Dark Victory (1939): Bette Davis at Her Best

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Dark Victory reminds one how eclectic the Warner Bros. stock company was in 1939 because, in a Bette Davis vehicle, the first visage to present itself is none other than a wry Humphrey Bogart. The movie is a veritable grab bag of assorted talent from Bogart to Ronald Reagan and even kindly, bushy-browed Henry Travers. Despite still being a supporting player (his ascension would come in two years), Bogey is having a grand old time as a smart-mouthed horse trainer named Michael O’Leary.

He is under the employment of one Judith Traherne (Davis) who is coming off her most recent bender, living it up in local social circles. It’s an obvious first impression although, as time goes on, we get quite a different understanding of who she is as a human being. It’s often the case trials and tribulation mixed with romance have a habit of bringing out the truest essence of an individual.

For the Davis character, it begins inauspiciously enough. We expect her to be a frivolous, spirited socialite partying, drinking, smoking cigarettes, like any self-respecting belle in her position. In such a world the happy-go-lucky playboy Alex (Ronald Reagan) seems to be an impeccable match.

Her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is the doting sounding board who might as well be a part of Judith. At any rate, she functions as a guardian angel constantly worried about the other’s well-being. She never fails to be by Judith’s side in all manner of circumstances — it’s almost uncanny — but cinematically, she becomes the necessary foil on which our heroine transfers all her fears.

This is a crucial relationship as the story progresses. For it is Ann who bears the brunt of the sorrow, in effect, freeing Judith to push bravely forward. Ann cries the tears so her friend doesn’t have to. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We must put it out there now that tragedy strikes.

The events are instigated in one frightening instance when Judith all but runs her horse through a jump out on the range. They are both shaken up, but the fall is written off as a lingering after-effect of the previous night’s merriment.

Still, the incidents persist. One afternoon Judith takes a tumble down the stairs while later confiding in her friend about other isolated moments and the recent hangover-induced headaches she hasn’t been able to shake.

While Judith remains peppy and bright, in all manner of speaking, there’s no question these developments have left her frazzled — her nerves undone by this unexplained erratic behavior.

At about this time, our other important character is introduced, a well-respected brain surgeon (George Brent) who is all but prepared to give up his booming practice for a more relaxed mode of medicine. It is only as a favor to a friend he even takes a look at Ms. Traherne (As a  minor side note, it’s staggering to acknowledge this was the eighth out of eleven onscreen appearances Brent made opposite Bette Davis!).

His subsequent examination is basic but wholly conclusive, and it is a clever bit of exposition instigated by director Edmund Goulding. We learn instantly the doctor’s new patient is losing some of her ocular and motor skills. It’s evident something is wrong. Though he does not frighten her in the moment, he has suspicions she is stricken with cancer.

The consequence. She’s going to die. It’s only a matter of time. The main conundrum suddenly thrust upon the doctor and Ann is a deplorable one: To tell her in all truthfulness what is inevitable or let her live in ignorance so her final days might be blissful.

What do you expect to happen? Of course, they never get the chance to make the decision. Two words: prognosis negative, are all Judith needs to put it all together. She feels betrayed and disdains their pity. She will never be the same.

The way Davis approaches each of these scenes with almost a spastic giddiness makes it different than what one might typically consider mainline Bette Davis, whether The Little Foxes or All About Eve. If anything, it reveals her immense aptitude at projecting different sides of humanity. Because she seems so very superficial only to subvert all our expectations with an unassailable strength, bolstering her in her waning days.

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The tear-jerking melodrama is a precarious affair because it must throw out all sorts of tragedies and sentimentalities while all the while compelling the audience such that they don’t completely laugh off the whole idea as poppycock. After all, it’s about the easiest thing in the world to dismiss such a picture — we’ve seen enough soaps in our days to grow weary of them — but the good ones take us through the paces and still manage to get to us.

Dark Victory is no person’s idea of a perfect film, but it does what it sets out to do quite stupendously. Even as someone never quick to fawn over Bette Davis, there’s no recourse but to laud her performance.

Not often am I fond of a Davis character, even the ones you’re meant to like. Dark Victory teeters somewhere in the middle for a while, but the sheer tornado frenzy of giggling life in the face of death wins out. It’s a testament to Davis more than anyone else as she all but sticks the landing, carrying the magnitude of the drama with her implacable performance.

The title itself, Dark Victory, initially sounds morbid or like it’s indicating some form of vindictive revenge. And yet really, this is a happier story imbued with hope in the face of said tragedy. It is a victory over the dark even as the light dissipates for Judith.

In reality, the trills of lasting romance and fearlessness in the face of the great unknown offer her vindication over her struggles. We are not meant to weep over her lot in life. Instead, taking a cue from her own outlook, we must lean into the sweetness in lieu of the tragedy.

4/5 Stars