Tag: Edmund Goulding

Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory (1939)

Bette Davis almost single-handedly lifts another tear-jerker into something grander

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr Frederick Steele), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec Hamm), Henry Travers (Dr Parsons), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie Spottswood), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright)

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is vivacious and fun-loving. From her grand Long Island home, her days are taken up with racehorses and fast cars, her nights with parties and booze. No wonder she keeps having headaches and making those small falls, right? Pushed to check it out at the insistence of her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), it doesn’t take long for brain specialist Dr Frederick Steele (George Brent) to diagnose a brain tumour. An operation is a short-term success, but Judith’s condition is terminal. At best, she has a year to live. Steele and Ann decide to keep the news from Judith – but when she discovers the truth she decides to live life to the full with Frederick, the man she has grown to love.

Watching Dark Victory is a reminder of the sometimes-limited opportunities for women in Hollywood at the time. If an actor as radiantly talented as Bette Davis were a man, she would have been playing earth-shattering roles in stirring dramas. This was when Tracy, Muni and March were playing explorers, scientists, world leaders and campaigners. Davis, like other women, saw the vast majority of strong roles for women centred on screwball comedies or as loving wives and mothers. As such she made a career propping up effective, sentimental twaddle like Dark Victory.

Which is to be a little harsh, I will admit, on a fine if unambitious tear-jerker. Dark Victory had been a Broadway play – and a flop. The stage had exposed a little too clearly the blatant emotional manipulation of the story of a woman who falls in love in the final year of her life then facing death with self-sacrificing fortitude. On film though, it could be made to work, not least through the full-throated commitment and intelligence of Bette Davis’ acting.

Davis is too often button-holed into the “camp icon” bucket, but Dark Victory – much like Now Voyager – sees her real strong suit, turning ordinary women, tinged with sadness, into portraits of deep tragedy and emotional self-sacrifice. Davis evolves Judith from a shallow, fun-loving playgirl into someone thoughtful, caring and empathetic. Davis avoids almost completely the obvious histrionics you could resort to playing a woman dying of a terminal brain tumour.

Instead, she meets her diagnosis with a carefully studied casualness that hides her fear, confronts the realisation that she has been deceived with a betrayed disappointment rather than carpet-chewing fury, and faces death with an unselfish concern for others (a physical tour-de-force as Davis acts blind – the final stage of her condition – but hides this from her husband so as not to cause him to abandon a medical research conference he has postponed frequently for her sake).

It’s all, of course, very standard material for a tear-jerking “woman’s picture” of the 1930s. A flighty woman finds love, happiness and inevitable tragedy. Davis fizzes around much of the film’s first 30 minutes with a Hepburnesque energy and wit, jodhpurs and champagne glasses abounding. A great deal of sweet charm brilliantly adds to the poignancy as, in her first consultation with Steele, she fails to identify blindfolded the same object being placed in both hands (a dice, a pencil and a piece of silk, all instantly identified in her left are met with confused incomprehension in her right). This is highly skilled, emotionally committed acting that pays off in spades as the gentle, thoughtful, caring woman underneath is revealed.

It helps that Davis has a trusted director in Edmund Goulding. Never the finest visual stylist or most compelling technician, Goulding’s great strength was his finesse with actors. He worked especially well with Davis, his careful focus on performance over technical flair giving her an excellent showpiece for her skills. Davis paired again with George Brent, a solid but generous actor (with whom Davis started a long-running affair) never better than when breathing humanity and life into an on-paper stiff roll as a noble surgeon who falls in love with his patient.

Brent and Davis’ chemistry and comfort with each other squeeze out all other potential romantic sub-plots, despite the actors in the roles. Lord knows what the Irish Republican Brent made of Bogart’s bizarre Irish accent as Judith’s roguish horse trainer. Bogart looks hilariously uncomfortable, his accent coming and going and he lacks affinity for the role or the film. He still comes off better than the rather wet Ronald Reagan as Judith’s playboy friend. Instead, the film’s finest supporting performer is the wonderful Geraldine Fitzgerald, sparky, firm-jawed and endlessly loyal while torn up with grief for her friend.

Dark Victory, though, rises and falls on the success of Davis’ performance. It certainly makes no secret of the fact that we are heading towards a tragic ending. A parade of doctors emerge to confirm to Steele that, yes, the disease is terminal. When Judith uncovers her case notes, she flips through an army of letters from eminent surgeons repeating the phrase “Prognosis: negative” – she even then asks Steele’s secretary to explain the wording. We are building up constantly towards a show-stopping, three-hankie, climax of Judith’s inevitable decease.

And yet the film still manages to get you. Again, it’s the low-key but honest performance of Davis that makes this. The moment of tragic realisation that death is arriving, then the studied determination to carry on regardless and to spare her loved ones as much pain as possible. It’s the self-sacrificing decency and honour of the very best of the “women’s pictures”. Davis delivers on it so utterly successfully, it does make you wonder what triumphs she might have had if she could have played the sort of roles males stars played, as well as breathing such conviction-filled life into gentle weepies like this.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

A hotel has an all-star check-in desk in this Best Picture winning drama

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (Baron Felix von Gaigern), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (Dr Otternschlag), Jean Hersholt (Head Porter Senf), Morgan Wallace (Chauffeur)

Grand Hotel: “People coming, going. Nothing ever happens”. Of course, despite those opening remarks by war-scarred veteran and permanent resident Dr Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), nothing could be further from the truth. In this, one of the first “All-Star-Extravaganzas” (every MGM mega-star in one movie!) the eponymous Berlin hotel is the host to an ocean of drama over the course of one twenty-four hour period. Scooping an Oscar for Best Picture (setting a surely-never-to-be-equalled record of being the only Best Picture winner to only be nominated in that category), Grand Hotel was a huge hit, and great-big-old-fashioned soapy fun.

Confidently directed by Edmund Goulding, the film threads together its plots very effectively, moving smoothly from star-to-star. The five stars take up nearly 90% of the dialogue just by themselves (with all those egos there wasn’t time for anyone else to have so much as a line) but what stars: three then-and-future Oscar winners and two legends in John Barrymore and Garbo.

Each of them has more than enough to sink their teeth into. Garbo is a maudlin ballerina, teetering on the edge of depression, who falls in love with Raffles-like jewellery thief Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore). The penniless Baron – who steals to live – befriends Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a deceptively spry old-man, suffering from a terminal disease and using his savings to see how the other half lives. Kringelein’s former employer Preysing (Wallace Beery) is desperately trying to negotiate a merger to save his job. His stenographer is would-be-actress-part-time-glamour-model Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), who is flirting with the Baron and also befriends Kringelein. Inevitalby there are life-changing consequences.

If you are a sucker for grand, soapy, old-fashioned drama like this, you’ll find much to enjoy in Grand Hotel. The plots it peddles were pretty cliched and predictable even then, but they are delivered by a series of stars at the top of the game who invest the film with every inch of their glamour. They make the hodge-podge of stories work rather well, and the film even manages to pull out a late shock death that’s genuinely a surprise, both in its suddenness and brutality.

But then Grand Hotel is a pre-code film, so it’s not afraid to acknowledge sex exists and violence has nasty consequences. Crawford’s Flaemmchen is a confirmed flirt, not ashamed to accept an invitation to an ‘adjoining’ room with Preysing to secure her job. Neither is the supremely sexy Crawford (light, winning and possibly the best thing in the film) afraid to all but proposition the Baron. Not surprisingly Crawford was worried more censorious States would cut large parts of her role (she was right). But sex still runs through Grand Hotel: the Baron creeps into Grusinskaya’s room to rob her, and ends up sharing the night (and certainly not in separate beds).

As Grusinskaya, Greta Garbo gets possibly her most iconic line (“I want to be alone”) though her matinee idol pose-striking at times more than a little artificial today. However, what does come across is the power of her personality as a performer (like Marlene Dietrich at this time, there is something utterly fascinating about her). In other hands, the role (with its pity-me dialogue giving way to flashes of youthful, passionate abandon) would look a bit silly, but Garbo makes the whole thing work though force of personality alone.

She’s well matched with John Barrymore at the height of his powers as America’s greatest actor. Barrymore has a matinee idol swishness here, a relaxed romanticism that always makes us sympathise with him, even though he’s a self-confessed liar, cheat and thief. This gentlemen thief may be penniless, but he’s far from ruthless: he treats Kringelein with respect, is genuine in his feelings for Grusinskaya (although his repeated assurances that he will definitely make it the train station to meet her tomorrow is enough of a flag that something is bound to go wrong) and despises the bullying Preysing.

As Preysing, Wallace Beery plays the only unsympathetic character (naturally, despite the film’s German setting, he’s the only one with a Teutonic accent) with a bravado that dances just-this-side of OTT. By contrast, Lionel Barrymore (brother to John – and its very nice seeing these two play so many scenes together) is the film’s heart as a sweet, gentle and endearing old man who is just delighted to be living the dream, even if only for a few days.

It’s all shot in a revolutionary 360° set. The hotel foyer, where the film opens, was one of the first completely constructed sets (many films before constructed their sets like traditional proscenium theatre sets) and Goulding’s camera takes advantage of this in the opening sequence by moving fluidly in a series of long takes that introduces each character and sees them first interacting with each other. There are some other striking images, including a Jason Bourneish wall climb John Barrymore’s Baron carries out to bridge the gap between one balcony and another – although many of the scenes in hotel rooms go for traditional straight-on set-ups.

The film is focused on being a grand entertainment – and, to be honest, little more. Perhaps that’s why, despite being set in Berlin in 1932, there is no mention of any events in the country at that time. Even more surprisingly, there is no mention of the depression – despite it surely being a major factor in Preysing’s desperation, the Baron’s loss of his wealth and Flaemmchen’s need for a job. But that would add weight to a film that wants a light, fun tone. Grand Hotel has inspired a legion of Mills and Boon style stories. It might look an odd Best Picture, but it’s had plenty of influence.