1939

Film #157: Dark Victory (1939)

I can’t believe we’re just five films away from completing the 1940s with this final quintet being connected by one person; the formidable icon that is Bette Davis. Davis appeared in five Best Picture nominees over a five year period with the next five posts tackling those very movies.


We start with Dark Victory, a film which sees Davis play New York socialite Judith who likes to party and also likes to ride and train horses. After she falls from a horse Judith is taken to see Dr Steele who conducts tests and finds out she has a brain tumour which will eventually kill her. Steele operates on her to give her as much of her life as he can and at the same time they begin a romance which ends when Judith finds out that her condition will still kill her and she finds solace in the arms of horse trainer Michael. Eventually Judith comes to her senses and moves with Dr Steele to Vermont where they are married but when Judith finds her symptoms are coming back she lies to her new husband packing him off to a conference in New York where he is to give a speech about her condition then she bids farewell to her friend, her housekeeper and her dogs and goes to bed, the last scene we see is off the screen fading to grey.

Dark Victory is an odd beast and it is very hard indeed to categorise it maybe a romantic tragedy would be the best way. From about thirty minutes in we know that Judith is going to die and eventually she finds this out as well and decides to marry her doctor. All the revelations and discoveries happen very quickly and arguments are resolved within about five minutes of them starting. I kept waiting for Judith to change in character and become at least a little bit evil like most of Davis’ characters do, perhaps after the operation was over. I am surprised at the performance Davis gives here for the most part it is restrained, it is sympathetic and more than that for the first time her character seems human. George Brent as Dr Steele was starring alongside Davis for an eighth time and it shows as their chemistry is winning while Geraldine Fitzgerald as Judith’s best friend Ann is also fairly interesting. However most surprising was the appearance of Humphrey Bogart as Michael the Horse Trainer, such a small role for an actor who would go on to great things but here has quite a minor role as the man who will always hold a flame for Judith but will never be good enough for her. While Dark Victory is completely melodramatic and over the top it is a nice change of pace from the performance Davis gave in Jezebel. I felt that her Judith was a sympathetic character and therefore it was interesting to see Davis play a character that the audience roots for.

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