Dark Victory

Dark Victory (1939)

November 15, 2019   |  by Shannon

Let me start by saying that I think Bette Davis may be at her most lovely in Dark Victory (1939).  She is quite glamorous and beautiful in the film!  I really enjoyed admiring Bette’s various fashions throughout the movie.

How glamorous! You'll love seeing Bette's various fashions in Dark Victory (1939). Note the skull cap she wears. Bette sports skull caps throughout the film , even in formal gowns like this! Gotta love it!

Gorgeous wardrobe aside, Dark Victory is a Bette Davis classic!  It’s a total “women’s picture”—the film centers around a strong female heroine—just the type of role in which our girl Bette shines! Dark Victory is definitely melodramatic, and unashamedly plays with our emotions, as you will soon gather from my plot summary!  But Bette’s acting is so superb, the music perfectly placed, and Edmund Goulding’s direction so spot on, we the audience totally go for the highly dramatic storyline!

If you missed the live showing of Dark Victory on TCM on Tuesday, you can still watch the film on tcm.com through Monday.  You can also rent or purchase the film on Amazon here [aff. link].  To the plot!

Movie poster for Dark Victory (1939), touting Bette's Oscar win that year for Jezebel (1938).

The Plot

Bette plays Judith Traherne, a society gal living the high life of endless parties, excessive drinking, and cigarettes. The only part of Judith’s life that seems to require any work or talent is her love of horseback riding, in which she competes.  (Her stable master, Michael, is played by none other than Humphrey Bogart!   Young Bogie—well, kind of, he’s actually pushing forty in the film!—is a sight to behold here, with his longish, disheveled hair, and on-and-off Irish accent.  Bogie does a great job in Dark Victory and it’s crazy seeing him in such a supporting role!)

After a long night of partying with her pals, which include best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and favorite boyfriend Alec (Ronald Reagan.  YES!!!!  The future President of the United States!!!), Judith goes down to the stables for a ride.  As Judith rides her favorite horse, she misses a jump and has a bad fall.

Judith (Bette) talks with Michael (Humphrey Bogart) her stable master, just before her riding accident.

Not Just a Hangover

Judith recovers just fine from the fall, but admits to Ann that she’s been experiencing headaches, dizziness, and double vision for the last few months.  It was momentary double vision that led to her riding accident:

“Confidentially darling, this is more than a hang over.”

Judith tells Ann. Luckily, Ann is an awesome friend, and insists that Judith go see a doctor.  Obstinate Judith resists, but finally gives in.  She is referred to a specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent).

Dr. Steele (George Brent) examines Judith, and puts her through a series of tests in his office.

Steele is about to close his practice to pursue his passion for research, but is so intrigued by Judith and her case that he postpones his retirement.  There is definitely a glimmer of romantic interest as they banter in Steele’s office!  A quick study of Judith convinces Steele that she has a brain tumor that must be removed immediately.

One of the tests Judith fails in Dr. Steele's office is that of lighting her cigarette. Bette was a notorious smoker herself, and Dark Victory director Edmund Goulding joked about this part of the film that “When Bette Davis can’t light her own cigarette, you know there is something seriously wrong with her.”

A Successful Surgery?

Once the tumor is removed, her symptoms disappear, and Judith is convinced that she’s completely healthy, that Dr. Steele has saved her life.  Well, Steele has saved her life, but he also knows something that Judith does not: though he successfully removed the tumor from Judith’s brain, it will come back, and Judith has only 10 months to live!  She will experience rapid darkening of vision and blindness just before dying painlessly.

Dr. Steele intends to keep this information from Judith (can you imagine?!!!!), but ends up telling her friend Ann at a party Judith throws in celebration of her returned health. Ann agrees that it’s best for Judith not to know the truth, and the two keep the secret, even after Judith and Dr. Steele profess their love for each other and become engaged.

At Judith's party, Dr. Steele informs Ann (left) that Judith's tumor will return, and she has, at most, 10 months to live. Ann and Steele agree it's best to keep this information from Judith. !!!!!

Prognosis Negative

You probably guessed, Judith’s ignorance of how much time she’s got left doesn’t last long.  She discovers her file in Steele’s office one day, and sees that Steele and several other specialists have deemed her “prognosis negative.”

Judith is understandably annoyed—to say the least!!—at Ann and Steele, and gives them a tongue lashing at a restaurant that only Bette Davis could deliver with such clipped perfection! 

“I think I’ll have a large order of prognosis negative!”

Judith says saucily with flashing eyes as Ann and Steel look at their menus.

Judith reacts to the news that she’s only got months to live by breaking off her engagement to Dr. Steele, and returning to her life of competitive horse racing, partying, and drinking, with Alec as her near constant companion and drinking buddy.

Judith parties it up, after learning she's got months to live, with old beau Alec (Ronald Reagan). Alec is always ready for a drink.

Coming to Terms with Reality

Eventually, Judith realizes this is not how she wants to live her last days on earth, and she makes up with Steele and Ann. Finally convinced that Steele wasn’t just marrying her out of pity, the two wed and move to Vermont where Steele can research a cure for Judith’s condition while the two of them cherish the few months they have left together.

Life seems almost too perfect in Vermont, and it is.  Eventually, on one of Ann’s visits, Judith experiences the sudden darkening of vision.  Ann and Judith both know this means the end is near.

Judith and Steele, happy as can be in Vermont after their marriage.

The Epitome of Sacrifice

Judith decides not to tell her husband she’s dying, for Steele is packing to go to New York to introduce his study findings to a group of peers (and it’s sooooo much more dramatic and self-sacrificing if he doesn’t know, right?!!!), a once in a lifetime career opportunity. Judith pretends her vision is just fine, and tells Steele just before he leaves, under the pretext that she’s merely talking about their first separation after becoming man and wife:

“Nothing can hurt us now.  What we have can’t be destroyed.  That’s our victory, our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we’re not afraid.”

Judith is gardening with Ann when she realizes the dreaded loss of vision has arrived. Here she clings to Ann's arm for physical and emotional support. The end is near.

With her husband on his way to New York, Judith says goodbye to Ann, and heads to her bedroom to die alone.  The final scene of Judith on her bed is presented to us just as Judith may have experienced her final moments: first we see Judith clearly on her bed, then the screen begins to blur before darkening to blackout.  And that’s the end of Dark Victory.

Judith dies alone in her bedroom after her vision fails her.

Bette's Personal Heartache

When Dark Victory began filming, Bette wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to continue with the movie.  She was separated from husband number one, Harmon “Ham” Nelson (remember the Bette Davis/Howard Hughes affair and Ham’s bedroom recording equipment?  Read my intro post on Bette for more info!) at the time, and it would not be long before their divorce was finalized. 

Bette with first husband Harmon Nelson.

Bette took the failure of her marriage to Ham hard, and she worried that her heartsickness and disappointment in her personal life were infusing her portrayal of Judith Traherne with self-pity, something the character did not have, and could not have, if the film were to be a success.  In Bette’s own words,

“Judith did not know what self-pity was. It was Ruth Elizabeth, d  —  —  —  her. She was calling the shots.”

(Bette’s full name was “Ruth Elizabeth Davis,” by the way!)  Bette went to producer Hal Wallis to share her concerns, and asked Wallis to take her off the picture. Wallis considered Bette’s request, but then he watched the footage of what Bette had already filmed for Dark Victory.  Wallis was so impressed with what he saw—Bette’s characterization of Judith Traherne was clearly benefiting from Bette’s heartsickness in her personal life—that Wallis told Bette,

“I’ve seen the rushes—stay sick!”

Well, that was all the encouragement Bette needed, and she continued filming Dark Victory.

One of Bette's adorable and casual outfits in the film. I would wear this! Would you?

Bette’s Fight with Jack Warner

Even though Bette had a hard time getting into the spirit of filming once Dark Victory was in production, she had actually fought Warner Brothers head, Jack Warner, for two years to play the role of Judith Traherne!  Bette insisted that the melodramatic story of a strong young woman facing the knowledge of her impending death with bravery, and actually dying on screen, was perfect for her, something that audiences would flock to see.  Jack Warner disagreed, believing that such a somber film would be a poor career choice, and told Bette so on several occasions:

“When you’re just getting into high gear, why go morbid on your audience?  All those women out there want to see you making love, fulfilling their dreams vicariously.  Then you conk out on them!”

With Bogie and his uncharacteristic curls!

Well, obviously, Jack Warner did eventually concede, and agreed to make Dark Victory with Bette in her dream role.  But not before one final warning to Bette about the utter dud and career killer the film would be:

 “Go ahead and hang yourself if you want to!”

A Hit!

Of course, Jack Warner couldn’t have been more wrong about Dark Victory.  When it premiered in April 1939, critics were unanimous in their praise for the film, and Bette in particular.  Dark Victory became the highest grossing of any Davis film to date, and Bette received the best notices of her career.  Time said of Bette in review of the film that

Dark Victory, if it were an automobile, would be a Rolls Royce with a Brewster body and the very best trimmings…it puts [Bette] well up in line for her third Academy Award.”

Wow!  Bette was elated by the outstanding reviews she received for Dark Victory.  And of course, proving Jack Warner wrong was the icing on the cake. After Dark Victory became such a hit, Bette remembered feeling that

“By d  —  —  —, I was right, everyone in America wants to see a story where the heroine dies in the end!  I’ve won my battle, and I just may win my third Oscar!”

The Fourth Warner Brother

It was the success of Dark Victory and the other three Bette Davis films released in 1939, each bringing in at least $1.6 million (remember, this was 1939!  That’s HUGE), that finally convinced Jack Warner how literally invaluable Bette Davis was to his studio.  There may have been only three biological Warner Brothers, but Bette soon earned the nickname of the “Fourth Warner Brother” because of how successful all her films were for the studio!  After the runaway success of Dark Victory, Bette’s sway and influence at Warner Brothers would just continue to grow.

Note: Bette would not win the Best Actress Oscar that year.  The award would go to the great Vivien Leigh for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Seriously, who can compete with THAT?!!!

One of my favorites, the great Humphrey Bogart, sports uncharacteristic disheveled curls in Dark Victory.

Dark Victory’s Men

I’ve mentioned that a youngish Humphrey Bogart plays his supporting role in the film perfectly, and that it’s fascinating to see Bogie with curls in his uncharacteristically not slicked back hair.  Here’s a little bit about Bette’s other two leading men in Dark Victory:

Bette and George Brent became an item during the filming of Dark Victory (1939).

George Brent

Brent starred in So Big (1932) with Bette before she became a star, and Bette had harbored a crush on him ever since.  The handsome Irish-born actor was recently divorced when Dark Victory began filming, and with Bette’s divorce from Ham all but finalized, the two began an affair that lasted a few years.  Bette was thrilled that Brent returned her affections this time around.  Interesting side note, Brent was only 35 at the time of Dark Victory, but experienced premature graying of his hair.  The studio dyed Brent’s hair dark as a result.  Bette said that:

Bette and Brent share a romantic embrace in Dark Victory (1939).

“He used to stain my pillowcases with hair dye!”

Dyed pillowcases aside, Bette always insisted that

“Of the men I didn’t marry, the dearest was George Brent.”

Awwwwww that’s sweet!

Dark Victory (1939) was future President Ronald Reagan's fifteenth film!

Ronald Reagan

A 27-year-old Ronald Reagan plays “Alec,” Judith’s number one suitor before Dr. Steele sweeps her off her feet, in Dark Victory.  Reagan had only been in Hollywood for a few years, yet Dark Victory was his fifteenth film!  Bette Davis had a reputation for being difficult on her film sets, but the future President of the United States had nothing but glowing things to say about Bette, and his experience filming Dark Victory with her:

“She was not only a great star and probably our greatest actress, but also a professional of the highest order.”

Reagan with Bette in a sobering party scene in Dark Victory (1939). Bette fought with director Edmund Goulding for Reagan to keep his interpretation of his role.

Reagan credits Bette with ensuring that his character was portrayed the way Reagan saw him, as a nice guy with pure intentions towards Judith, even if he is drunk or drinking all the time.  Director Edmund Goulding disagreed with Reagan’s interpretation of Alec, and it was only through Bette’s star power that Reagan won out, and Goulding allowed Reagan to play Alec his own way.  (And if you ask me, Reagan was right!  Playing Alec as a cad would have hurt the film.)

And that’s it for Dark VictoryDon’t forget to check my site calendar for the upcoming Bette films next week. Seriously, there are so many classics you won’t want to miss a single one!

Did you catch Dark Victory on TCM this week?

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my 4 year old, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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