camp. Director Vincent Sherman has polished each scene like a diamond, and the effect is very powerful. The scenes really do stand on their own almost like a set of montages.
Bette Davis' performance is decidedly affected as she plays Fanny as a young girl, but the pure talent and visual power of this actress makes one believe that she is truly the beauty that she is supposed to be. Notice how her movements and responsiveness reinforce the sense of someone almost 15 years younger than herself. While others have complained about the makeup of the older Fanny in portraying her change in age, I found that the makeup perfectly embodied the older Fanny because Davis plays the character so consistently to her advanced age. I would place this performance in Bette Davis' top tier, along with "Now, Voyager", "The Little Foxes", and "All About Eve".
Claude Rains plays the title character with restraint, integrity, and great love for Fanny, but the sense of pathos that he communicates really helps to give the movie a lot of power. The other acting performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Walter Abel as Cousin George. Without the strength of Abel's characterization, this would have been a far weaker movie.
Franz Waxman's score has been criticized by some as being extravagant and overly dramatic to the point of being startling. I really enjoyed it - Waxman incorporates a lush late romantic style that has a stronger "classical-music" feel than other scores for movies of this type, which tend to emphasize strings as accompaniment. The result is a feeling of complexity which shades the story along with the other elements.
This is easily Vincent Sherman's best work, one of Ernest Haller's best, and one of the best melodramas that I have seen. 10 out of 10.
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