1939: a banner year in Hollywood and a very busy one for Bette Davis, who added four exceptional movies to her credit, arguably the best of the lot, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory. Davis had heavily campaigned to play the title role of a haughty socialite struck down in the prime of life. But her obstinacy for the project initially baffled studio chief, Jack L. Warner, even souring his furthering the property along because he firmly believed it would prove a lethal blow to any star-making career. “Why would anyone want to see a picture where the dame goes blind?” Warner is rumored to have said. Indeed, the original Broadway show starring Tallulah Bankhead had lasted only fifty-one performances – a qualified flop by any standard – and, in hindsight, not exactly ingratiating the lanky Southerner to movie stardom either. Alas, just as Davis had taken another Bankhead flop – Jezebel – and turned it into a triumph (an Oscar-winning one no less), her expertise in seizing upon the opportunity to perform a similar miracle with Dark Victory proved very well planned indeed.
And Jack was a gambling man, particularly when he had every indication he had everything to gain either way; especially should Davis fall flat on her face. Earlier in the decade, the actress had balked to appear in any more movies for the studio where she played the slinky, platinum-headed ‘dolly’ with the bee-stung lips; a sort of pseudo-vamp, Warner had hoped to mold into his version of MGM’s Jean Harlow. Refusing work, and storming out of her Warner contract after Jack refused to listen to reason, Davis took the first boat bound for Europe, leaking a story she had decided to make movies as an independent for Alexander Korda in Britain. It was a gutsy move to say the least and it created quite a stir in the press. Jack wanted Davis back at work for him. She refused to budge. According the legal precedents outlined in her ironclad contract, Jack was perfectly within his rights to reel her in and the courts eventually agreed.
But Bette Davis proved to be the real winner in this battle royale. From this moment forward, she would steadily wield her autonomy at the studio, able to pick and choose the properties she wanted to make, her demands snowballing into an impressive roster of hits and begrudgingly met given Warner’s seal of approval, simply to avoid another knock-down drag-out confrontation in his front office. It is rumored Jack would duck into the men’s room when he heard Davis’ high heels clickety-clacking toward his office, just to be let alone. Davis could have sunk her own career; except she seemed to possess an uncanny knack for choosing wisely, not simply projects of stature and quality, but parts to suit her inimitable talents, in the process surpassing virtually all the glamour queens in Tinsel Town. It garnered Davis the respect of an entire industry and earned her legions of adoring female fans at the height of the ‘woman’s picture’s’ popularity. In hindsight, it also managed to make a rather bad enemy of her boss.
Hence, 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 masculine take on a woman’s survival in a man’s world; taking on the rigors of life without reprisals or regrets. If, in the annals of filmdom, 1939 belongs to The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind, Davis was nevertheless well compensated for losing the plum part of Scarlett O’Hara to Vivien Leigh, appearing in no less than four of Warner Bros. most lavishly appointed screen spectacles from that year. And Davis, who generally took it all in stride, even as her commitment to the work itself was always paramount, knew that if she could survive Jack Warner she could basically do as she pleased and make Jack like it too. After all, it’s rather hard to argue with success – especially as it translates to box office cache.
Yet, Dark Victory isn’t so much lavish as it proves poignant and memorable – iconic, really – one of Davis’ truly outstanding moments on the screen, playing a spoiled – if spirited – socialite tragically stricken with an inoperable brain tumor. 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 as much as assimilates into the part of the emotionally insecure Long Island heiress, Judith Traherne. Davis is delicious as the stubbornly conflicted dying woman, discovering the virtues of love too late while grappling with the decision to meet fate finely, with dignity, and, of course, self-sacrifice. Feminist scholarship has made much of the fact a good many ‘proud females’ in the movies from this vintage are eventually brought to heel, seemingly at the behest of a male-dominated power structure. Female martyrdom was to experience a rather dramatic spike following the installation of Hollywood’s self-governing code of censorship. What can I tell you? Every woman ought to know her place (kidding).
In Dark Victory’s case, this too seems almost a moot point. For Davis’ Judy, although matured by the love and devotion of a good man, her devoted physician cum lover and finally husband, Dr. Frederick Steele (the ever-reliable and amiable, George Brent), nevertheless remains her own woman. The decisions she makes right up until the end, even to feign wellness as the hour of her demise looms large on the horizon, speaks to a forthright and noble woman’s resolve to declare her own ‘victory’ over the dark. And Davis is magnificent in this penultimate supplication and farewell, refraining from maudlin self-sacrifice as she prods gingerly to send Steele off to his New York medical conference, knowing she will never see him again; smiling with a slight, thin quiver in her voice as she expresses her undying love, gratitude and sense of personal pride in the man who did everything in his power – and God willing, will do a lot more via his future research – to ensure no one ever has to endure as she has. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and yet played with a seemingly affable presence of mind. Davis excels as does the Brent; their chemistry translating into a bittersweet spousal warmth that is wholly believable.
The other outstanding performance in the film belongs to Geraldine Fitzgerald as the ever-devoted companion and social secretary, Anne King. In years yet to follow, Fitzgerald would make a study of this sort of martyred ‘best friend’; the girl never quite destined to step out from the shadows, yet quietly contented to stand alongside any larger-than-life figure without any concern for being eclipsed in their presence. Herein, she illustrates an almost Christ-like devotion to Judy, admonishing Steele after he quietly reveals to her his exploratory surgery, meant to remove Judy’s tumor has failed. The symptoms of Judy’s ‘illness’ will shortly return, this time to claim her life. Others in the supporting cast include Humphrey Bogart, as yet, not broken through beyond the Warner stock company and fairly uncomfortable with an Irish brogue as Michael, the stable hand; future President, Ronald Reagan, as Alec, an amiable and perpetually inebriated playboy, whom Anne affectionately refers to as ‘the parasite’; Cora Witherspoon, playing the flighty fair-weather, Carrie; and finally, Henry Travers, whom many will immediately identify as Clarence, the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), herein trading on his usually befuddled good nature as the more stoic general practitioner, Dr. Parsons.
Part of the charm in viewing a movie like Dark Victory today is seeing these instantly recognizable faces in complete symbiosis; all the pistons of the studio system firing at once to deliver top-flight entertainment, seemingly with effortless professionalism. Edmond Goulding’s direction is taut, the screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch’s stagecraft, tighter still and of the Warner tradition from this period – released like a pent-up animal from its cage, making its narrative points with narrowly a pause, yet somehow, and quite exquisitely, managing to punctuate every last moment with an elegant penchant for its drama. Dark Victory never lingers, but it does manage to create an enveloping world unto itself; the highfaluting country club sect, unchanged and likely to remain so, even as one of their own is entering a perilous crisis. Admirable too, Max Steiner’s dramatic underscore; Ernest Haller’s gorgeous B&W photography, filled with airy brightness at the beginning, though gradually dimming as Judy’s hours grow shorter still; Robert M. Haas’ art direction, an intoxicating blend of resplendently moneyed playgrounds and bucolic quaintness for the ‘simple life’; and finally, Orry-Kelly’s immaculate costuming, managing to conceal the fact Bette Davis was not exactly a well-built woman. Nevertheless, Davis sparkles in Orry-Kelly’s clothes; looking every bit the haughty and exclusive socialite, either in her plaid riding ensemble, or elegantly sheathed in a flowing white gown with glittering sequins and a playful beanie, presumably meant to conceal scars from the surgery.
Dark Victory is a superb example of the Hollywood melodrama at the height of its popularity and powers of human observation. It’s the sort of tale only possible at a time when the movies’ primary target audience was the mature woman. The story is sumptuously decked out to appeal to the feminine sensibility for a three-hanky tear-jerker, exceptionally dolloped with splashy bits of haute couture. None of these more superfluous trappings impact or detract from the drama, particularly with Bette Davis as our star. It’s her picture all the way and she never disappoints; whether caustically in denial of Judy’s condition, wildly railing against friends who continue to tolerate her erratic behaviors because they already know of her awaiting fate, or succumbing to the darkness with quiet introspection, nee a new appreciation for the sanctity of life, as well as the fundamental humanity and need to belong, Davis is a towering presence. When she speaks, she punctuates most any moment with a wellspring of discerningly realized emotions, chiefly expressed via her hard-boiled eyes; wounded and sensitively masking Judy’s most haunted anxieties beneath a layer of dagger-laden glares.
After one of the briefest main title sequences in history (barely a minute), Casey Robinson’s screenplay plunges headstrong into the moneyed world of independently-minded socialite Judith Traherne; sunlit at the break of dawn, its stately, yet somehow cozy and quiet surroundings rudely interrupted by the grating sound of a telephone; the receiver first picked up by one of the kitchen staff before the call is forwarded to Anne’s bedroom. It’s Michael, ever-pressing for Judy to come to the stables and oversee her latest stallion, Challenger; a horse Michael insists is of an inferior bloodline. Judy is quite determined to rear the animal into a champion race horse, perhaps chiefly to prove Michael wrong. So we are told by a querulous Anne, Judy has barely had a chance to go to bed, having said goodbye to her last party guest from the previous night’s festivities just a few hours earlier.
Unable to convince Michael to leave well enough alone, Anne transfers the call to Judy’s room. She vows to have Michael fired. Alas, Michael never takes this threat seriously. Why should he? Judy is marginally attracted to him and later, it is suggested, so is Carrie; another reason to keep Michael on as her stable hand – so the ravenous mantrap cannot get her claws into him in Judy’s stead. Michael is fairly gregarious. But he takes great liberties, insulting Judy’s judgment about Challenger in front of her friends. Interestingly, Michael is quietly attracted to Judy too, even if he finds her a very fast girl who will come to no good unless she curbs her enthusiasm for slick cars, even slicker men, and, weak-kneed ponies. Unbeknownst to everyone except Anne, Judy has been suffering terrific headaches, leaving her disoriented and confused. Ignoring these warning signs, Judy orders Michael to harness Challenger for a spirited steeple jump. Regrettably, the light has already begun to bother her eyes. She takes Challenger over a series of exhilarating jumps as Anne, Carrie and Alec look on, merely to prove to Michael he is wrong about the horse’s ability. Alas, as she approaches another jump, Judy’s vision suddenly blurs. She banks Challenger toward the steeple post, the horse panicking and throwing her from its mount.
A short while later, Dr. Parsons asks noted brain surgeon Dr. Frederick Steele to examine his patient. Steele has recently decided to close up his practice and devote his life to pure research; considered a terrible waste for a man of his skillset with a scalpel. Alas, Steele has had enough of cutting into people’s brains to tinker with the ‘whole human works’. He is further put off by every brain surgeon’s inescapably appalling mortality rate, quipping “The operation was a success…the patient just happened to die”, before pointing out to Dr. Parsons just how ‘unfunny’ this euphemism remains. Parsons insists. And so Steele asks his secretary and nurse, Wainwright (Dorothy Peterson) to postpone the departure to his Connecticut retreat. Alas, after carefully observing Judy’s reactions to a basic reflex test and exposure to sunlight his diagnosis is grim. Judy has a brain tumor. Only an operation may save her life.
Keeping this diagnosis to himself for the time being, Steele enlists several noted physicians to conduct their own battalion of tests. Alas, each concurs with Steele’s initial assessment, and Steele is forced to break the news to Judy. At first refusing to listen to reason, Judy eventually relents to the surgery. The operation is successful – partly. Steele has temporarily restored Judy to her former self. Her headaches gone, her reflexes as good as new, Judy’s recovery is swift and falsely assured. The good doctor keeps his fatal prognosis a secret from everyone except Anne. The tumor will grow back – and soon – this time with lethal consequences. “You shouldn’t have touched her!” Anne admonishes Steele. Yet, even she cannot bring herself to reveal the truth to Judy who, at present, is riding high on the understanding she has been completely ‘cured’, and, as such, may resume her normal life as soon as she feels well enough to try. Michael brings Challenger from the stables for Judy’s once over and Judy, having been given this new lease on life, begins to harbor sincere affections for the man who presumably has saved her.
She pursues a whirlwind romance with Dr. Steele, culminating in an engagement party. Regrettably, Judy’s happiness is not to last. For, in her impromptu arrival at Steele’s office, Judy unearths her own medical file and casually discovers the fate shortly awaiting her. Haunted by this discovery, and bitterly wounded at having been lied to by Steele and Anne, Judy terminates their engagement, returning to her old ways. She strikes up a resentful argument with Carrie, mistreats her friends and herself with strong drink and heavy partying, determined to squeeze out ever last moment of life on her own terms. Inside, however, she is tortured and crumbling. After Alec takes pity on the couple and arranges for a ‘chance’ meeting between Judy and Dr. Steele, the two rekindle their genuine love for one another. Judy resigns herself to the fact Steele genuinely loves her and the two are married. Moving to a country home in Connecticut, the couple is supremely happy with Steele’s pure research possibly yielding a great discovery he intends on presenting at a medical conference in New York. Regrettably, the afternoon of their departure Judy begins to exhibit the first signs her tumor has returned. Her vision dims; her limbs grow weak and numb. Calling Anne to her side, Judy makes her promise not to tell Steele of her symptoms. However, sensing something is terribly wrong Steele decides to cancel his attendance at the conference. But Judy insists 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 firmly expected Dark Victory to tank at the box office. Such a failure would have meant he could once more begin to call the shots in Bette Davis’ career and bring her stubbornness to heel at his personal requests. Instead, Dark Victory proved smash hit with audiences, marking Davis four for four in this exceptional year of American film-making. Much to Jack’s chagrin the picture, made on a relatively modest budget, even eclipsed his personally supervised (and far more costly) production of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (also starring Davis) as the studio’s #1 box office titan of that year. Unable to quantify the reason audiences had so embraced the story, Jack quietly accepted Davis’ intuition had been right all along and went about pleasantly tallying up the receipts. Evidently, what was good for Davis was also very good indeed for the studio. Viewed today, the medical jargon presented in Dark Victory has dated - rather badly. No self-respecting physician uses lingo like ‘prognosis negative’ to describe a patient’s terminal condition. Otherwise, Dark Victory remains a superlative screen entertainment – a woman’s picture par excellence to leave one ecstatically clutching for the Kleenex box before the final fade out. Bette Davis and George Brent share an exquisite on-screen chemistry; his manly tenderness, the quieting compliment to her more exaggerated mannerisms. In the final analysis, Dark Victory is a truly great film in a year of extraordinary big screen accomplishments – yet another glowing example of what golden Hollywood’s dream factory machinery was capable of producing when all of the stars were properly aligned.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray of Dark Victory (also made available as part of their 1939: The Golden Year box set) bests its 2-disc DVD from some years ago, though only marginally. Dark Victory has never looked razor-sharp on home video and this hi-def presentation, sporting a rather disappointing low bit rate, is no exception. While age-related dirt, scratches, etc. have been eradicated, and the overall image quality is a shay darker than on the aforementioned standard def format (as it should be, and with the result being far more naturalistic contrast levels) the image is still less than spectacular and this is indeed a shame. Film grain is my biggest concern. There doesn’t seem to be all that much of it. The image is smooth and occasionally waxy. DNR compression liberally applied? Hmmmm. On smaller monitors the overall quality surely impresses. I took a brief glance at this disc on my 42 inch plasma, then later elected to watch the whole movie from start to finish on an 85 inch flat screen, the latter exposing a very smooth-looking video-based presentation. Film – particularly B&W – contains grain. I don’t really see it here. Am I impressed? Am I supposed to be? Hmmm, again.
Overall, there’s nothing inherently terrible about this transfer, though it never quite rises to a level one can call entirely pleasing. The DTS mono audio sounds flat but clean with a light smattering of depth, particularly distinguishing itself in Max Steiner’s score. Extras have all been ported over from the 2005 DVD. We get a densely packed audio commentary by historian, James Ursini and CNN film critic, Paul Clinton. The 10 minute featurette, 1939: Tough Competition for Dark Victory is Warner’s truncated attempt to summarizing the making of this extraordinary movie. There is a 1/2 hour of extras a la the ole ‘Warner Night at the Movies’ ilk, including cartoons, shorts, newsreels, trailers and a Lux Radio Broadcast. Bottom line: Dark Victory is such an iconic film from Hollywood’s greatest year I can’t really see how anyone can say ‘no’. This is a must have and the Blu-ray, despite a few shortcomings, is precisely the way it ought to be seen. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)