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While I was watching my VHS copy of Dark Victory this afternoon, there
was a quote from Bette Davis that her role of Judith Traherne was her
most personal and that it was 98% of me.
It certainly is one of her most moving performances on celluloid. The movie is her show as so many of her Warner Brothers films were becoming at this point in her career. The rest of the cast almost stands back in awe of her.
We would call Judith Traherne a trust fund baby these days. Poppa made a fortune and drank himself to death, Mom is over in Europe as an expatriate. And she's got a big house on Long Island where she raises steeple chasers and gives a lot of parties.
But she's not an airhead. Bette Davis never was in any of her films. She's been having headaches and now blurred vision has been thrown in as a complication. When she crashes one of her horses into a side rail we the audience know right away that there are some serious health issues.
Dr. George Brent is called in on the case, he's a brain specialist. He operates and it's a success, but only in terms of relieving the symptoms. She's got a death sentence hanging over her.
The rest of the film is how she deals with it. Only an actress of incredible skill could have brought off the many mood changes that Judith Traherne has. If it wasn't for the fact that 1939 was the Gone With the Wind year, Davis might have gotten a third Oscar. She was nominated and lost to Vivien Leigh.
Humphrey Bogart was in this as her stable groom with an Irish accent that he was clearly uncomfortable with. My guess was that the brogue was there to emphasize the class distinction between Davis and Bogart. I'm not sure it was all that necessary for him, but at least it wasn't as laughable as the Mexican accent in Virginia City.
Geraldine Fitzgerald and Ronald Reagan are on hand as her two close friends. I understand that in the novel this is based on, Reagan's character is gay. This was the days of the Code, so gay was out. Probably in the long run helped Reagan's later career, given his politics playing a gay character wouldn't have gotten him entrée into his crowd. Still both he and Fitzgerald do very well as a couple of her friends who have a lot more character than most of them.
George Brent was Davis's perennial leading man. She was involved with him romantically at some point during her Warner Brothers period, I'm not sure if it was during the making of Dark Victory. He was a competent player who Davis could be sure would never upstage her.
I did however hear a clip from a radio performance of Dark Victory and George Brent's part was played by Spencer Tracy. Though Brent played in fact in the underplaying style that Tracy was known for, I'm sure if Tracy had ever done the film he'd have brought touches to the character that Brent could never have done. What a classic that would have been.
Dark Victory is a moving story that never descends into soap opera. This is Bette Davis at her finest.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Judith Traherne, under other circumstances, could be that unsympathetic
rich bitch that parties hard, hasn't a care in the world, and is a
victim of her own whims much like today's Paris Hilton. Of course, had
this film been done today with the character molded after the blond
twit, we would have not just hoped she met her maker but maybe spawned
a hideous creature from inside that tumor growing inside her head and
gone to Hell in a hand-basket. Instead, Judith is not without her good
points -- she's flighty and impulsive but not a mean person. She has it
all... until she begins to get those pesky fainting spells and
An actress who was at the top of her game at the time of the release of this movie, Bette Davis displays a marvelous gamut of emotions which layer her facial features and body language. This of course is crucial to understanding her character's psyche and if at times it seems a little overacted it's only because of the style of the times. Otherwise, her Judith rises above the male actors around her and comes to accept her destiny with beautiful dignity. Geraldine Fitzgerald, playing her friend and secretary Ann, is equally understated but moving as the one who stays by Judith's side. Both women reflect an interesting sisterhood about them; the transference of strength from one to the other is deeply affecting and one of quiet tears. Bette's final death scene is one of transcendent luminosity.
Nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, Actress and Music Score, DARK VICTORY found itself pinned under the massive competition that came out in 1939 and received not one, but stands today as one of Davis' quintessential pictures.
Judith is a wealthy Long Island society girl given to a dizzy
Self-assured of her affluence and her faculty over men, she
is unprepared for tragedy, which strikes in the form of a brain tumor
The underlying bravery and courage with which she faces this physical
suffering eventually demonstrates the woman of substance that she is
Among her friends is Ann King (Fitzgerald), her secretary, and handsome young Alex Hamm (Reagan), who directs her toward brain specialist Dr. Frederick Steele (Brent). The doctor diagnoses her illness as one which will end her life within a year Judith falls in love with him and accepts his proposal of marriage When she discovers that her tumor is calamitous, she rejects the doctor's proposal considering it an act with compassion
Davis provides scene after scene with the special magic only she was able of bringing vividly
Swept into the current of events was Bogart playing an Irish horse trainer, who fails in an attempt to make love to her, yet encourages her to enjoy her time with her true love, George Brent
The film was remade in 1963 as "Stolen Hours" with Susan Hayward, and as a 1976 TV movie under its original title with Elizabeth Montgomery
I was probably 12 years old when I first saw this film on TV. It was
shown in two parts and I didn't get to see the second part, so my
mother had to tell me what happened. Forty years later, I still cry
every time I see "Dark Victory." It remains one of my favorite films
for sheer use of Kleenex and my favorite Bette Davis movie, "All About
Eve" being right up there with it. I even saw it on the big screen in a
revival house when I was in college. Yes, some of the dialogue sounds
corny now, like the good doctor saying, "Women never meant anything to
me before". But the interesting thing is, when I did see it with an
audience, though they laughed as some inappropriate spots, by the end
you could hear the sobs on the next block.
There have been comments that Humphrey Bogart seems miscast in a somewhat minor role. I frankly thought he was just fine. He certainly was short enough to be a jockey and he pulled off the brogue. I'm sure it's confusing for some to see him in such a small role in 1939 when only a few years later, he was a total superstar. But he was under contract to Warners and kicked around for years before "High Sierra" and "Casablanca". He obviously wasn't working when "Dark Victory" was cast, so why let him sit around taking a salary and do nothing?
And of course we have Ronald Reagan as a playboy. I actually find him delightful in this film. It called for charm and he had it.
In today's fast-paced world, there's nothing stronger than a message about time and our use of it. "Oh, give me time for tenderness...just give me time." Like Bette's character, I want to hear that song again too, in many more viewings of "Dark Victory."
There are three central performances in DARK VICTORY that deserve
praise for their sincerity and complete believability--BETTE DAVIS as
the spoiled heiress, GEORGE BRENT as the doctor who falls in love with
her and GERALDINE FITZGERALD as the conscience of the story, feeling
pity and love for her dearest friend.
Davis trounces around through the first half to show us what kind of energy and volatility is flaring beneath the surface--so full of life that when she realizes her illness bears the stamp of "prognosis negative", it's a shock to the audience as well as the actress. She's at her level best in all of the quieter moments--and never more impressive than in the final ten minutes of the film where her character must face the impending death with dignity and the knowledge that she has her husband's love and her best friend's devotion.
The scene in the garden with Fitzgerald at her side is the most luminous in the entire film. It's worth waiting for just to watch two great actresses at work.
Max Steiner's score is fitting at all times--even in the final moments when Bette goes up the stairs accompanied by his melancholy main theme. Edmund Goulding gets sensitive work from his entire cast--with the exception of Ronald Reagan who is given absolutely nothing in the way of character development except to look tipsy in every scene. To say that he is wasted is an understatement. So too is Henry Travers as the doctor who brought Davis into the world. Humphrey Bogart has been criticized for his Irish accent, but he's at least acceptable in a minor role as a horse trainer.
But the three central performances are what hold the film together--and make what is essentially a sob story work so beautifully.
Trivia: George Brent is very effective in the doctor role that was first offered to Basil Rathbone, but then withdrew after a very bad screen test in the part convinced the studio (and Rathbone) that he was all wrong for the role.
Not only is this sublime classic the greatest tear-jerker of all time (well,
let's call it a tie with "Lassie Come Home"), it also contains one of the
greatest performances ever given by Bette Davis. In the hands of a lesser
actress this movie could have been a soppy pot-boiler. In the hands of Ms
Davis it is close to being a masterpiece. If most of the supporting players
can't match her it's no wonder - Bette is truly inspired here! The normally
fine Geraldine Fitzgerald seems rather self-conscious in a difficult role
(and an early one for her), and George Brent can't handle the really
emotional stuff. But Bogart is stunning in that sexually charged scene with
Bette in the stables. Ronnie doesn't have much to do, but Virginia Brissac
is memorable as Martha and Henry Travers terrific as the old
Above all this is the excellent direction of Edmund Goulding, the fine cinematography of Ernest Haller and the great music of Max Steiner. Sure, dying in real life is never this beautiful, but don't we all wish we could go out with the style that Bette Davis does? Be warned: the last 15 minutes of this film are almost torturously moving - but then ALL of "Lassie Come Home" is. And don't we just love a good cry!
"Dark Victory" is a classic film of the 30s. In some movies, like this
one, all the elements came together to create a satisfying
entertainment that has delighted audiences since its release in 1939.
Edmund Golding was instrumental in getting one of the best performances
out of Bette Davis. The movie is helped by the fine score of Max
As Judith Treherne, Bette Davis shows us why she was a great actress. She does some of her best work in this picture. Her interpretation of the socialite is right on target. Ms. Davis goes from a happy go lucky rich girl into the woman who has to face an imminent death. This film is so enjoyable because of the nuances Ms. Davis brought to the role. Bette Davis' range was enormous.
George Brent, as the medical specialist who tries to help Judith, and falls in love with her in the process, is also quite good as Dr. Steele. Geraldine Fitzgerald is wonderful as Ann, Judith's loyal friend. Humphrey Bogart appears briefly as the horse trainer. Henry Travers put in a small appearance as the doctor who brought Judith into the world, and sadly, is not able to help her much. Also in the cast, Ronald Reagan, who doesn't have much to do.
This is the perfect film to watch the wonderful Bette Davis at her best.
By today's standards, "Dark Victory" might seem cliched. Of course, that
could be because it was so greatly copied! Here is Bette Davis, a star in
the fullness of her talent and ability. Bette simply shines; she owns this
film from first frame to last. Ably supported by a wonderful cast
(including a somewhat mis-matched Humphrey Bogart as an Irish-brogued horse
trainer), it is still difficult to watch the film and not be constantly
anticipating Bette's appearance in any scene she isn't in. The ending, even
in those days, might have turned out either wimpy or waspish. In Bette's
hands, it is neither. It works in a way that literally drains one of
emotions. I might also add that, while revealing only a bare back, Bette
shows more sensuality than a dozen of today's more "open"
There is an old disparaging adage about "showing the full gamut from a to b," in this movie Bette not only shows A to Z, but some letters that haven't been invented yet.
Despite my gushing over Ms. Davis, the film is solid in all departments. If you wish to experience when melodrama is great movie-making, see this film.
I've seen this movie three times (once in a theater) and it seems to get
better with each viewing. There is no question that this is one of the best
movies Bette Davis had made, with her skill evident in every scene she's in.
With an able supporting cast, especially by Geraldine Fitzgerald and George
Brent, and a fine Max Steiner score, movies do not get much better. I loved
the scene where she orders "prognosis negative" in a restaurant just to let
Brent and Fitzgerald know that she knows she's been lied to about her
condition. It's just a wonderful movie.
I was surprised that such a prestigious film would have a credit error. The end credits list Lottie Williams as playing Lucy, where in fact she plays Agatha. Lucy was played by Diane Bernard.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the film of which Davis is supposed to have said "There are
some pictures that should nevah be remade!" - and time has proved that
she was right. Despite two updates/remakes, one theatrical ("Stolen
Hours" with Susan Hayward) and one for TV (as "Dark Victory" with
Elizabeth Montgomery) it's this 1939 Warner Bros. film which is still
best remembered today. The reason, of course, is Bette Davis. She often
insisted that there wasn't one of her greatest roles she didn't have to
fight to get, and Judith Traherne was one of those roles. She pestered
Jack Warner to buy it for her, and when he responded "Who wants to see
a picture about a dame who goes blind and dies?" Davis assured him that
at least ten million women would - and she was right.
And so we have a vibrant, touching performance that is among the most famous jewels in the crown of Bette Davis. "I'm young and strong and nothing can touch me!" she proclaims, and almost makes us believe it. We see her go through the denial/anger/bargaining/acceptance phases of her illness long before anyone named those stages. And when she looks George Brent in the eye and says "Poor fool - don't you know I'm in love with you?" we know from the way she says it that she's never said it before. Yes, it's quite possible that had GWTW not been released in the last weeks of December 1939, the question of who would be the first actress to win 3 Best Actress Oscars might well have been settled long before 1968.
Yes - we have to suspend disbelief here - Bogart with an Irish brogue? Surely his name - O'Leary - should have been enough. And the scene near the end when Davis packs Brent's suitcase to send him off - how could he not notice her fumbling around the room? Ah well, "it's only a mooovie, Ingrid. . . ." as a famous director once said.
"Dark Victory" may not be great cinematic art, but it's a thoroughly professional effort and it's obvious that the people who made it cared about it. Movie fans have been caring about it for 66 years, and continue to do so: a newly-remastered DVD will be released in June.
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