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Dark Victory (1939)

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?

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

downloadVincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone? All in the same movie? I figured it would be worth it even if the movie turned out to be a turkey. But The Comedy of Terrors, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is not a turkey, in large part because of its delightful cast, but also the script by Richard Matheson, who seems to take special joy in an highly extensive vocabulary. It is a black comedy that does not seem to be to everyone’s tastes (some find it belabored – it does have a somewhat relaxed pace), but gave me some of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. The film spoofs everything from grave-robbing (think Burke and Hare) to Shakespeare. There’s actually a lot of Shakespeare references, starting with the title of the film (based on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”).

Mr. Waldo Trumble (Vincent Price) is the junior partner of Hinchley & Trumble, an undertakers business. But Hinchley (Boris Karloff) is so deaf and senile that he doesn’t seem to be much aware of what is going on (like the fact that Trumble keeps threatening to poison him). He has a wonderful collection of memories of how people have been embalmed throughout history, though. Trumble’s much-abused wife, Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), is also Hinchley’s daughter and has illusions about being an opera-singer (she’s terrible) and plays the organ when necessary at funeral receptions. And Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) works for Trumble as his assistant and secretly adores Amaryllis (love, in this case, is not so much blind as tone-deaf). Completing the household is the cat, Cleopatra (Orangey), who gets to watch all the murderous shenanigans.

Murderous because Trumble is a drunken cheapskate of an undertaker and the business is in decline (they’ve been using the same casket for thirteen years – they dump the body in the grave and save the casket). But he’s found a way to generate business when he needs it. He simply kills someone (smothers them with a pillow) and then fortuitously shows up at their house and offers to bury their dead while the grieving family is still confused. This backfires, however, when the young widow of the man he kills leaves him with the body and makes off with her inheritance (“Is there no morality left in this world?” Trumble bemoans).

Sitting: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

This is awkward because Trumble’s landlord, Mr. John F. Black (Basil Rathbone), is dunning them for an entire year’s worth of rent that has gone unpaid. But Trumble rises to the occasion and conceives of the idea of killing to two birds with one….well, pillow, as he says. He will simply kill Mr. Black (and for some reason brings the cat along with him on his mission). At which point the movie could have been titled “He Won’t Die!” Mr. Black suffers from catalepsy and although his servant warns the doctors that he’s been declared dead before, the doctor insists that Mr. Black is indeed dead and ready to be buried. But he won’t stay dead. Trumble and Gillie have to keep shoving him back in his coffin (Mr. Black protests: “I consider this inimical to good fellowship.”).

The cast is fantastic. Initially, I thought Trumble’s venom towards his wife was a little off-putting, but gradually it became very funny (no one says a snarky line quite like Vincent Price) and his ultimate fate pretty much atones for all his verbal abuse, since everyone gets the last laugh on him. Peter Lorre is always perfect, with his sad eyes, quite sensitive, despite being a former lock-pick who spent time in jail (“Why did I ever escape from prison? It was so peaceful there.”). But he doesn’t like murder and only helps because Trumble blackmails him and because he wants to be near Amaryllis.

Boris Karloff is the doddering old man who remains completely oblivious to what is going on around him and Karloff plays him with great comic timing. I love his rambling eulogy for Mr. Black

And so, my friends, we find ourselves gathered around the bier of Mrs… er… Mr… You Know Whom… this litter of sorrow, this cairn, this cromlech, this dread dochma, this gart, this mastaba, this sorrowing tope, this unhappy tumulus, this, this… what is the word?… this… er, coffin! Never could think of that word. Requiescat in Pace, Mr… um… Mr… the memory of your good deeds will not perish with your untimely sepulture.

Joyce Jameson more than holds her own in a movie filled with horror heavyweights (however hammy). My favorite scene with her is when she sings a song at Mr. Black’s funeral, “He is not dead, but sleepeth. He is not dead at all,” which she sings emphatically and off-key, totally unaware of any irony, much to the distress of Trumble and Gillie.

Poster - Comedy of Terrors, The_05But the real scene-stealer, if there can be one with such a cast, is Basil Rathbone as the Shakespeare quoting landlord who will not die. He especially likes to quote from Macbeth. He gets more returns from the dead than a cat. Every time he wakes up from a fit of catalepsy, he asks “What place is THIS?” which sounds impressive when coming from within a coffin. The poor cemetery keeper (played by Joe E. Brown) is frightened out of his wits when he hears, issuing from within a crypt, a hollow voice (hollow because its coming from the coffin) asking “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

He sputters and quotes and even slashes with a sword at one point and his death scene at the end is truly epic. In fact, the film’s end is epic, in a zany, crazy way. Mr. Black emerges from his crypt to wreak revenge on the house of Trumble & Hinchley, like a Shakespeare-spouting, raging, psychopathic ax murderer. It’s totally unforgettable. As 1000 Misspent House and Counting says in regards to the film, “the movie ends with a pair of lovers mistakenly believing each other dead a la Romeo and Juilet, and a pile of corpses (some mispresumed, some actual) deep enough to rival Hamlet.”

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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