Reel Classic: ‘Dark Victory’ (1939)

Image via Warner Bros.
Image via Warner Bros.

In a role originally intended for Greta Garbo, Bette Davis gives us one of the best performances of her stellar career.

Davis plays young, rich socialite Judith Traherne in Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, a classic drama/romance adapted for the screen by Casey Robinson from a play written by George Emerson Brewer Jr and Bertram Bloch.

After a minor fall from a horse, followed by an uncharacteristic tumble down the stairs, Judith finally confesses to her longtime friend, companion and secretary Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) that, along with severe headaches, she has been having trouble with her vision for several weeks. Ann manages to convince her stubborn, proud friend to seek the advice of the family physician, who refers her to specialist Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). Steele, who is in the process of relocating to Vermont to continue his medical research, reluctantly agrees to see the effervescent and spritely Ms. Traherne. After a series of tests, Traherne is diagnosed with a brain tumor and an operation is immediately scheduled.

Image via Warner Bros.
Image via Warner Bros.

After surgery, Judith discovers a new outlook on life, restricting her decadent activities to a more manageable level. Ann and Dr. Steele try their best to help Judith adapt to her situation, electing to conceal the post-surgical pathology diagnosis and prognosis, which tragically concludes her condition is terminal. With a new romance blossoming with the handsome Frederick, Judith is blissfully unaware of her plight until she happens to spy her file on the good doctor’s desk, just begging to be read. The truth is finally revealed.

Bette Davis puts in powerful work in this role, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture, although both Davis and Dark Victory lost to Vivian Leigh and Gone with the Wind respectively.

Bette’s commanding style in this picture flows effortlessly, her ability to capture the essence of the narrative is captivating. There’s also superb direction by Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, Nightmare Alley), whose work is elevated by a strong musical score by renowned composer Max Steiner (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind). Also worthy of a mention is the use of Elis Janis’ “Oh, Give Me Time for Tenderness” (sung by Vera Van), which is used beautifully.

Top mentions must also go to Geraldine Fitzgerald and George Brent for outstanding supporting roles in this timeless classic. Fitzgerald gives a brilliant portrayal of Ann, forever supportive and equally terrified with the inevitable outcome that awaits them all, while Brent is natural as man who charms his way into the hearts and minds of the leading ladies.

Image via Warner Bros.
Image via Warner Bros.

Humphrey Bogart also has a supporting role in this movie, playing swarthy and pragmatic stable hand Michael O’Leary, who is secretly quite besotted with Bette’s character. Bogart adapts to this lesser role admirably, throwing an extra ounce of flair into the movie with his charismatic, earthy tones and somewhat defiant style, even if the Irish American accent was a little lost on him. The chemistry between Bogart and Davis is a plus.

Reported as being one of Davis’ most favourite roles, she argued to have Warner Bros. buy the rights to the story, but studio chief Jack Warner fought against it, stating that no one wanted to see someone go blind on screen. The movie went on to become one of the studio’s biggest hits of the year.

The movie provides an intense, intimate portrayal of a young woman’s plight as she faces a devastating, faceless enemy. She uses her potentially limited time to find style, grace and inner strength, all flowing from finding the one thing money can’t buy, true love. Highly depictive of the era and boasting a well-crafted plot, Dark Victory is a true classic that is well worth a look.

A line in the film expresses the film’s message beautifully: “I’ve crammed every minute so full of waste. And now there is so little time.”