All film buffs worth their salt know that 1939 is a crucial year for film; some would even say it was the best year for film as can be proven by the ten films nominated for Best Picture. From the Wizard of Oz to Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights, 1939 is a pretty great year to love movies. With that, I’ve only seen (this film included) four of those ten films. I adore Wizard of Oz (who doesn’t) and Wuthering Heights is easily one of my favorite films of all time (and the less I say about Gone with the Wind the better). I decided to make my next 1939 film be the Bette Davis film Dark Victory which indulges my interest in seeing more of Bette Davis, in one of her most highly acclaimed roles. This is actually described on the back of the DVD box as a “three tissue tearjerker” and I expected a frothy melodrama that played better in 1939 but oh no. Dark Victory is a beautiful film about life and death controlled by Bette Davis. It’ll be hard for me to find a Davis film better than this (and up till now that went to All About Eve).
Flighty socialite Judith Traherne‘s (Davis) life is changed when she’s diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. As Judith copes with the ups and downs of discovering her death is imminent she finds love with her doctor (George Brent).
I know I made a big deal about short plot summaries in my Young Man With a Horn review but where that film dragged out a weak story over two hours, this film tells a highly contained story within an hour and forty-four minutes. There’s no part of the storyline that is superfluous. The film opens briefly showing Judith’s manic lifestyle, gives her the news, and segues into the changes that will continue to the film’s conclusion. With the story-line spoken for the rest of the film is able to be crammed full of engaging performances.
Let’s get it out-of-the-way: This is Bette Davis’ most ASTOUNDING performance! There’s Margo Channing sure, but Davis is spell-binding as Judith. We’re introduced to her as a reckless socialite but she’s got numerous facets of her personality. She enjoys a good-time with her friends, she’s playful and sweet to her dogs and best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and she’s snobby and commanding to her hired hand Michael (Humphrey Bogart). As the exposition scenes unfold it’s easy to suss out that Judith is the commander of a tightly run ship and hates changes to her plans, lax as they are. Thus why she refuses to see a doctor for her headaches and her calm, almost detached tales of running into people that she tells Dr. Steele. The audience questions whether this is denial or genuine indifference. I go with the former and the fact that Judith is only 23 and has no reason to fear for her health.
As Dr. Steele starts testing her to find out what’s wrong there’s a moment where Judith is unable to light a cigarette. There’s a great quote where director Edmund Goulding said that when “Bette Davis can’t light her own cigarette you know something’s wrong” and that’s true. As she’s being tested she tells Steele about the trivial path of her life involving marriage eventually. You can see the look of heartbreak on Steele’s face when he becomes aware she won’t live to see her trivial life play out. To me Davis’ character is like the leading lady of Jane Austen‘s Mansfield Park who believes life is a “quick succession of busy nothings.” It’s not that Judith doesn’t want her life to be fulfilling, she just finds it is in its own way and she has plenty of time to change it. When Dr. Steele is forced to tell Judith she has a brain tumor the facade finally cracks and Judith proclaims “I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me.” That’s sadly a common trope of twenty-somethings, I know I’ve been there, and it’s always frightening to have mortality slap you in the face. Outside of her material comforts Judith really is everyone who goes through the process of life and death.
I was riveted to Davis throughout and the complex nature of her character. Judith says to Dr. Steele during their first meeting that she lacks a sense of humor, yet before she’s sedated for her surgery she asks Steele to look inside her head “and see if you can find any sense.” It’s such a bittersweet sequence as the one time Judith is able to relax is just before an operation that could determine the rest of her life, or hell she could die in a few minutes. There’s no one else I could see in this role, no one although it is fun to know that Davis was 30 playing a 23-year-old although she looked gorgeous with her bright eyes and coy smile. She looks far better than some other celebrities who are in their early twenties. Davis didn’t win an Oscar for this film, although she was nominated. The Oscar went to Ms. Vivien Leigh for Gone With the Wind. No disrespect to Leigh but this should have been Davis’ Oscar plain and simple!
The rest of the characters are good in different ways but of course no one holds a flame to Davis herself. The closest is Geraldine Fitzgerald as Anne. Anne is the stereotypical “best friend” (essentially created so that Davis’ character didn’t have to complain about her illness) but she feels remarkably fresh and fleshed out in this role. Anne has obviously been with Judith her whole life and you can see that in how they talk to each other, especially when it’s understood that Judith is dying. When Judith realizes that death is coming the look of terror on Ann’s face is just alarming. I also discovered that Fitzgerald played the grandmother in Poltergeist 2 (I do love that movie)!
Humphrey Bogart plays Michael in the role that would propel him to stardom. What’s interesting is that Michael is a character completely different from the roles Bogart would become famous for. Michael takes care of the horses that Judith invests in and races. Even though Judith is snobbish to Michael, you can see that they mutually challenge each other. They’re both competitive and have a lot of cute interactions, so it’s no surprise to find out Michael loves her. It’s obvious to assume that Michael, being the second string love interest, would be whiny or pathetic but that’s not the case. Sure he doesn’t get the girl but he’s not bitter or a jerk. He knows his place, knows they’re “kind of alike” and good for each other, but much like Judith’s lack of time…it’s not fated for them. Judith comes to the realization that time is fleeting when she’s confronted with it. Michael knows from the get-go that “you only live once” and has been trying to make life count. Bogart would go on to be known for gangsters and similar tough guys so it’s refreshing to know he could have pulled off more romantic roles. Also, there’s a hilarious introduction to his character as he hangs off Judith’s running boards. It’s beyond obvious they’re using rear projection!
That brings us to George Brent as Dr. Steele. Don’t get me wrong, I like Brent in this it’s just his character is a pretty crappy and downright deceitful doctor. In terms of acting prowess Brent and Davis have some darling chemistry, especially in the ending scenes of them in Vermont. The two were carrying on an affair during the movie so I’m sure that helped (say what you will but actors having affairs during filming generally makes for better chemistry…it’s only once they’re married it falls apart haha). Brent conveys the appropriate emotions and you can see his love for Judith is real but seriously guy I know you don’t want her to be sad about her fate but is that enough justification to NOT TELL HER SHE’S DYING! What’s even more hypocritical about his character is he tells Ann afterwards “I have no jurisdiction over life and death.” No but apparently you have jurisdiction over disclosing important medical information with your patient! This leads to the big second act climax where Davis finds the papers saying she’s going to die and she turns on Dr. Steele. Now this is why you tell her! Now you just look like a big, fat liar Dr. Steele. And considering the third act where they’re happy I don’t really understand the point of hiding it from her in the first place. She would have coped with her mortality either way and we all know Judith is suffering from Florence Nightingale syndrome.
By the end the question becomes: is this movie bold enough to off Bette Davis? Having a big star like Davis in the lead I was sure they’d find some “miracle” to save her and give her the knowledge that life is worth living but SPOILER nope they totally kill her off END SPOILER. The best scene has to be when Davis loses her sight. It’s important because it’s revealed that once a patient is blind death is imminent (if Dr. Steele didn’t tell her, how did he plan on explaining her blindness…I’ll let it go). When Judith discovers that her sight is gone the feeling is so visceral. She screams for Ann and clutches to her, possibly to keep death from taking her. I visibly responded to this scene. We’re all faced with our immortality but what must it feel like for that one sign to come to somebody that says “You’re going to die in the next few minutes.” We may all say we’ve had those brushes but this is a genuine moment…there’s no going back. It’s such a palpable moment. Judith’s walk up the staircase and going through the door mimics the afterlife in a way and is a beautiful moment that ends with the cool effect of watching the light leave her eyes. I must confess, I teared up at this point.
Dark Victory is such a phenomenal film! I loved every second of it and I admit, I really didn’t think I’d like it. Movies like these have to have all the elements to be timeless and this does. The writing is articulate, the acting (especially by Davis) is gorgeous, and the story is like a train rushing into the unknown. I just kept writing “amazing” while I was watching this.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.