The Films of 1939: Dark Victory
Bette Davis is one of my favorite actresses from classic Hollywood. The two-time Oscar winner had significant range, playing everything from destructive femme fatales and scheming matriarchs to saintly governesses and lovesick spinsters. Last year, on Davis’ 110th birth anniversary, I wrote a tribute to her legacy as an actress and movie star. I named the 1939 melodrama Dark Victory as one of the highlights in her filmography. Based on the play of the same name by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch, Dark Victory is directed by Edmund Goulding. He worked with Bette Davis several times (including other Davis favorites like The Great Lie, The Old Maid, and Old Acquaintance). Dark Victory co-stars George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, and future President Ronald Reagan.
Judy (Davis) is hard partying, horse riding heiress. She periodically gets dizzy, and suffers from headaches and double vision. Judy ignores this until she takes a fall down the stairs. Her best friend Ann (Fitzgerald) convinces her to see Dr. Frederick Steele (Brent). Though Judy is initially antagonistic towards him, Dr. Steele runs tests and diagnoses Judy with a brain tumor. After convincing Judy that this is life-threatening, he performs a surgery to remove the tumor. He is unable to remove the whole tumor, and surmises that Judy only has a year to live. However, Dr. Steele decides to lie to Judy about her prognosis so that she can live her last few months in peace.
Dark Victory was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress for Bette Davis, and Best Original Score for Max Steiner. It lost all three, the first two to Gone with the Wind, and the third to The Wizard of Oz. At the time, the film received positive reviews from critics and was a hit at the box office. Ernest Haller (Oscar winner for Gone with the Wind) shot the film; Haller shot many of Davis’ films including Jezebel, Dangerous, All This, and Heaven Too, Mr. Skeffington, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Casey Robinson adapted the play, and he wrote many Bette Davis vehicles including Now, Voyager, The Old Maid, Mr. Skeffington, and All This, and Heaven Too.
Bette Davis fought to get the lead role. David O. Selznick bought the rights to the play, intending to cast Greta Garbo. Davis discovered the play, and producer Hal Wallis bought the rights for her from Selznick when she got Goulding and producer David Lewis on board. Shooting the film wasn’t easy for Davis, as she fell sick during production; Lewis persuaded her not to leave the production after showing her how well the movie was turning out.
And he was right. Dark Victory is one of the best melodramas of the 1930s. A more cynical viewer could sit above it and ridicule it. But that would be an uncharitable way to watch the film. Bette Davis is simply captivating and wrenching in the lead role, as a woman who finally finds self-fulfillment just as her body is failing her. Judy is very much a “Bette Davis type,” with little care for societal norms. Judy is endearing and compelling, even as she acts selfishly and destructively.
Her supporting cast is excellent as well. Fitzgerald’s compassion and loyalty does a lot to bring Bette Davis down to earth. Bogart, in a rare small supporting role, brings heart to the film. George Brent is a great match for Davis, having worked with her many times on screen. The two had a real life love affair, and their chemistry is sweet but prickly. Bette Davis has such a grand flair, she requires leading men who relinquish control of the screen to her without completely disappearing. George Brent rises to that challenge.
Dark Victory is a beautiful example of what a perfectly tuned melodrama looks like. Edmund Goulding offers a striking film that leans into histrionics when appropriate, but is restrained throughout. It’s a classic Bette Davis vehicle, allowing her to eat up the screen at just the right level. While Dark Victory may not be as popular now as some other 1939 films, it is, however, an exceptional piece of classic Hollywood.