1939 was a banner year for Hollywood and a very busy one for Bette Davis, who added four exceptional movies to her credit, arguably the best being Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory. Davis heavily campaigned to play the title role of a spoiled socialite struck down in the prime of her life with a brain tumour. But her interest in the project initially baffled studio chief Jack Warner. The original Broadway show starring Tallulah Bankhead had lasted only fifty-one performances – a qualified flop by any standard. Still, Jack was a gambling man, particularly when he had everything to gain by Davis falling flat on her face.
Earlier in the decade Bette Davis had stormed out of her Warner contract after Jack refused to cast her in the types of roles the actress believed suited her demeanour. It was a gutsy move to say the least and it created quite a stir in the press. Jack wanted Bette Davis back to work. She refused to go. According the legal precedents outlined in her ironclad contract, Jack was perfectly within his rights to reel her in. The courts agreed.
But Bette Davis proved to be the real winner and from that moment forward she would continue to snowball her demands at the studio – demands frequently met simply to avoid another knock-down drag-out confrontation with the front office. It is even rumoured that Jack Warner would duck into the men’s room when he heard her high heels approaching his office, just to be left alone.
By 1939 Bette Davis was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actresses – a two time Oscar winner with more commercial clout than any of her contemporaries, save Clark Gable. Women adored her no nonsense heroines and men found something strangely appealing in her very masculine approach to taking on the world without reprisals or regrets. If 1939 belonged in the annals of filmdom as the year of Gone With The Wind, then Davis was well compensated for losing the plum role of Scarlett O’Hara to Vivien Leigh by appearing in four of Warner Bros. most lavishly appointed screen spectacles.
Dark Victory isn’t so much lavish as it proves poignant and memorable – iconic, really – as far as Bette Davis films go. Casey Robinson’s screenplay cleverly irons out the narrative kinks in the Broadway show, creating a one woman showcase for Davis’ formidable talents. But for once she doesn’t quite chew up the scenery so much as she assimilates into the role of emotionally insecure Long Island heiress Judith Traherne.
Judy is awoken at the crack of dawn by Michael (Humphrey Bogart); a gregarious stable hand who sees through her socially rigid façade. In fact, Michael takes great liberties to quietly insult Judy in front of her social secretary, Anne King (Geraldine Fitzgerald). She’s a fast girl who will come to no good unless she curbs her enthusiasm for slick cars, even slicker men, and weak kneed horses like Challenger – her favourite mount.
Unbeknownst to everyone except Anne, Judy has been suffering terrible headaches that leave her disoriented and confused. Ignoring the warning signs that another attack is coming on, Judy takes Challenger over a series of jumps to prove Michael wrong about the horse’s ability. Her vision suddenly blurs, however, and Judy is thrown from the horse.
A short while later, her kindly family physician, Doctor Parsons (Henry Travers) asks noted brain surgeon Doctor Frederick Steele (George Brent) to examine his patient. Steele has recently decided to close up his practice and devote his life to pure research. But after carefully observing Judy’s reactions to reflex testing and light exposure his diagnosis becomes grim. Judy has a brain tumour. Only an operation will save her life.
At first refusing to listen to reason, Judy eventually relents to the surgery. The operation is a success – partly. Steele has restored Judy to her old self. Her recovery is swift. But the good doctor keeps the more lingering prognosis a secret from everyone except Anne. The tumour will grow back – soon – and this time, to claim Judy’s life.
Without any knowledge of her condition, Judy pursues a romance with Dr. Steele that ends abruptly after she discovers he has lied to her. Returning to her old ways, Judy abuses her friends and herself with drink and heavy partying, determined to squeeze out ever last moment of life on her own terms. Inside, however, she is a bitter woman. After one of her closest friends, Alec (Ronald Reagan) arranges for a meeting between Judy and Dr. Steele, the two rekindle their genuine love for one another and are married.
Moving to a country home in Connecticut, the couple are supremely happy with Steele’s pure research possibly yielding a great discovery that he intends on presenting at a medical conference in New York. Regrettably, the afternoon of their departure Judy begins to exhibit the first signs that her tumour has returned. Her vision dims and her limbs grow numb.
Calling Anne to her side, Judy makes her swear not to tell Steele about her condition. Sensing that something is terribly wrong, Steele decides to cancel his attendance at the conference. But Judy insists that he go without her to make a difference in other people’s lives if he can. Steele reluctantly agrees and Judy, now nearly blind, lies down on their bed upstairs, waiting for death to overtake her.
With its dower finale, Jack Warner had expected Dark Victory to bomb at the box office. Such a failure would have meant he could once more begin to call the shots on Bette Davis’ career and bring her stubborn will to heel to his personal requests. Instead, the film proved yet another hit for Davis in that exceptional year of film making. Unable to quantify the reason audiences had so embraced the story, Jack quietly accepted that Davis’ intuition had been right all along and went about pleasantly counting the box office receipts.
Viewed today, the medical jargon presented in Dark Victory has dated rather badly. No self-respecting physician uses the lingo ‘prognosis negative’ to describe a terminal patient. But otherwise, the film remains topflight entertainment – a woman’s picture par excellence that really leaves one clutching for the Kleenex before the final fade out.
Bette Davis and George Brent have great on screen chemistry; his tenderness the quieting compliment to her more exaggerated mannerisms. Honourable mention must also go to Geraldine Fitzgerald’s poignant turn as the devoted friend. But it must be said that Humphrey Bogart is ill at ease as the supposedly loveably Irish stable hand – his brogue painfully strained and occasionally unremarkable.
Dark Victory is a classic melodrama from the Warner canon. It comes out of the gate like gangbusters, nimbly skipping along each plot point, then finishes with an indelible ending that makes the whole movie work on every level. Casey Robinson’s screenplay never falters and doesn’t really hammer home its message so much as it lovingly creates a snapshot of a life prematurely snuffed out in its prime. In the final analysis, Dark Victory is a great film in a year of great films – another glowing example of what golden Hollywood could do when the stars aligned to produce movie magic on a grand and very emotionally satisfying scale.
Warner Home Video has remastered Dark Victory yet again for DVD. The original release was horribly marred by edge effects. This newer minting corrects those digital oversights, but the B&W image continues to suffer from a decidedly soft characteristic and weaker than anticipated contrast levels.
Overall, there’s nothing inherently terrible about this transfer, though it never quite rises to a level one can call entirely pleasing. Despite a digital scrubbing, age related artefacts are present throughout and occasionally rather heavy and distracting. The audio has been remastered in mono with renewed clarity.
Extras include a rather comprehensive audio commentary from James Ursini and Paul Clinton, as well as a brief featurette that attempts to contextualize the film’s enduring legacy in a year of so many exemplary films. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)