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"Nobody's as good as Bette when she's bad!" screamed the ads for one of Bette Davis' last films at Warner Bros. The line would have also fit her 1944 hit Mr. Skeffington just as well, as it encompassed both her on-screen character and her off-screen behavior.
On-screen, Davis played a character who ages from headstrong debutante to withered crone, marrying banker Claude Rains for his money along the way. To capture the character's youthfulness in early scenes, she pitched her voice an octave higher than usual. For later scenes, after the character loses her looks to diphtheria, she spent four-hours in the makeup chair while Perc Westmore created an amazingly accurate preview of what she would look like in later years.
Off-screen, Davis was even more of a terror. She had turned the role down when Warner's first bought the property in 1940. The original novel was told mostly in flashbacks, with long scenes of Fanny Skeffington as an old woman discussing her past. Davis didn't think she could play the older woman convincingly. After the role was turned down by everyone from Irene Dunne to Greta Garbo, Davis read a revised treatment that convinced her she could make it work.
A week into pre-production, however, Davis faced personal tragedy when her husband, Arthur Farnsworth, suddenly died. She insisted on returning to work after only one week of mourning, but it was a very different Bette Davis who showed up on the set. Although she was teamed with one of her favorite directors, Vincent Sherman, she started arguing with him the first day of shooting and never quit. When Jack Warner sent a memo to first-time producers Philip and Julius Epstein asking why the picture was falling behind schedule, they shot back, "Because Bette Davis is a slow director."
For his part, Sherman was so miserable that he considered faking a back injury to get out of finishing the film. Instead, he resumed an affair with Davis they had started while making their previous film together, Old Acquaintance(1943). When Sherman confessed the dalliance to his wife, she quipped, "That's one way to solve it [Davis' behavior problems], but be careful."
The affair didn't really solve anything. Mr. Skeffington finally finished production in February 1944, six months after its start date and 59 days behind schedule. That didn't bother Davis' legions of fans, who made the picture one of the top grossers of its year. It also brought Davis her seventh Oscar® nomination for Best Actress.
Director: Vincent Sherman
Producer: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Jack L. Warner (executive)
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editor: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Franz Waxman, Paul Dessau (uncredited)
Cast: Bette Davis (Fanny Trellis Skeffington), Claude Rains (Job Skeffington), Walter Abel (George Trellis), George Coulouris (Doctor Byles), Richard Waring (Trippy Trellis).
BW-147m. Close captioning. Descriptive video.
by Frank Miller