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.