Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory (1939)


Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is the prototypical trust-fund-baby who parties hard and loves to do reckless things. When Judith is told that she has a brain tumor, her doctor, Frederick Steele (George Brent, Jezebel), insists that surgery is the only option. The operation is apparently successful and Judith and Dr. Steele develop a romantic relationship. A new diagnosis changes everything.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can’t be destroyed. That’s our victory – our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we’re not afraid.”

In an interview with Barbara Walters, Davis said Judith Traherne was her all-time favorite role. She had good reasons for feeling like that. The role of the dying socialite earned Davis some of the best reviews of her entire career. Critic Frank Nugent (The New York Times) wrote, “Davis is superb… she’s enchanted and enchanting.” Personally, I think it’s one of her top three or four performances. Casey Robinson’s (Now, Voyager) script is not perfect, but as usual, Davis makes the most of it.

Judith is the quintessential Davis role. Dark Victory is the movie that best captures the essence of Davis’s style. The nervous energy, the nuanced characterization, the clipped dialogue, etc. the full scope of her talent is on display here. Though Davis’s iconic mannerisms have been used inappropriately in some films, they are more than adequate here — movie star persona and characterization are one and the same thing.

While Davis rightly gets most of the credit for the film’s success, one can’t ignore the fact that director Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel) does a fantastic job balancing the film’s two main themes: love and death. Goulding and writer Robinson find a way to connect two things that don’t usually go together in a way that’s both stimulating and illuminating. And the last ten minutes or so are superbly staged — acting, cinematography, music, everything is combined to create a memorable finale.

Dark Victory was almost never made. It started out as a failed stage play with Tallulah Bankhead (Lifeboat). Producer David O. Selznick (Rebecca) bought it for Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), but he lost interest and sold it to Jack L. Warner. The head of Warner Bros. wasn’t all that convinced about the commercial potential of the material, that’s it, until Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) did it on radio with great success.

After Kay Francis (One Way Passage) allegedly turned it down, the project landed on Davis’s lap to the dissatisfaction of Stanwyck who was eager to recreate her radio hit. Davis almost lost her favorite role due to illness and fatigue, but she pulled through and the rest is history. It’s hard to imagine another actress in the role — Davis gives a stunning performance. Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights) is also pitch perfect as Judith’s secretary, friend and confidant. Fitzgerald does a really great job in the last scenes.

Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest) always gets a lot of flak for his role as Judith’s Irish stable-hand, but I thought he did a fine job. Yes, Bogie’s Irish accent is a bit hard to swallow, but he handles his small role with aplomb. Bogie’s stable scene with Davis is pretty electrifying. Ronald “Ronnie” Reagan plays Judith’s silly playboy boyfriend (!). Henry Travers (It’s a Wonderful Life) plays Dr. Parsons.

Max Steiner’s (Gone with the Wind and Casablanca) Oscar-nominated music score is one of his finest creations. Steiner’s work is particularly effective during the last scene. Ernest Haller’s (Mildred Pierce and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) moody, gorgeous-looking black and white cinematography is the icing on the cake.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

In any other year, Bette Davis would have won an Oscar for the movie. But this was the year of Gone with the Wind and Vivien Leigh’s brilliant Scarlett O’Hara was unbeatable. The film has a few wrinkles, but Davis’s magnificent performance makes up for some of the film’s flaws. All in all, Dark Victory will make you feel something — you can’t ask for more than that. The movie was remade as Stolen Hours in 1964 (with Susan Hayward and Michael Craig) and again as a made-for-TV miniseries in 1976 (with Elizabeth Montgomery and Anthony Hopkins). B&W, 108 minutes, Not Rated.

3 responses to “Dark Victory (1939)

  1. I’m so glad to find someone else who appreciates Bogie in this film! It was a pivotal role for him, as I understand it, part of what made Hollywood see star potential in him. People judge him in this film by his later performances, but fair is fair — he was a “B” actor on the rise. Okay, he was an “A” actor playing lesser roles.

    Liked by 1 person

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