Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory, 1939, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, George Brent. Co-starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 104 minutes.

Stubbornly confident and exasperatingly independent, socialite Judith Traherne is accustomed to doing what she wants, when she wants, with few cares. She’s also adored by her stablemaster Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart), who humors her belief her horse Challenger is a champion. He and her best friend, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are among the first to realize something is significantly wrong after she uncharacteristically takes a fall while riding Challenger.

Ann insists Judith see her family physician, who refers her to a specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). Dr. Steele is a well-respected man of science who’s planning to retire from medical practice in the immediate future and focus on research. Instead, after diagnosing a brain tumor, he performs surgery, but is not able to completely remove the tumor. Dr. Steele knows his patient, with whom he is falling in love, will die soon. However, he chooses not to tell her for several months, giving her time to enjoy her life while she can.

Judith does find out, however, and the change that comes over her is made moving and not maudlin by Davis’ wonderful performance.

Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent
Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent

Davis, who was recently divorced from her husband and had also just ended an affair with Howard Hughes, and Brent, also facing life alone after divorce, began an affair during the filming of this movie that lasted for another year. Davis felt she was “too emotional” to adequately perform in Dark Victory, but producer Hal B. Wallis encouraged her to continue, telling her to channel her despair into the role. Later she was said to have called this one of her favorite characters.

The film received three Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Davis) and Best Original Score. It lost the Best Picture and Best Actress awards to Gone With the Wind and the Best Original Score to The Wizard of Oz.

Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart
Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

The role of Michael O’Leary gave Hollywood its first opportunity to see leading man possibility in Humphrey Bogart. Today, with his stardom and persona so well established, he seems out of place in the part, but at the time it was a huge career boost for him. While hindsight, of course, is 20/20, it truly is easy to recognize his star quality.

(Reportedly, a short time later when producers were casting The Maltese Falcon, Geraldine Fitzgerald turned down the role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in part because Bogart wasn’t a big enough star. )

The New York Times raved about Davis’ performance, calling her “superb” and “enchanted and enchanting.” To those who would dismiss the film as “emotional flim-flam,” their critic wrote, “the mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, the craftsmanship too expert.”

It does, indeed, rise above the sentimental subject matter. Dark Victory is one of Bette Davis’ finest early performances. A movie all of her fans must know and any classic movie fan should watch at least once.

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