Dark Victory (1939)

21 Mar

Dark_movieposterI have had Dark Victory sitting on my shelf for a long time and I have steadfastly resisted watching it. It’s a story about a woman who dies of cancer and since my own mother died of cancer, I thought I’d never have the heart to sit through it all. But last week I must have been feeling reckless (or morbid), because I voluntarily and spontaneous decided to watch it, fully prepared to drown in an ocean of tears.

But the oddest thing happened. I didn’t actually cry and I think it’s because the film bears absolutely no resemblance to my own experiences. It is a pure Hollywood fantasy of disease and death….which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t need a movie to teach me about grief. Movies either touch me on the raw (and they are only able to do so because I’ve already experience something) or they touch me in a more abstract, cerebral, certainly emotional, but not tangible fashion. Dark Victory was definitely in the latter category. I admired Bette Davis, enjoyed the drama, felt sad by the ending, was frustrated by the character’s decisions and generally was able to enjoy it like I would any other movie.

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is a reckless and willful heiress who parties all night and has a huge collection of relatively useless friends, including Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan, in a thankless role), though her loyal secretory, Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald in her first American film) is more like a sister to her and genuinely tries to look out for her interest. But Judith’s doctor is worried about her. Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers) knows something is wrong, though Judith refuses to tell him her symptoms or see another doctor. The symptoms include trouble with her vision, numbness in her left arm and hand, terrible headaches and an inability to concentrate.

Dr. Parson finally does get her to see a specialist, however. Brain surgeon Frederick Steele (George Brent) diagnoses a brain tumor almost immediately, though he consults with a few other doctors before telling her that they need to operate. The operation is a success, clearing up all her symptoms, but the doctors learn that the operation was only a reprieve. Judith only has at most ten months to live. There will be no symptoms (?!), she will appear perfectly fine until she loses her eyesight, at which point the end will only be a few hours away.

Annex - Davis, Bette (Dark Victory)_11But Dr. Steele, Dr, Parsons and Ann elect not to tell Judith, feeling that she would be happier if she didn’t know (this is apparently rather European, where my piano teacher told me that it used to be quite routine for the family to choose not to tell a loved one that they were dying – the topic came up when we were discussing Rachmaninoff and I expressed surprise that his family should keep it from him that he had cancer, though eventually it becomes rather obvious to the patient that something is wrong – though this was in the days when there was really nothing that could be done). Judith is beside herself with gratitude for Dr. Steele and is falling in love with him, while Dr. Steele returns her affections. Should he tell her? And then things go haywire when Judith finds out that he and Ann lied to her about being cured and goes on a giant, months long bender.

One thing that interested me was Bette Davis’ performance. I am used to thinking of her as playing rather strong-willed women, but as Judith Traherne she plays her with a more childlike innocence, especially opposite George Brent’s Dr. Steele. She mentions that her father drank himself to death and that her mother lives in Paris and so there is a rather fatherly aspect to Dr. Steele’s love of her and her reaction to him. It begins when they first meet in his office. She is scared stiff and wildly resistant to his attempts to question her about her health. But as he gains her confidence, she suddenly relaxes, as if for the first time completely trusting someone else to take care of her. She plays Judith with wide-eyed, abandoned youthfulness that somehow isn’t really jaded yet, but also like a scared animal, shying away from kindness, who can’t quite fathom her fate.

Barbara Stanwyck evidently badly wanted the role or Judith Traherne and even performed the role for Lux Radio Theater, but because she was not associated with any studio, the role went to Bette Davis at Warner Bros. I wonder what her take on the character would have been. She can do many things, but I’m not sure childlike innocence is one of them. I am sure it would have been a good performance, but definitely different.

Stills-dark-victory-18866479-1699-2112Also in Dark Victory is, of all people, Humphrey Bogart. 1939 was a strange and busy year for Bogart. He played a mobster in The Roaring Twenties, an outlaw in the western (!) Oklahoma Kid with James Cagney, a convict in the prison drama The Invisible Stripes, another mobster in You Can’t Get Away With Murder with the Dead End Kids, a bloodless, undead  zombie scientist with a white streak in his hair and a rabbit to stroke in the very B The Return of Dr. X, yet another gangster in King of the Underworld and an impertinent, lusty Irish stable-hand in Dark Victory with an unconvincing Irish brogue-like accent. Bogart must have been very glad to finally be done with the 1930s.

George Brent and Geraldine Fitzgerald are quite good, but Dark Victory is all Bette Davis vehicle with her nobly going off alone to die. It’s actually a bit frustrating. After all, she is taking the choice away from those who love her who would want to be with her. But in the context of the story, it kind of makes sense. She acts so young and dependent on others, it is important to her, at the end, to do this on her own. Finally, to bravely face something on her own.

As a side note, isn’t it odd the kinds of movies that move one emotionally? It can be so unpredictable. A movie like Dark Victory will leave me unmoved and than I’ll bawl at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Cheesy stuff, random stuff, who knows what will affect one next! I never know. Do you?


Posted by on March 21, 2016 in Movies


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12 responses to “Dark Victory (1939)

  1. Eric Binford

    March 21, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Dark Victory is not a great movie. It looks pretty ordinary next to other 1939 classics like Oz, GWTW, Stagecoach, etc. Davis, however, is fantastic. I’ve seen both the 1960s remake with Susan Hayward and the 1970s TV mini-series with Elizabeth Montgomery, and Davis’s work remains unsurpassed — she really elevates questionable material.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 21, 2016 at 1:24 pm

      Yes, I think I have to agree with you; the plot is ridiculous. But, as you say, Bette Davis is so overwhelmingly giving it her all…I have to admire actors who give it their all and Bette Davis is one of the best at it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        March 21, 2016 at 3:17 pm

        You and I are bound to have problems with the “don’t-tell-her-she’s-dying” thing. I think it’s a generational thing, not a weak plot device. My grandmother had terminal cancer and her children refused to tell her the truth. I questioned my mother, but she insisted that it was all for the best. She died not knowing that she was dying! Anyhow, the scene with Davis walking up those stairs never fails to move me to tears.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          March 21, 2016 at 9:20 pm

          That’s true, I see what you mean about the generational thing and why people would choose, in love, not to tell a loved one they are dying. That aspect of Dark Victory didn’t strike me as odd so much as the portrayal of cancer as being something that shows no symptoms until it suddenly manifests itself hours before killing a person. It seems contrary to everything I thought I knew about cancer and made the story seem less believable.

          Though that is a powerful moment at the end when she walks up the stairs!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. FictionFan

    March 21, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    I’ve also had this on the shelf unwatched for years – perhaps I’ll dust it off. Interesting re the decision not to tell. My father died of cancer in the early ’80s – the doctors told my mother rather than him that he was dying, and she chose not to tell either him or us until it became blindingly obvious. I still think she probably made the right decision for him (and showed huge strength) – she spent the year organising lots of things he’d always wanted to do, and I reckon he enjoyed those last few months more for not knowing. Now, the doctors would tell the patient straight away. I’m not sure which is better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 21, 2016 at 9:11 pm

      That does sound incredibly courageous and strong of your mother – and a beautiful gift for your father. I can see how that would be such a difficult decision to make and I appreciate your sharing your story and showing me how the decision not to tell a loved one can be a good one. I never thought of it that way before.

      For my mom, she knew because she was actively seeking to find out why she felt so badly and when she finally got a diagnosis her initial reaction was relief to know what was wrong. We later learned that the doctors thought she would only live three months, despite treatment, but she actually had two more years and we were able to spend a lot of time with her.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Grand Old Movies

    March 22, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    I agree with your point, that the film’s portrait of disease is a fantasy–it seems it doesn’t want to deal with the messy reality of terminal illness (no doubt a box-office decision). I really like Davis’s performance, though I don’t see her as child-like here; she’s more like a headstrong teenager who’s always had her way, and it’s only dying(!) that makes her grow up. The film is maybe more maudlin than morbid, but Davis acts in with such directness and transparency that you overlook its flaws. I also wonder about that notion of casting Bogie as an Irish groom. One thing he can’t complain about 1939, his roles certainly offered him variety!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 22, 2016 at 9:45 pm

      Yes, one does wonder why they chose Bogart of all people! I wonder what he thought, in looking back, of those roles; if it was ever fun to play such a diversity of roles or if he was only frustrated. I don’t disagree with you about Bette Davis’ performance as a teenager, but she seemed to combine it with a kind of naivete and innocence, especially in her interaction with Brent, who seemed somewhat of a fatherly figure.

      I like your description of the film as “more maudlin than morbid.” But, as you say, Bette Davis really does hold it together. She made it a thoroughly compelling film; I never looked away or got bored.


  4. Silver Screenings

    March 23, 2016 at 7:42 am

    Wild! I just re-watched Dark Victory the other day for an upcoming Bette Davis blogathon. (I’m going to link to your review in my post, if you’re OK with that?)

    I agree that this film is not a realistic portrayal of a terminal disease, but Davis is so good in this role, you can forgive it. (Although I think she overdoes the noble martyr bit at the end…but she wouldn’t be Bette Davis if she didn’t overdo at least one scene, no?)

    Great cast in this film, Bogart’s on-again/off-again accent notwithstanding. Usually, I’m rather lukewarm about George Brent, but I really like him in this film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 23, 2016 at 9:30 am

      Oh, that is wild! I would be most flattered if you linked to the post.

      That is true…one might wonder if she was feeling unwell herself if Bette Davis underplayed it. She does make the film utterly compelling. It’s hard to imagine another in the role.

      I know what you mean about George Brent (when I saw him in The Great Lie, I wished he’d disappear so we could have more Bette Davis and Mary Astor), but he seems so sweet and a great foil for her in this one.

      Can’t wait to read your post on this film!

      Liked by 1 person


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