Bette Davis Month: ‘Dark Victory’

Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.

All this month, Old Ass Movies will be celebrating the 103rd anniversary of Bette Davis‘s birthday. The iconic film star acted in far too many movies to care to count, but it seems as though she’s been reduced to a pair of eyes in popular culture. She’s the subject of a 80s pop tune, not the star that she should be recognized for being, and that needs fixing.

The year 1939 is regarded by many to be the best year of cinema in recorded history (just in case there were neanderthals making films). It saw Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and this gem about a woman who is diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Bette Davis stars as a bold socialite who must decide how she wants to live her life in light of being able to count on a calendar the days until her death.

Dark Victory (1939)

Directed By: Edmund Goulding

Written By: Casey Robinson

Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Ronald Reagan

Last week we covered Davis’s launch onto the scene in Of Human Bondage – for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She continued that streak into the next few years with Jezebel and Dangerous, earning herself not only nominations, but two wins.

What’s notable is that whether she won or not, or whether she was even nominated, Bette Davis always gave the same strength of performance. She burned up scenes and left them on the ground of the theater like so much ash from a cigarette. No matter the role, no matter the film, she gave a smoldering turn, and her presence as heiress Judith Traherne in Dark Victory is no different. In fact, had it not been for the unreal performance from Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind (which also won Best Picture that year), Davis would have had another statue for her mantel.

So what’s so damned special about this role?

For one, the raw humanity of it all. Davis was used to playing cruel-eyed characters, but this was her most soaring opportunity to take that apathy and turn it into something that everyone in the audience could recognize in themselves. When Traherne is diagnosed with cancer, it levels the playing field. When the operation isn’t entirely successful, it rips up all the grass and plants a tombstone at the fifty-yard line. Suddenly, her salty exterior becomes just transparent enough to see the frightened soul hiding inside.

That’s basically the entire plot of the movie. It’s more character study than beat-by-beat story. Traherne is a symbol of wealth that ignores any and all signs of weakness while lounging, horse riding, and being generally set for life. When she finally agrees to see Dr. Frederick Steele – played with sweet detachment here by George Brent (in the, like, billionth movie they made together) – the dire reality of her situation is laid out for her. A surgery cannot excise the entire tumor, she’ll go blind, and shortly thereafter, fade into a painless eternal sleep.

Nowadays, this plot turn would give Queen Latifah the freedom to go shopping and skydiving, but Dark Victory has something simpler in mind – an internal struggle between being happy and feeling in control.

Traherne is a tragic figure, but her journey is one of learning to let go. Not of her mortality (because, like all of us, she no choice in the matter), but of her self-righteousness. She was above everything else, and she would have continued down that path, but the diagnosis hooked a car battery up to her heart and jump started the realization that being cool is far less important than truly being alive.

This is as rounded a character as you could hope for, and Davis sells her on every level. She’s both bombastic and subtle as she dives headlong toward eternity. Alongside her is George Brent’s Dr. Steele, who Traherne falls for and who represents the ultimate change she must make. If she believes he loves her out of pity, can she really love him? Can she really be loved? The answer (for part of the movie) is so loudly affirmative that they carried that love off the screen while both were in the middle of separate divorce proceedings.

There’s also Humphrey Bogart as her stableman – a character that has loved her in secret for so long, but ultimately pushes her toward happiness even if it’s in another man’s arms. The two had worked together previously on The Petrified Forest, so it’s interesting to see Bogart take a backseat role in the prime of his career. He’d made dozens of movies by 1939, but of course, he was still a few years away from The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Geraldine Fitzgerald is the true mirror of the story, though. As Judith’s best friend Ann, Fitzgerald shines as an intuitive, caring person who is constantly saving Judith’s life by coercing her into getting help. At the beginning, it’s seeing the doctor. After the surgery, it’s forcing her to be honest about her illness and what it means. Long before she played the wealthy mother in the original Arthur, Fitzgerald was building a career of these types of characters, and it’s a shame she wasn’t nominated for a Best Supporting Role for this flick.

Ronald Reagan is also involved because he looks incredibly dashing in a tuxedo. As usual, it’s always a little jarring to see him in this movie and think about how he’ll become President in about forty years. Other than that, he’s a walking smile.

Over all, Dark Victory succeeds for a number of reasons, but the two elements that see it above and beyond even the best are the story and Bette Davis. This was a critical, difficult role for her to play. She was working with a director who had been making 2 to 3 movies since 1911, and she was already firmly ensconced in the upper echelon of movie stardom and acting talent. Of course, she doesn’t fail to deliver.

She takes Judith Traherne and turns her into a far more compelling character than most actresses would have been able to. I doubt most today could handle it. As a result, the final moments of the movie are made all that more poetic by a cold woman who chooses to live even as she’s dying.

Next week, we’ll take a look at what might her most famous role in All About Eve.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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