The Bette Davis Project: Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory (1939)Synopsis:

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:

In an interview with Barbara Walters, Bette Davis said that Judith was her all-time favorite role. Davis had good reasons for feeling like that. For the role of the dying socialite, Davis received some of the best reviews of her entire career. Critic Frank Nugent in The New York Times wrote, “Davis is superb … she’s enchanted and enchanting.” Personally, I think it is 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.

In many ways Judith is the quintessential Davis role. I always tell friends that if they want to find out whether Davis is for them or not they need to watch Dark Victory. It’s 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 much-celebrated mannerisms have been used inappropriately in some films, they are more than adequate here — 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 (That Certain Woman and The Old Maid) does a fantastic job balancing the film’s two main themes: love and death. Goulding, and writer Casey Robinson, find a way to connect two things that don’t usually go together in a way that’s both stimulating and illuminating. The last ten minutes or so are superbly staged — acting, cinematography, music, everything is combined to create a truly memorable ending.

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 (Grand Hotel), but he lost interest and sold it to Jack L. Warner. The mogul wasn’t all that convinced about the viability of the material, that’s it, until Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) did it on radio with great success. Kay Francis (Trouble in Paradise) allegedly turned it down because of a silly superstition, so 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.

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 bit hard to sallow, but he handles his small role with aplomb. Bogie’s stable scene, in which he confronts 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 b/w cinematography is the icing on the cake.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

All in all, Dark Victory will make you feel something — you can’t ask for more than that. It was remade as Stolen Hours in 1964 (with Susan Hayward and Michael Craig) and as a 1976 made for TV miniseries (with Elizabeth Montgomery and Anthony Hopkins). B&W, 108 minutes, Not Rated.

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3 responses to “The Bette Davis Project: 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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