Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Dark Victory (1939)

The year has nearly drawn to a close, and with tonight's viewing of DARK VICTORY, I've also nearly come to the end of my list of 10 Classics for 2012.

DARK VICTORY is polished classic-era filmmaking at its best, certainly one of the films on the above-mentioned list which I have enjoyed the most, despite the fact that it's a weeper guaranteed to turn on the waterworks.

Bette Davis has a tour de force role as Judith Traherne, a flighty socialite suffering from headaches and blurred vision. Her lifelong doctor (Henry Travers) and best friend-secretary Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) drag the reluctant patient to a specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), who soon confirms that Judith needs brain surgery.

The surgery is a short-term success, but when the pathology reports come back, indicating that Judith will suffer a recurrence in a few months and die, the doctor and Ann decide not to tell Judith, as they want her last months to be happy ones...especially as the doctor has developed deep feelings for Judith. But all does not go quite as Ann and the doctor have planned...

Although this was my first time to see the movie, I've seen quite a bit of the final scenes in documentaries and clip shows over the years, and I steeled myself against tears, telling myself not to let my emotions be manipulated. I admit I failed on that score, but I didn't really care, watching Judith's farewells to Ann, her husband, and her dogs (sob!) with a large lump in my throat. It was beautifully done, with superb acting by all three actors, and the tears were fully earned.

I think my only quibble with DARK VICTORY -- well, other than Humphrey Bogart attempting an Irish brogue in his role as Judith's horse trainer -- is that it takes quite a while to see Judith's lovable side. Surely, we understand later on in the film that she has been transformed both by love and by staring death in the face, but early in the story it's hard to see why she inspires such loyalty in Ann or the doctor.

Davis aptly conveys her character's more frivolous side, veering from high spirits to panic, and her transformation to a more mature woman in love is deeply touching. I was particularly moved by Geraldine Fitzgerald, who tugs at the heartstrings as she tries to hold close her friend, who is slipping away. And this film completely cemented my love for the underappreciated George Brent, who couldn't have been more perfect. I love a quote by Bette Davis on the TCM website: "Of the men I didn't marry, the dearest was George Brent."

DARK VICTORY was directed by Edmund Goulding, who also directed THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946), seen a few days ago, and other excellent films such as THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943) and NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947). It's been a pleasure becoming better acquainted with his work over the last couple of years.

DARK VICTORY was filmed in glorious black and white by Ernie Haller, with a score by Max Steiner. Casey Robinson's screenplay was based on a play. The supporting cast includes Ronald Reagan, underutilized as Judith's drinking companion; and if you don't blink, John Ridgely plays a man decked by the good doctor late in the film. The movie runs 104 minutes.

DARK VICTORY is available on DVD as part of the five-film Bette Davis Collection or alternatively in the four-film TCM Greatest Classic Legends - Bette Davis Collection.

It's also available as a single-title DVD release and has had multiple releases on VHS.

The DVD can be rented from Netflix. DARK VICTORY can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video. Update: DARK VICTORY is also now available on Blu-ray.

The trailer can be seen at the TCM website.

Recommended as a wonderful exemplar of Golden Era moviemaking in top form. Yes, you'll cry, but you'll also be glad to have experienced DARK VICTORY.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A lovely review. Ever see the TV-movie remake with Elizabeth Montgomery and Anthony Hopkins? She's a workaholic TV exec in that one. The medical scenes are more realistic, and therefore more scary. As much a "screen cap" of early 1970s as the movie is of 1939.

5:16 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Great review, Laura. A film I love. I think it is one of George Brent's best performances and Geraldine Fitzgerald was so good too. That scene in the garden near the end....!
Such a poor part for Bogie.
Bette was at her most brittle during about half the movie and,as you say, hard to like the character.
But not a film you can watch often because of the subject matter. Too close to reality!

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, so glad you liked this so much. I love this one too - saw it on the big screen during Bette Davis' centenary, and it will actually be shown on the big screen in my town again soon (even though we get very few classic movies shown here!) so I hope to see it again. I do agree that Bogart's Irish accent is dreadful, though he does get that one good scene where he kisses Bette - since George Brent really was Irish, you have to wonder what on earth he made of Bogie's brogue! Judy

11:00 AM  

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