New York socialite Judith Traherne begins to suffer from headaches and memory lapses. She is diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergoes an operation on the advice of her doctor, Frederick Steele. After the operation, Judith’s health seems to improve and Judith and Dr. Steele fall in love. However, her real prognosis is fatal and Dr. Steele decides to keep the news from her. Judith discovers the truth and, as a result, leaves him, and even briefly contemplates suicide. Ultimately, she and Frederick reconcile and marry. They move to Vermont so that she can spend her final days with him.
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Nineteen thirty nine was not only a banner year for Hollywood, it was a banner year for Bette Davis at Warner Brothers. “Dark Victory” was one of four films she made that year at the studio, the others being two historical epics “Juarez” and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”, and another melodrama, “The Old Maid”. According to Bette Davis, it took only four weeks to shoot “Dark Victory”. This incredible output for just one year gives some idea of the kind of schedule imposed on actors in the old studio system.
As with so many of the women’s pictures which she did, Davis made a potentially trite and even boring character interesting. For instance, she delivers this laundry list of attributes at her first meeting with Dr. Steele, and manages to be both flirtatious and amusing:
“My father drank himself to death. My mother lives in Paris. I take a great deal of exercise. I am accustomed to a reasonable quantity of tobacco and alcohol and am said to have a sense of humor.”
It is Davis’ energy and wit that save the movie, which is otherwise a standard melodrama of the era. It was based on a Broadway play of the same name from 1934, which had starred Tallulah Bankhead in the role of Judith. The one absolute requirement for this kind of movie is that the dying heroine be, above all, noble and brave. Indeed, Davis later claimed that director Edmund Goulding added the character of Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald) as Judith’s concerned best friend, so that Judith would never have to be seen complaining about her plight. This sort of virtuous straightjacket can be enervating to a performance. The wonder of Bette Davis is how she takes this potentially self-defeating situation for an actor and redeems it, and by extension, the film. Through her insight and skill, as well as her refusal to give in to maudlin sentimentality, Davis gives some tension to the material, which otherwise is operating on the foregone conclusion of Judith’s inevitable demise.
The final sequence, where Judith goes blind, and knows death is imminent, but refuses to burden her husband as he prepares to leave on a business trip, is fraught with potential pit falls for an actor. It would be easy to go over the top, but Davis never does. As she is left alone to face her certain fate, her delicate handling of these scenes is expert. There are no tears or histrionics, just a quiet acceptance of what is happening to her that really does let us feel that Judith is brave.
While accurately suggesting the high strung, nervous quality of a spoiled woman, Davis lets us know that Judith is self-aware enough to laugh at herself. She also exhibits a rebelliousness, as well as an unpredictability, that ensures we are never bored with Judith. Crucially, there is also a rarely seen vulnerability to Davis in this role. She claimed that is was her favorite performance, and it certainly was her softest.
The cast is rounded out by Warner Brothers contract players, which, in 1939, still included Humphrey Bogart. Success came late to Bogart and he endured many years of supporting roles like this one at Warners. He is woefully miscast here as Michael O’Leary, the Irish stable man, who suffers an unrequited love for Judith. His Irish accent is awkward, and keeps disappearing anyway. He does connect with Davis in his big scene with her, when he gets to declare his love, but otherwise, it is painful to watch him so badly used.
The other actors fare somewhat better. Ronald Reagan’s light comedic touch is perfectly suited to the role of Alec, the perennially drunk friend of Judith, who flits through her life and the movie. Both Geraldine Fitzgerald and George Brent, as Dr. Steele, are perfectly adequate but not terribly interesting in their respective roles.
As was usual for a great star in the studio system, Davis was surrounded by the best production team Warners’ money could buy. Max Steiner, whose music was often excessive in its emotionality, wrote the original score for the film. Ernest Haller photographed Davis beautifully and Orry-Kelly made sure that Judith suffered in style, swathed in furs and sequins.
“Dark Victory” is Bette Davis’ show. It was that way in 1939. It remains so now. For any fan of hers this movie is a must see.