Dark Victory (1939) Directed by Edmund Goulding. Bette Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald (104 min).

The epitome of the classic Hollywood tearjerker, Judith Traherne, a horsey deb from the Long Island station wagon set is plagued by crippling headaches, and discovers she has s brain tumor. She falls in love with the doctor whose operation has given her a new lease on life, only to discover the reprieve is temporary.  Bette Davis pulls out all the stops in her Oscar nominated performance, in turn defiant, merry, determined, hopeful, tragic and noble.  Humphrey Bogart, in possibly the most miscast role of his career is an Irish stable hand with a yen for the mistress.  But, it’s also a film that foregrounds female friendship, right up until the end.  Also nominated for Best Picture in the remarkable year of 1939, bring your handkerchiefs for a big helping of Prognosis Negative.

Davis is one of the undisputed queens of classic Hollywood, her only possible peers are Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. “Bette Davis was, and remains, as singular and commanding a figure as world cinema has ever produced” (Sikov 2).  Born in Lowell Massachusetts, she remained a proud Yankee her entire life, endowed with grit and stubbornness, making her more enemies than friends in her long professional life.  She longed to be an actress, studied her craft, acted on stage and went to Hollywood, where she suffered through clichéd and unsubstantial parts until an Oscar nomination for the conniving Mildred in Of Human Bondage gave her enough clout to demand—and receive better parts.

She had just won her second Best Actress Oscar for Jezebel but her personal life, not unusually, was in disarray.  She had an affair with her Jezebel director, William Wyler and a brief fling with Howard Hughes, both while still married to her first husband, who would soon serve her with divorce papers.

Her confidence was extremely low, and Goulding used his director’s gift to restore it. She was co-starring with George Brent, a not very magnetic leading man, with whom she made a number of films.  In classic Hollywood, the studios considered it a waste to put two big stars in a movie, if audience members would buy a ticket with only one, which is why Davis was often paired with less than thrilling leading men.   She was very conflicted about the mess of her private life and the noble character she was asked to portray, the gap between the two seemed insurmountable.  Brent who was what we might call a “ladies’ man” developed an interest in his co-star and they began a scarcely concealed affair.  At least it gave her the confidence to carry on.  They were both single, and they could appear in public together, which the studio thought was good publicity for the film.

Geraldine Fitzgerald, recently arrived from Ireland, was making her first film.  Goulding suggested she introduce herself to Davis by telling her an Irish joke.  Fitzgerald thought telling the sulking Davis a joke was a terrible idea.  But, she asked her if it was all right, and Davis agreed.  It was a joke that her grandmother told her about how unreliable men are.

You can’t rely on men at all!  Just the other day, my husband came in from the field and I put his stew down in front of him.  He pushed it away!  So, I took it to the door and took out the mouse that was in the bowl, and threw it out the door. Then I brought the bowl back and put it down in front of him, and he pushed it away again.  He wouldn’t have the stew with the mouse in it, and he wouldn’t have the stew with the mouse out of it! (Paraphrased from Leaming 142).

Bette laughed loudly and was ready to begin.

The original play, by George Emerson Brewer, Jr and Bertram Bloch and starring Tallulah Bankhead only ran 51 performances in 1934.  It had rattled around Hollywood for a while until Davis heard of it and irritated the Warner Brothers producers until she found one that would champion her choice of material.  David Lewis was gay (his partner was Frankenstein director James Whale) and director Edmond Goulding was bisexual, and Dark Victory, along with being a quintessential woman’s picture, also embodies a gay sensibility. She’s gay in the 1930s way “flippant, merry, a bit boozy” (Silov 139) but also performative; in a larger than life an embodiment of “subterfuge and its destruction, concealment and revelation, qualities in which twentieth century gay men forged their own culture (ibid,). And, in case you wondered, Ronald Reagan’s character is supposed to be gay, but he refused to play it that way. Female filmgoers were magnetized by Judith Traherne’s ability to transform herself, from a flighty deb to a woman of inner strength, facing her devastating diagnosis with courage. So, one film spoke in different voices to two key audiences.

 Dark Victory is a very unusual film. Although easily categorized as melodrama, few actresses would want to play a character that is doomed (as early as the trailer). Maybe because of the place I am in my own life, I see this film as asking a direct and uncomfortable question.  How do you want to die?  How do you want to spend your last days on earth? Well, yes, I would like to just close my eyes, as Max Steiner’s music plays me out.  Sadly, those are the choices you don’t get to make.  But the emotions of following a bold and courageous woman to her last breaths are somehow transformative.

“Judith Traherne is a marvelous blend of nobility and the jitters, and Bette related to her intensely.  Many years later, with the critical distance afforded by age and experience, she called Judith Traherne “My favorite—and the public’s favorite—part I have ever played” (Sikov 138).


Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov, Bette Davis by Barbara Leaming

April 2024