DARK VICTORY (Not rated-probably G equivalent) 104 min. Directed by: Edmund Goulding. Written by: Casey Robinson from the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan. Cinematography: Ernest Haller. Original Music by: Max Steiner, Howard Jackson.
“I think I’ll have a large order of prognosis negative”–Judith Traherne.
Bette Davis was on quite a roll by the time 1939 came around. She had already been nominated thrice for the Best Actress Oscar and had won it twice. When she landed the role of Judith Traherne in Dark Victory, it would be her 39th screen appearance and fourth Oscar nomination. And what an appearance it is. Surrounded by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, George Brent and Ronald Reagan, Davis shines like a big, bright, creepy-eyed beacon in the middle of a vast sea of melodrama. Dark Victory is the kind of movie that needs her charms the most; She flits from place to place as a high-minded socialite and then later as a woman on her death bed, she channels all her emotional energies. Her malignant brain tumor conveniently lets her keep her looks and health, but takes her eyesight. Towards the end of the film Davis blindly gropes her way around her home, eerily echoing Christ’s Stations of the Cross as she faces the great beyond with serenity and dignity. Goodness, how did they manage to write this stuff without snickering? Less cynical times, I guess. But, hey, you want to know the truth? It worked for me! And I give Bette Davis complete credit for that little miracle.
When you get right down to it, there isn’t very much to be said about Dark Victory as a story. It’s just a series of tearful plot twists and long conversations about coming to grips with life’s brevity. Davis’ Judith is a rich girl with a stable full of horses and a trainer,Bogart(completely out of his element) who she treats like a simple accessory. Prancing about with the self-absorbed and occassionally drunk playboy, Alec(Reagan), and conspiring with her friend Ann King(Fitzgerald) Judith has very little she ever worries about. Until one afternoon, she starts seeing double and nearly blacks out. After that, she gets admitted to what I like to call ‘Movie Hospital’ where lots of people talk about whats wrong with you but no one actually diagnoses anything, takes actual x-rays or consults one lousy medical journal. In an hour though, they will come back and tell you that you have, at best, a couple months to live.
This isn’t exactly what happens to Davis, though. Instead she meets the kind and gentle Dr. Frederick Steele (who I feel should open a private practice with Rex Morgan, MD). Steele strives to find a way to remove her tumor, and when he cannot, and learns it is fatal, he and Ann make efforts to hide the truth from Judith. The big problem is that this man has completely undone Judith’s world, and that was prior to the operation. She is in love with him, anticipates getting married, and meanwhile he’s whispering the fatal symptoms of her illness to Ann. As it turns out, those symptoms aren’t that bad, all things considered. You don’t feel any pain and more or less just die peacefully. The bad part is this happens after your vision has deteriorated. The up-side? Since it is a Hollywood illness, you needn’t go blind until four or five minutes before you die. Y’know, for dramatic effect!
Normally, I’d be ripping a flick like Dark Victory a new one right now, but I actually got caught up in it. Part of it may be I had been up all last night working and when the sun finally came back up, I sat down for this movie, with the last cup of coffee clutched in my caffeine addled hand. I had no idea what it was about, but given the Davis films I had seen (All About Eve,Baby Jane, Deception) and the title, I assumed it was a film noir. So, color me surprised when the flick starts and it appears to be something more along the lines of a romantic comedy. Then she gets the headaches and the double vision, doctor’s visits take up the next twenty minutes of screentime and there is the awful realization I’m caught in the middle of a ‘dying woman’ flick . Uggh. I’m seriously considering turning it off and going to sleep. But something about it all kept me going.
I rolled my eyes through the wrong-headed and idiotic plot to hide the truth from Judith, and I winced almost everytime Bogart was on screen due to the awkward nature of his character. But through it all, Bette Davis was captivating. I don’t mean captivating in a 30′s movie-star beauty kind of way, though back then, she had that too. No, there is something about her screen presence, and those haunting almond shaped eyes staring intently out of that smirking face that draw you in, especially when she’s playing a character like Judith, or Margo in Eve.
In fact, All About Eve is a good reference point. In both films she is embodying women with hidden stores of strength and character, albeit different types of character. And while Eve is all around the richer and better written movie, her performance in Victory is every bit as strong because of what she is required to do. She has to take a frankly unbelievable and potentially mawkish role and make us care so much that by the time she is shuffling up the stairs to pet her dog one last time, we feel the impact of it and are moved. This is the essence of her gift; that she can do that. Davis makes Judith always wholly believable, even when her illness is not or the filmmakers are positioning her for martyrdom. And in the end, when those moments came I had gotten to see the transformation from careless debutante to brave, warm-hearted wife and friend, making the best of her situation. Was it cheesy? You betcha. Did I end up wiping tears out of my eyes? Most assuredly.
Dark Victory also benefits from an essential understanding that, at some level, the entire enterprise is a fantasy. There is no pressing need to make the film true to the nature of illness, as so many other dying women pictures have. It is far less compelling to see Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon, covered in makeup, sweat and a flesh covered skull cap, crying and weeping until their eventual death. It may be more true to life, but it isn’t enjoyable or particularly moving to watch that. Davis may never get outwardly ill here, but that doesn’t matter. Her sickness mainly operates as the movie’s ticking bomb, giving her character a reason and a catalyst for her change. Without Davis, though, it would be just another lukewarm, overly bombastic melodrama.
For those of you that haven’t seen too many of Davis’ films, you will find this one very satisfactory as a starting point. I was enthralled with her mannerisms and the way she could turn joy into fear and sadness into exuberance with very subtle variations. One of the great things about this 70 Years of Cinema, is that there are often opportunities to follow a person across the span of their career. I look forward to encountering Davis again, in another performance further on down the road.