Entertainment Magazine

Dark Victory

Posted on the 02 August 2016 by Christopher Saunders
Dark VictoryDark Victory (1939) is a quintessential "woman's picture," based on a successful Broadway play. Bette Davis's charm and Edmund Golding's earnest presentation make this silly soap opera bearable.
Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) lives a debauched existence as a Long Island socialite. After a riding accident she's diagnosed with a rare brain disease. Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) performs surgery but realizes the disease is incurable: he and Judith's friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) decide to keep the news from Judith. Judith finds out anyway, marrying Steele who desperately searches for a cure while Judith's days wane.
Melodramas like Dark Victory cater shamelessly to middle class fantasies. Screenwriter Casey Robinson presents Judith as a troubled free spirit whom wealth can't satisfy. She attends theater and bridge games, drinks heavily, indulges her fondness for horses. She flirts with earthy Irish stable hand Michael (Humphrey Bogart) but is really drawn to Dr. Steele, whose relentless moping only makes him more attractive. As the plot limps along, we grow weary of the doctor's deceit and Judith's frivolity, hoping some purpose will reveal itself.
Unfortunately, the only purpose Dark Victory divines for Judith is a noble death. She endures the typical Hollywood disease that makes women more glamorous and energetic until its sudden, fatal final stages. No longer able to escape, Judith finds happiness marrying Steele and moving to Vermont, abandoning urban glamor for a flannel shirt and Irish setters. It builds to a tacky finale, where Judith ascends to her deathbed accompanied by a choir of angels.
Golding's unaffected direction makes Victory watchable, along with Robinson's verbose script. Still, the storyline barely bears consideration. Judith finds happiness not in wealth but in stoic acceptance of marriage and death. It's an unwittingly ghastly message of bourgeois complacency, delivered through a passive leading lady who only suffers momentary headaches and romantic indecision. At least Scarlett O'Hara had to overcome a war, famine and attempted rape.
Credit Bette Davis for redeeming Victory. Her intense, fevered playing makes Judith insufferable early on, endearing as her illness progresses: Davis's performance enervates a flat, silly character. George Brent, Davis's frequent screen partner, is a passable love interest, while Geraldine Fitzgerald makes a charming foil. Humphrey Bogart (sporting a pathetic Irish accent) and Ronald Reagan (as a gin-sodden playboy) offer inconsequential support. Henry Travers strikes a tragic note as a family doctor.
It's easy to sneer at Dark Victory, a weepy whose main selling point is its earnestness. The utter lack of irony, and Bette Davis's committed performance, make its shameless silliness watchable, if not enlightening.

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