Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dark Victory (1939)

Director: Edmund Goulding


In the earlier part of the 20th century the world of major internal medicine was to a point still very much a mystery, and here we get a picture that deals with the subject of cancer entangled in a tragic love story. Dark Victory stars the common Warner Bros. pairing of Bette Davis and George Bret with the delicate subject of the impending death of the film’s female star, which could only be filled by incomparable Davis who was known to weather the storm of rather risky characters and dramatic roles. A picture with a heart breaking story, made with some of the very best talent to ever come out of Hollywood , Dark Victory falls in to the realm of many wonderful features out of 1939 as a remarkable production that would be overshadowed by the massive giants of classic films to come out that year.

Dark Victory is a drama, in fact a medical drama of sorts, of a love between a doctor and his terminally ill patent and lover, both juggling the emotions of happiness and sorrow with the undeniable facts of her impending death. Stubborn socialite Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) after bouts with headaches and severe vision issues is referred to Dr. Frederick Steele, brain specialist and surgeon who had plans of retiring his practice and work in cancer research. After much fighting Judith allows Steele to perform brain surgery and despite eliminating her ailments Steele has knowledge that she has only a short time to live, but keeps the information from her so that she may live in happiness. Steele and Judith grow fond of each other and are engaged to be wed, when she discovers her true condition while they pack to move out of the big city. They agree to live in blissful contentment, disregarding what would be a sudden death for the sake of enjoying life. When sudden symptoms strike revealing her impending and immediate death, she decides to play along as everything is fine, sending Frederick on his way to an out of town conference as she prepares for her peaceful death in her happy home moments later in a very sad conclusion.

The picture is a wonderfully powerful drama of two individuals that come into each other’s lives at just the right time and care so much for each other that they refuse to share traumatic news when it presents itself. Bette Davis and George Brent had played romantics many times before in films, but here they are lovers not of passion, but of care and nurturing that only want to focus on the good of being a loving couple than of the gut wrenching news that Judith will inevitably die. The drama is rooted in the scenes where Frederick keeps Judith’s condition from her, and then the tables are dramatically turned as Judith keeps her situation from him and sadly passes away. It produces moments that surely had audiences misting up when Bette Davis crawls into bed in her final moments as the screen darkens signifying the end to both Judith and the film.

Dark Victory has its roots form a Broadway play that had a very short run of only 51 performances five years prior in 1934. Hollywood producers originally planned to take the story and turn it into a vehicle for the very dramatic Greta Garbo, but she would be wrapped up into other projects when years later Bette Davis fit the bill.

At the time Bette Davis was one of the biggest risk takers of any actress in Hollywood, playing less than glamorous, dramatic roles. At the time of production Davis was in the middle of a divorce from her first husband after she had had many affairs with other Hollywood celebrities. Perhaps due to this ugly time in her life she provides impressive vivid performance of a woman going through major life traumas. In the middle of production Davis begged to be let go of her contract as she was very depressed, but producers could not imagine doing so based off her performances seen in the dailies they were watching. From this performance Davis would receive an Academy Award nomination for her role as Judith, and years later she would look back on the film as her favorite performance in her career.

As Bette Davis’ usual co-star George Brent makes yet another performance as the man that eventually falls in love with Davis’ character. Brent plays Dr. Frederick Steele, a brain surgeon who is jaded by his practice because of how more often than not work his surgeries on the brain end in bad news, renewing his efforts to the study of cancer, that is until the case with Judith. He shows real care for her as a relationship blossoms, though not one of romance, even though they do become engaged. Watching the characters it is difficult to believe that these two would consider a married life together, but you can believe how these two have deeply affected each other’s lives and care very much for the other. Despite Brent being a major player in the film, his performance overall is rather stiff compared to the drama carried by Davis, as she shares far more emotion than he does. But, then again he is a doctor.

The film’s supporting cast is rather remarkable. First you have a newcomer to the states in Geraldine Fitzgerald, an Irish born actress who can be said to have one of the most impactful first two pictures in Hollywood history up to that time. Her performance as Judith’s loving best friend Ann plays on par with Davis in dramatic effect. You literally see her heart breaking on screen as she realized Judith is showing her signs of emanate death. Her roles here and in Wuthering Heights were two of the best supporting performances of the year. Two other notable actors of the supporting cast are a young and still upcoming Humphrey Bogart and small time actor by the name of Ronald Reagan. Bogart was in Warners’ system of rising stars, paying his dues as he would one day be one of the industry’s biggest names. Here Bogart plays your not so usual Bogart type character in an Irish horse trainer that nearly has an affair with Judith. Ronald Reagan was a former baseball announcer for the Chicago Cubs that had signed with Warner Bros. and had been in a number of B films for the studio, here as a drinking friend of Judith, a role with really no meat on its bones. We all know what heights Reagan would one day achieve.

The film would be one the better box office successes of Warner Bros. on the year. Critics and audiences were both enamored by the love story and medical tragedy that was presented in this picture. In an age with still limited medical knowledge to present a plot around a character with cancer was a risk, as seen in the Broadway failure, but Bette Davis makes it a wonderful picture. Davis would lose Best Actress to Gone with the Wind’s Vivien Leigh, as would the film in the Best Picture category. Max Steiner would produce an understated score for the feature, a subtle composition compared to his more bombastic works of the past. Steiner would be nominated for Best Score, of which he was nominated along with his work on Gone with the Wind, but lost to score of The Wizard of Oz.

Dark Victory was not your typical Hollywood feature film, but Warner Bros. loved to play beyond the lines of what audiences usually through of glamorous pictures. With wonderful names in the cast of little known actors who would become big players and the great Bette Davis, this picture stands as a very strong film from 1939. Named #32 in AFI’s Top 100 Passions list, Dark Victory is a good find for anyone looking for an intriguing film out of this age in Hollywood and worth looking at for it dramatic effect on a love story.

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