Sunday 29 December 2013

Movie Review: Dark Victory (1939)

A life-in-the-face-of-death drama, Dark Victory is enlivened by a radiant Bette Davis performance but otherwise marches straight ahead to its inevitable conclusion.

Popular society girl Judith Traherne (Davis) enjoys the Long Island rich life of upper class parties, friends, suitors and business associates, including wealthy potential suitor Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan). Her secretary Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is also her best friend and close confidant. Even stablehand Michael (Humphrey Bogart) is infatuated with her. When Judith has a riding accident caused by blurred vision and a persistent headache, Ann expresses her concern and insists that Judith consult with a doctor.

Judith's family doctor Parsons (Henry Travers) concludes she needs expert help and connects her with brain specialist doctor Frederick Steele (George Brent). He accepts the case although he is about to close his practice and move to Vermont to concentrate on the growing field of brain disease research. Steele pushes past Judith's denial and diagnoses her with a brain tumour. He successfully operates and she recovers, but Steele's subsequent diagnosis indicates that the tumour will return and Judith will lose her eyesight and die within a few months. Steele is falling in love with his patient, and decides to not tell her about her fate in an attempt to give her some months of happiness.

A straight-ahead weepy drama, Dark Victory builds up to a melodramatic ending on the shoulders of Davis' performance. She dominates the film as Judith comes to terms with her fate, journeying from denial to hope after the first operation, then anger, love and acceptance. Director Edmund Goulding carefully constructs the film around his leading lady, and she sets the emotional tone on the journey to a prolonged, melancholy (and quite blatantly manipulative) denouement designed to release the floodgates of tears, at least for the audiences of the day, not yet exposed to the myriad of disease-of-the-week television productions.

Of the rest of the cast, Fitzgerald as best friend Ann provides a stable point of reference for Judith's ordeal. George Brent is adequate, and provided with reasonable depth as a doctor ready to move away from his practice but finally finding a compelling case and an enthralling patient to delay his career move into research.

Not much else happens in Dark Victory, as the characters of Michael (a gruff Humphrey Bogart on the cusp of stardom) and Alec (Ronald Reagan trying for smooth but achieving awkward) are sketched in but given relatively little to do. There is a minor sub-plot involving Judith and Michael engaging in a running debate about the potential of Challenger, one of Judith's horses, but that story never seems to leave the stable.

Dark Victory establishes modest goals and attains them easily, not as much a stunning victory as a typically polished achievement for Ms. Davis.

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